The war carried out by Russia in Ukraine has been continuing for more than seven months. On the first day of the war, President of Russia Vladimir Putin described the war in question as a “special military operation.” Getting results by a swift attack that aims to fall the government of Ukraine which was allegedly under the influence of Neo-Nazi groups and securing peopling of Donetsk and Luhansk which have declared their independence was planned. Nonetheless, Ukraine showed a resistance that nobody expects and repels the Russian army from the capital Kyiv.
The war shifted to the east of Ukraine with the gradual withdrawal of the Russian Army. With the annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, the Russian Army has started to act with a narrower aim to gain control of these regions and to secure the connection between Crimea, which was annexed in 2014, and the Russian mainland.
As Russia failed to achieve its goals in Ukraine, it in a way reduced its targets, but while doing so, it ignited a tougher conflict. Because the Kremlin administration now defines these regions as its territory and keeps all options on the agenda, including the use of nuclear weapons, for the defense of the “homeland.”
The attack on the Crimean Bridge, a short time ago, showed that Russia cannot control fully the areas it annexed. Moscow’s response to this move was air strikes against Kyiv. Thus, the war again entered the escalation phase. This shows that Russia faces difficult choices and dilemmas.
First of all, Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s territories has not been recognized by almost any state in the international arena. On the other hand, by annexing Ukrainian territories, Russia revived the tradition of gaining land through conquest, which was thought to have been placed on the dusty shelves of history. This challenge to the United Nations (UN) order by a UN Security Council Permanent Member has shaken the foundations of the international system.
Even non-Western actors, who think that Russia has justified reasons in this war, especially China, do not openly support the invasion of Ukraine, it is getting harder to sustain their support to Moscow indirectly or silently. However, due to Russia’s aggressive approach to the basic norms of the international system, the legitimacy of Russia’s claim to be one of the dominant actors of the multipolar world order is weakening.
Another international norm that the Moscow administration has not yet violated, but has raised concerns about by making threats, is the principle of not resorting to nuclear weapons. At the beginning of 2022, in other words just before the war, Russia made a joint statement with the four nuclear-armed countries (US, China, France, and the UK). Using this statement, Russia expressed that a nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought.
At this point, after annexing the Ukrainian lands the Moscow administration says that it is now fighting on its “homeland” and is ready to respond to attacks on these lands with nuclear weapons by its nuclear doctrine. Of course, launching a nuclear weapon is not an easy act. But the Kremlin is using the uncertainty about to resort nuclear weapons as a tool for its advantage. Thus, it undermines nuclear strategic stability.
Another dilemma Russia faces is related to domestic policy. When the war started, the Putin administration did not need strong public support and considered the silent approval of the people sufficient. However, the inability to achieve the desired results in the field requires the Russian people to make more sacrifices. So, sanctions imposed on Russia have led to a diminution in living standards in the country.
Finally, it should be noted that the declaration of partial mobilization is a development that could change the Russian people’s approach to the war. The leaving Russia of many Russian youths was a reflection of the growing backlash against the war at a time when the government needed peopling more. They are not just the people who want to stay away from war also Russian nationalists who supported the war were probably not happy with the failures of the war. Although this picture does not show that anti-war resistance has emerged, it does reveal that something does not prosper.
In this respect, Russia’s annexation of a part of Ukraine’s territory and the subsequent escalation of tension can be interpreted as steps that aim to appeal to public opinion. The steps can also be read as moves that try to hide failures on the battlefield. It is very difficult to predict how long this tension will last and where it will lead.
Moscow cannot reach its goals in Ukraine. However, to maintain its credibility in its claims both in domestic politics and the international arena, it feels obliged to leave the war with big or small gains that can be presented as a victory. The difficulty of obtaining this makes the future steps of Russia and the direction of the war in Ukraine unpredictable.