Russian attacks on Ukraine are state-sponsored terrorism
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here. A Quick Take to kick off your week, and of course we are still talking about the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Almost eight months now of since the initial invasion of Russia into Ukraine. The war continues to get worse. There's more hits on Ukraine. 30% of the country's electricity has been disrupted. More hits on cities focused on civilian casualties over the last week. These are the attacks that we've seen across the country by mostly missile and drone attacks by the Russians. Not even trying to say that these are military targets anymore. It's really state-sponsored terror by the Russian government.
The big question going forward first is can Russia hold their own line? In other words, with their Ukrainian counterattacks before winter approaches and before it gets a lot harder to continue these, the movements on the ground, how much territory can Ukrainians take? Is the Russian mobilization going to be able to slow or stop them? Because this is the critical point. If the Ukrainians are able to break Russia's links to the Ukrainian south, and particularly to the peninsula of Crimea, that's when it gets particularly dangerous. If the Russians are no longer able to defend Crimea, I think that's the one point that you would see all out escalation by the Russian government, because this kind of a loss would be just an unacceptable hit to Putin's strategy. It would show that not only the invasion since February 24th had failed, but his entire strategy for the last 10 years had failed. And I think the opposition to that within his military forces, his close advisors would actually be quite severe at that point. So that'd be dangerous for him to allow that to happen.
Now, we've seen that the bridge, the Kerch Bridge from Russia to Crimea, which was hit and the Russian government said, "Oh, we've got it fully back up and running the next day." Turns out, of course, that's lie. And that in reality it's going to take until next year, mid next year earliest, assuming no further disruptions for the Russians to be able to get that bridge fully back up and functional. So there is some transit and traffic that's going forward on it, but it's certainly not fully operational.
Beyond that, you have Kherson, which is where the water goes to Crimea, and the Ukrainians are actively fighting in Kherson. The Russians have announced that they've got the program to get Russians to leave the country so they don't have to deal with the constant shelling, as they say, or what we more reasonably would call it, an evacuation. So there is certainly a possibility that the Ukrainians will be able to take Kherson. And cut that off. And then thirdly, Zaporizhzhia, which is the land bridge between Crimea and Russia that has been taken by the Russians. That includes Mariupol, for example, the big city that was basically leveled with the thousands of Ukrainian civilian casualties. Nobody's pretending that people on the ground actually want to join Russia, but it's absolutely true that if you want to hold Crimea in the face of Ukrainian counteroffensive, that being able to stalk and resupply the south is absolutely critical.
So if over the coming two, four weeks, the Ukrainians are able to puncture that land bridge and take most of Kherson, at that point, no matter how many troops the Russians are remobilizing with, they can't get them to the Ukrainian south, which potentially means that Crimea itself is vulnerable.
Now, there are a lot of people that don't want the Ukrainians to be able to retake Crimea, because it's really dangerous. I'm deeply sympathetic to that view. Crimea is different than the territories taken since February 24th. It's overwhelmingly Russian, ethnic Russian, Russian speaking. If you talk to them on the ground. They never wanted the Soviet Union to fall apart. They consider themselves a part of Russia. When they were a part of Ukraine, Crimea was an autonomous republic. It was governed locally. Their foreign policy was determined by Ukraine, but their local governments was completely determined by their own parliament that they elected with a majority of Russian parliament members. And it even had a Russian tricolor flag that flew above it. And not only if the Ukrainians tried to take Crimea, would it potentially be a very significant escalatory move against Russia, but also be very hard for them to take because the people on the ground in Crimea, the locals, really don't want to be a part of Ukraine, again, unlike all of the rest of Ukrainian territory. All four of the illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, where the majority, granted a lot of them have fled at this point, some of them are dead at this point, but the majority of the population on the ground in those territories would want very much to be a part of Ukraine.
Okay. So that's a close call, and that's what we want to watch over the course of the coming weeks. There's a lot of talk about Belarus potentially coming into the war. The Russians have announced joint forces with Belarus. There's been a lot of military movement of material over the weekend. I am skeptical there. I suspect what the Russians are trying to do is make a big deal out of it to try to get the Ukrainians to defend more territory, which will give the Russians a better shot of holding the line in the critical areas of the southeast that they're trying to get the remobilization forces to.
If the Belarusians were to formally enter the war, not only are there very few troops and they have horrible morale and they aren't trained well, but also there would be very significant instability, social dissent in Belarus. The Belarusian government would be less well equipped to repress and to keep back than the Russian government is on the ground in Russia. So I'm not expecting that to occur in the near term, but of course it's always possible.
Finally, what can the Russians do as this war continues? A lot of talk about the fact the Russians are running out of missiles, and that seems to be certainly the case in terms of accurate long range missiles. The Iranians are selling a lot of these missiles right now to the Russians, in addition to drones. That's certainly going to help the Russians continue to engage in the war over the course of the coming months.
You also have lots of bombers, and the Russians haven't engaged in bombing runs of Ukrainian cities. Again, would just be state sponsored terror, which would kill a lot of people. Wouldn't change the nature of the territory that the Russians are holding. The reason they haven't done it, I suspect is also because they don't want to lose a bunch of bombers, because the Ukrainians would be able to shoot some of them down. But again, that would be a much less escalatory move than say use of chemical weapons or use of a nuclear weapon. So the Russians would certainly consider that. Well, before they'd consider a nuke.
Then you have asymmetrical strikes. And let's remember Nord Stream 1 and 2 which was non-operational, going from Russia over to Germany, was blown up, was sabotaged a couple of weeks ago. Who blew it up? We don't know. But there are two options. The Russians blew it up, in which case they're willing to blow up pipelines. The first of their pipelines they know aren't going to work. It's a demonstration effect like we've seen from the Iranians historically, and that the next thing they would do would be blow up other critical infrastructure. Or the West did it. The United States, Poland, perhaps more likely. They have the capabilities in both cases, and if they're willing to blow up Russian pipelines, well why wouldn't the Russians then blow up Western pipelines, or fiber, or other critical infrastructure? So either way, the likelihood of Russian asymmetrical strikes against NATO critical infrastructure is getting much higher. And indeed, last week we saw that the Norwegians arrested a couple of Russians with surveillance drones, and they were taking lots of pictures of Norwegian critical energy infrastructure. Why? Because they're probably planning on blowing it up.
So it's not just about the idea that you're not going to see any more Russian energy going to Europe. It's also the likelihood that the war itself is going to expand to these sorts of strikes. That puts a lot more pressure on Europe going forward. Also means that the Russians are going to be completely decoupled from the European economy for the foreseeable future, as long as Putin's in power, no question there.
So that's it for me. Pretty tough situation on the ground right now. We'll keep watching it and I'll talk to you all real soon.For more of Ian Bremmer's weekly analyses, subscribe to his GZERO World newsletter at ianbremmer.bulletin.com