Four months into the war in Ukraine, and three months after the Russians announced that they would focus their attacks on the eastern part of the country, the war has become a ferocious battle for the region known as the Donbas. And hopes for a swift victory — or even one that might come in the next several weeks — appear to have vanished for both sides. At various stages of the war, Grid has taken stock of where things stand on the battlefield, potential scenarios for the war’s end and the global impact of the conflict, beyond Ukraine and Russia themselves. In the latest assessment, Global Editor Tom Nagorski spoke with Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating and Deputy Global Editor Nikhil Kumar in a Twitter Spaces event Tuesday.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: Josh, to get started, a question or two about what we’ve seen just in the last couple of days: the Ukrainians abandoning a key city, Severodonetsk in the east, after what seemed to be a really nasty battle there. And then renewed Russian airstrikes — including this horrific attack yesterday on a mall, which was quite far from the front lines. Very different developments — what should we take away from these last few days?
Josh Keating: Most of the sustained fighting is happening in the east, and a rather narrow area, mostly in Luhansk, but then moving on to Donetsk, which is the larger region of the Donbas to the south. But while this is happening, there are other developments happening elsewhere in the country, as you mentioned. There continue to be missile strikes throughout Ukraine — this one on the shopping mall was distinguished by just the death toll and what a horrific strike it was. But we have seen regular strikes lately on targets outside the main battle area, even as the war itself has shifted east.
And there’s also been reports of Ukrainian counterattacks, both in the north, near the city of Kharkiv, and in southern Ukraine, near the city of Kherson, which is one that was taken by Russia rather quickly. So while the main action is happening in this relatively small area, there is fighting happening elsewhere. And you could look at these as setting up for battles down the road, because chances are this phase of the fighting is not the last one we’ll see.
TN: It was in late March that the Kremlin said, “We are pulling our forces away from the capital” and from other places to concentrate on these areas you’ve just been talking about. It’s taken a lot of time and certainly a lot of bloodshed. But from a distance anyway, it does seem that the Russians are slowly but surely achieving their aims. Is that a correct conclusion?
JK: I think that is true for now. The Russian forces were bloodied by those early weeks of the war, from the failed attempt to take Kyiv, so they weren’t really coming into this battle fresh. And they just don’t appear to have the personnel needed for large, rapid territorial gains. This is an artillery-heavy war. The cities that they’ve taken — Severodonetsk most recently — the approach is to use artillery to almost level the place before troops move in. This is a slow, grinding form of warfare, but it is one that works to Russia’s advantage just because of their advantage in materiel and the weapons systems they’re using, and the amount of ammunition and they can bring to the fight.
Right now, most experts you talk to say that they expect the pace of fighting to slow even more in the coming weeks, over the course of the summer, as the two sides are exhausted. I think that we’ll see the lines becoming even more fixed. And then it becomes a kind of race to see whether some of these new weapons systems that the West is rushing into Ukraine can turn the tide of battle and maybe allow Ukraine to mount counter-offensives to retake some of this area? Of course, the problem with that is Ukrainian forces are badly depleted, too. They’ve said they may be losing more than 100 troops a day, so they’re not exactly in prewar condition, either.
TN: We hear almost every day a fresh plea — whether it’s from [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy or one of his top aides — for more weaponry. And then we get repeated pledges that the money and the weaponry are coming. It seems like very little has reached the east, or at least it’s not making a difference yet. What’s the story?
JK: I’d say it is starting to reach the east. The thing that’s gotten attention lately is what’s called the HIMARS, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, which is a kind of mobile precision rocket launcher, and those are apparently now being used in the east, according to the Ukrainian military. The problem really is both how long it takes to get this stuff to the front, and it’s also Ukraine’s capacity to absorb it. At the beginning of the war, Ukraine was mostly reliant on Soviet-era artillery systems, and they fire Soviet-grade ammunition. And they went through that pretty quickly. And so a lot of the resupply effort by the U.S. and other countries has been going all over the world, trying to locate Soviet ammunition for these systems, and the supply of that outside Russia has been mostly exhausted.
What’s happening now is they’re asking for NATO systems, and those are starting to be sent. But it’s not just a matter of getting them there. It’s training Ukrainian troops on how to use them. And what people say is even harder is training mechanics on how to maintain them. These are different systems than what the Ukrainian military is used to. That kind of stuff, in a normal military context, can take months. The Ukrainians say they can do it in weeks. But you know, even weeks, in a war like this, is a lifetime. And it’s really kind of a race against time to get this stuff online in time to make a difference in the Donbas.
TN: Nikhil Kumar, you have, among other things, written a piece for Grid under the heading, “Vladimir Putin is not a pariah.” Nikhil, can you explain what you meant by that — and whether you think it still holds true?
