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Saturday, 02 July 2022
The War in Ukraine – 100 Days In
James Denselow

At the start of June, we will mark 100 days since Russia launched its self-styled ‘special military operation’ into Ukraine. This milestone is an opportune time to assess what is the direction of events on the ground in the country and zoom out to see what these 100 days have done to the world’s geopolitics. 

The first and most important thing to learn from what happened is that it happened at all. One country invading another seems such a relic of human history. A multitude of world leaders has described the initial attack as a ‘paradigm shift’ in international relations. Historians will perhaps one day chart the journey from post-Cold War American unipolarity to a return of the unpredictability of a multipolar world where there is no single accepted ‘rules-based order’.  

A failing of global governance and people asking serious questions as to the membership of the UN Security Council and its ways of working, veto and all, is significant as have been attempts to push more votes into the UN General Assembly. Interestingly whilst the US and its allies have been pushing a regular drumbeat of Ukraine debates at the UN, wider non-Ukraine linked work has continued relatively unperturbed.  

The second biggest narrative of the war so far is that it is still going. Experts predicted an overwhelming Russian force that would swamp Ukraine and its capital Kiev like a Tsunami wave. Foreign embassies fled the country and the Americans famously offered President Zelensky evacuation and his response has become famous; “the fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” 

The ability of Ukraine’s armed forces to resist a Russian capture of their capital and then push back Russian forces to the border, with the help of significant arms supplies from the West, was not predicted. The morale and determination of Ukraine’s forces, with decision making devolved to units able to operate independently in difficult urban conflict settings has been in dramatic contrast to Russia’s forces. Russia’s army was seemingly unprepared for the operation with many reports suggesting that soldiers were surprised to find themselves transitioning from a training mission to an actual operation.  

Military experts have frequently citied that low morale is demonstrated by soldiers who don’t look after their vehicles and the huge shopping list of destroyed Russian armour does not show a happy force. Such has been the performance of the Russians so far that criticism is even being heard on Russian television, especially after the botched attempted crossing of the Donbas that resulted in hundreds reported killed. Russia has supposedly lost more soldiers than in the entire Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, including several Generals. It has also suffered the loss of its flagship Moskva warship and the embarrassment of a lowly resourced barracks on Snake Island refusing to surrender despite the overwhelming odds.  

Yet the narrative of Russian failure in the first phase of the war does not rule out a future success. The fact is that the Russians have rejigged their war aims from an attempt to capture the capitol to a focus on winning territory in the east of Ukraine. The fall of Mariupol allowed Moscow to claim a land bridge between Crimea and Russia proper and they are currently looking to grid down and envelop Ukrainian forces in the east.  

Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea and led to perhaps the most devastating humanitarian fallout of the war. Whilst focus has understandably been on Ukrainians under the bombs or fleeing the country, the knock-on food crisis caused by the Russian invasion will impact on tens of millions elsewhere. Russia and Ukraine were among the top five exporters of wheat in 2020 and a nascent global hunger crisis, particularly in the Horn of Africa, may turn into full scale famine. Interestingly Russia is attempting to negotiate its way around and out of sanctions through promises to open access to the Black Sea.  

The scale of micro and macro change caused by the Ukraine conflict is difficult to process considering the short time it has occurred in. What will things look like in 200 days? Peace talks between the two sides have fallen apart and the growing toll of death and destruction will make a resolution harder to envisage. We are in a difficult and dangerous phase of what could remain a generational defining conflict.

BY: James Denselow