West urgently needs to step up its game: time is working to Russia’s advantage – Opinion

Ukrainian soldier in a tank. Credit: General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces 


Article by: Hans Petter Midttun
Russia could never defeat Ukraine militarily, but that is not the plan. The longer the war drags on, the more likely Russia is to achieve victory because of the mounting economic damage to Ukraine. If the West wants Russia to lose and Ukraine to win, it needs a new strategy, now.

When assessing the support needed to counter the Russian war in Ukraine, a proper understanding of the Russian strategy is crucial. If seen as a conventional war, the requirements are different than seen through the prism of hybrid war.

Why? The former focus on the destruction of military capabilities and the occupation of territory. Russian success or failure is measured in terms of the scale of its destruction of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the territory it occupies. Occupying “only” parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson oblast (and all of Crimea), analysts and experts tend to conclude that Putin has failed to achieve any of his strategic objectives.

The assessment is correct in the sense that since the war continues, Russia has obviously not reached its desired end state.

But it’s also grossly misleading. Seen through the prism of hybrid war, Russia’s efforts are still bringing them closer to victory.

The West has still failed to help Ukraine stop the negative trend as time is working to Russia’s advantage.

I maintain that the conventional war is a part of the Russian hybrid war in Ukraine (and against the West). I know many experts will disagree with my assessment as hybrid war often is described as a grey zone operation below the threshold of war. It is a delineation I strongly disagree with because it is a theoretical claim that does not meet the realities of the war.

Hybrid War is the parallel and synchronized use of both military and non-military means to destabilize nations from within. Synchronization is the ability to effectively coordinate the employment of both military and non-military means in time, space, and purpose to create the desired effects.

It allows Russia to “escalate” or “de-escalate” horizontally rather than just vertically, thus providing further options.

In this context, horizontal escalation or de-escalation refers to the many instruments of power being applied in parallel. For example, by escalating the military aggressions and simultaneously intensifying its diplomatic, political, economic, and information efforts, Russia can achieve effects greater than through a one-dimensional military effort only.

Instead of only military gains, Russia ensures multiple effects across NATO, EU, and Ukraine (e.g., impact on foreign policy, diplomatic initiatives, bilateral relationships, finance markets, costs of living, information sphere, public opinion, fear, and more).

What happened on 24 February last year was just that: a horizontal and vertical escalation. A shift from the main focus on the non-military to the military tools – BUT – still using all tools. It is still a total war.

It is still the same aggressor, with the same strategic aim and objectives, employing the same tools.

Seen through the prism of hybrid war, Russia does not need to take another centimeter of Ukrainian territory to defeat Ukraine. It will, however, attempt to do just that out of pride, revenge, and not least, as a justification of its strategic narrative for its so-called “special military operation”: to protect “Russians” (Ukrainian citizens) in Donbas.

Its potential victory, however, will not be decided on the battlefield alone. The combined efforts of its military and non-military means are seeking to undermine Ukraine economically.

Russia might still succeed because the West is focusing its efforts on the “wrong war.”

While the international community is offering comprehensive humanitarian, financial, and defense support to Ukraine, it is not providing the support needed to avoid a future economic collapse.

The aggressor is still allowed to wage a full-scale “economic war, ” destroying the state’s economic viability. The ways, ends, and means were discussed in my report “Role of the hybrid component in Crimea occupation” (pages 31-35).

The military effort has economic consequences. This includes financial reactions to the war, like the decline in GDP, loss of credit rating, higher national debt and taxes, higher inflation, currency depreciation which induced deposit outflows, the collapse of the banking sector, social costs, and loss of international investments.

The Ukrainian economy is further weakened through the loss of minerals, coal, gas and oil, industry, and infrastructure and the cost of rebuilding and maintaining the Security and Defence Sector. Presently, national security and defense expenses make up nearly 50% of the entire Ukrainian state budget (or 18.2% of GDP).

Ukraine to spend over 44% of 2023 budget on defense

The economic losses from the temporary occupation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia have previously been assessed at $135 billion. This is a conservative estimate since it only lists known oil and gas deposits.

The losses are increasing by the year. Last summer, Russia occupied territories containing $ 12,400 billion in minerals, gas and oil. Additionally, it controls Ukraine’s maritime exclusive economic zones assumed to contain a “North Sea basin” reservoir of gas and oil. It has also taken procession of some of its crucial coal deposits.

Its massive attacks on critical infrastructure, as well as Ukraine’s industrial and agricultural basis further erode its economic viability. The destruction of the Ukrainian energy sector, including the occupation of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plants, helps ensure a further erosion of its independence and sovereignty.

The Russian maritime blockade of the Ukrainian ports is part of its wider effort to undermine Ukrainian statehood.

The list is by no means complete. Russia is using diplomacy, politics, energy, information, humanitarian, and lawfare to defeat Ukraine, knowing that Western support comes with a “best before date.”

The cost of rebuilding Ukraine alone is presently assessed to be a staggering $750 billion, a bill that no one is keen to pay.

It is s hybrid war – and Russia is seeking a Ukrainian defeat through the parallel and synchronized use of both military and non-military means. The only thing that matters is the result: a Ukrainian – and, therefore, a Western defeat.

How it is achieved matters not. A Russian military victory was always out of reach.

The western strategy needs to adapt to the hybrid war. The longer it lasts, the more likely a Russian victory becomes because of the accumulative costs induced on Ukraine and the West.

The hybrid war – which Russia is also waging against the USA, the EU, and NATO – requires Western action.

Not reaction. And not detachment out of fear of escalation.

NATO – or a coalition of the willing – urgently needs to intervene militarily to end the war and reduce Russia’s ability to undermine Ukraine’s economic viability and change the West’s political landscape.

The present Western strategy allows Russia to continue the hybrid war at the peril of democracy, shared values and principles, and not least, our security and stability.


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