Nikhil Kumar: The answer seems almost blindingly obvious if all you’re doing is listening to and reading what’s coming out of, say, the White House, or other capitals in the West. But it becomes very clear when you widen your lens a little, and look beyond to important places like Beijing, like New Delhi, that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is not quite the pariah that you would initially believe. And that really has to do with the fact that while he and Russia have been subjected to unprecedented sanctions, which have effectively shut Russia out of large parts of the international financial system and affected all parts of its economy, Russia still maintains ties with these other countries, such as China, such as India, and beyond.
And we saw a demonstration of this very recently at the BRICS summit, which was done virtually, hosted by Beijing. And Putin was there, it was his first sort of big multilateral outing, really, since the beginning of the war, albeit virtual, but he was there. And he was there with these other countries — India, China, Brazil, South Africa. And we had the news yesterday from the Kremlin saying that they have accepted an invitation for Vladimir Putin to attend the G-20 later this year in Indonesia. We’ll see if that actually happens.
But it demonstrates that Putin has not been shut out and not been thrown off the world stage in the way that you might believe if you just heard things that were said in the U.S. and Europe. And it really all comes down to his economic clout. At the end of the day, Putin controls a country, an economy that is extremely resource-rich and is a major player in the global gas market and a major player in the global oil market. It continues to supply oil and gas. In fact, supplies have been stepped up to China in India as Russia goes to them and offers very deep discounts at a time when its war has played a big part in driving up these prices internationally.
Over the last few months, we’ve seen Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy, move more and more to cutting into that dependence. But even that process is happening gradually. And it’s happening gradually because at the end of the day, Russia is just too much a part of the global energy market. So whereas in the financial markets and the financial system, the United States can with its allies shut it out, it can’t do so with as much speed when it comes to the energy market.
And the energy market matters, particularly because war is driving up inflation. And that means that these resources become more expensive. And that matters for all these countries — for China, India and others. India’s Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi doesn’t want prices to rise for his citizens. And his ministers have said again and again, “Look, in this war we empathize with Ukraine, but we have our own interests that we need to look after.”
And so that means that at the end of the day, Putin is not quite the pariah that you would initially believe.
TN: This week, the Indian prime minister was invited to join [President] Joe Biden and his counterparts in the G-7 in Europe. And I would imagine they are trying, among other things, to persuade Prime Minister Modi to stop buying — last I saw, it’s north of a million barrels of discounted Russian oil a day. What leverage does President Biden — or any of the European leaders — have to convince Narendra Modi?
NK: Well, just on the very narrow evidence of what’s happened over the last few months, I think we would have to say, not a great deal. They have made no secret of the fact that they would like India — a country which historically had very close ties with the former Soviet Union, but over the last few decades has moved increasingly into the U.S. column — that they would like it to stand more firmly with the United States and stand against Russia. But India has continued to engage with Russia, and in fact they’ve stepped up their engagement.
Russian oil supplies as a proportion of India’s total oil imports stood at about 1 to 3 percent, something like that, before the war. Russia was never a big player when it came to sending oil to India. It was a big player in the Indian defense industry and remains so, but not so much with oil. But because of these discounts — we have estimates that Russia is selling oil to India and China at a discount of up to 30 percent — India’s dependence on Russian oil has shot up in the last few months. It has overtaken countries like Saudi Arabia, in terms of supplying oil to India.
So India is walking this middle ground. Because I think India increasingly feels that — because the U.S. needs it in South Asia, and indeed in the Indo-Pacific region where they have been trying to counter China’s influence — I think India believes more and more that they can continue to effectively play both sides.
TN: Josh, Nikhil just used the phrase “stand against Russia.” You used the flip side of that, in a piece for Grid, asking the question: How long will the rest of the world “stand with Ukraine”? Tell us a little bit about that. It seems that there are fractures beginning to show in that global alliance — of “stand with Ukraine.”
JK: If you look at French President Emmanuel Macron, he got a lot of criticism a few weeks ago for saying that Russia must not be humiliated, basically saying that it’s time to start working on an off-ramp that gives Putin something that allows him to exit the war. It’s interesting — after this [Russian] strike on the shopping mall yesterday, he struck a different tone. He called it a war crime and said he would support Ukraine as long as necessary to make sure that Russia cannot and should not win. So in some sense, I think the Putin strategy depends on the rest of the world losing interest. I think that the Russian government is counting on the rest of the world moving on.
But some of these atrocities we see, like this mall attack, make it harder for Western governments to turn away. There are differences in opinion — there’s the European Council on Foreign Relations poll the other day that basically broke European countries into the peace camps and war camps. And Italy, interesting enough, was the most skeptical about supporting the Ukrainian resistance. But I think that what’s more striking is how long the solidarity and support has held up. It’s been much longer than I would have expected based on what we’ve seen after crises involving Russia in the past. The public interest in this — obviously it’s not what it was, because of a host of competing major issues — but the level of public interest that we still see in this war in Ukraine months later, I think we shouldn’t lose sight of how remarkable that is.
TN: Talk about this country a little bit. There’s not much bipartisan support for anything in the United States right now. We all know that. But it does seem, to your point, that politically, at least, and in terms of all the military and financial assistance, the United States right now is still firmly standing with Ukraine, is it not?
JK: I almost wonder if the frustrations the Biden administration is experiencing on other fronts may almost work to Ukraine’s advantage. This is one thing where he does seem to be able to garner bipartisan support. And when he announces another $450 million, there doesn’t seem to be any difficulty in getting millions and billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine, compared to a lot of the other priorities that Biden would like to be able to make progress on.
There is, in the isolationist corners of the Republican Party and in the more anti-war factions of the left, a little more skepticism in Congress. But it’s really at the margins right now. And I suppose we’ll see what happens after the midterms, if Republicans take back control, but I wouldn’t expect to see any major changes on Ukraine policy. It does seem like the support for this is pretty across-the-board, even with the sort of economic costs that some of the sanctions may be imposing.
TN: I mentioned at the outset that Nikhil Kumar has been watching various domino effects caused by the war. And there’s probably nothing nearly so profound as the food crisis that the war has sparked. We saw today that the G-7 has committed more than $4 billion to deal with the consequences of that food crisis. And there was a pledge to work to help free up those Ukrainian food shipments that the Russians have tied down at various ports. There were no specifics given. What would have to happen to get those shipments moving?
NK: Essentially, the war would have to end. Because as part of the conflict, one of the things that Russia has done is they have blocked shipments in the Black Sea. And they’re not allowing Ukrainian ships to function. They attacked just the other week, they attacked the food warehouse in Odessa, just one of many instances of the Russians doing whatever they can to make sure that a lot of grain that was harvested in Ukraine, and that has been sitting there since last year, that it can’t get out of the country. And they have at the same time been effectively stealing Ukrainian grain. There were satellite images not too long ago showing Russian-flagged ships taking grain from Ukraine to Syria.
And so for the G-7 to really fulfill that commitment to allow shipments to resume, the conflict needs to be brought to an end. That is the key thing that is stopping Ukraine from being able to supply food that it already has in storage facilities to all these other countries around the world.
TN: But if that’s the case, that’s not much of a plan, right, when they say they’re going to work toward helping to free up the shipments by ending the war?
NK: One of the things that people I’ve spoken to have pointed out again and again is that you cannot simply pick up this grain and move it via the land routes — it’s not that simple. For one thing, a lot of the grain is stuck in the east, in areas where there’s a lot of fighting, and it is stuck around these ports. And certainly everybody I’ve spoken to in the last few months, they have all said that what needs to happen is that these shipments need to resume particularly around the Black Sea for this to get better. And of course, the longer this continues, the worse it’ll get for the world.
When it comes to the staples that you mentioned, that’s also about what’s been planted and what will be harvested later in the year. And that’s been interrupted by the war — Ukraine tried its best to have a spring planting season around the country, but we are still anticipating a shortfall there as well.
TN: Josh, you have written about various endgames in Ukraine, what a victory for Ukrainians might look like, a victory for the Russians, a palace coup in the Kremlin and so forth. If you’re writing a fresh piece tomorrow, with that being the question, where do you land?
JK: I like to put out a lot of possibilities just to cover my bases. But we’re probably not going to have a good idea of that for another couple of months, just because of some of the factors I mentioned earlier. The sanctions that the West has imposed — so far, the Russian economy is weathering them fairly well. But most people don’t expect that to last. The default we saw this week was a sign of things to come; there could be a major contraction later in the year. So that’s something to watch.
Then, once these new weapons systems come online, once the Ukrainians are trained on them, will that be able to make a difference in the battlefield? Will they be able to turn the tide in the Donbas? Will some of these counter-offensives we’re seeing in places like Kherson bear fruit?
I think the important thing to keep in mind is that this is not going to end in the coming days, certainly, probably not in the coming weeks. I think by the fall, we may have a better idea, and we shouldn’t rule out another expansion of Russia’s war aims and other attempts by them to move toward some of the more maximalist goals they had earlier in the fight. But in order to make that happen, I think there’s going to have to be a kind of pause in the next few weeks for both sides to replenish and recover some of their forces. So if I had to guess right now, I would guess we’re going to start to see the pace of the war slow in the coming weeks. And then developments one way or another are going to start to get a little more dramatic as we get into the fall and winter.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.