As G7 countries stepped up sanctions on Russia on Sunday and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to address the nation on VE Day on Monday, the war in Ukraine is at an inflection point. – and the gap between the fiction that marks diplomatic statements and the facts on the ground has never been so stark.
While all parties have spoken of the need to end the conflict, there are no signs that the war is about to end. And that’s because, at the heart of it, the question for the warring parties is not the end of the conflict, but on what terms the war ends, and who is best placed after the conflict.
Indeed, the war in Ukraine has entered a particularly difficult phase, where the stakes for all parties – Ukraine, Europe and the United States on the one hand (which have common interests, but not necessarily identical ) and Russia on the other – are high. Both believe they can maximize their advantages and tip the balance of power in their favor – which, in turn, will give them a stronger hand when serious negotiations actually begin. It also means that the risks of escalation today are perhaps much higher than at any time during the war.
After withdrawing from Kyiv and its environs – which undoubtedly marked a setback, if not a failure for Moscow – Russia turned south and east in April.
While its initial war aims were demilitarization and denazification – which was interpreted to mean that Moscow wanted the complete defeat of the Ukrainian army and a change of guard in kyiv, which did not happen – the Russia’s goal now appears to be to consolidate control over Donetsk and Luhansk, separatist-controlled provinces where Moscow has exercised de facto control since 2014.
He also wants to expand his territorial gains beyond the two provinces into the rest of the Donbass region; to recapture Mariupol, a task in which he more or less succeeded, albeit after causing enormous humanitarian suffering; and maintaining the land corridor east to Crimea.
Russia now appears to be playing for a divided Ukraine, where one part may deepen its integration with Europe, but the geographically closest part will integrate with Moscow.
But Ukraine, emboldened after its successful response, and the West, tempted by the opportunity to weaken Russia, as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put it, believe they can not only prevent the Russia to succeed in this final phase of the war – but even, perhaps, push Russia back from the territorial gains it has already made, degrade its capability, erode its ability to project power and prevent it from launching aggression similar in the future.
This led US President Joe Biden to request an additional $33 billion from Congress to increase military and economic assistance to Ukraine. This led to the promise to supply weapons systems and defense equipment to Ukraine that the United States was initially reluctant to provide.
On Sunday, this led to a further escalation of measures against Russia by the G7. And over the past week, it has also led to claims that US intelligence contributions to Ukraine have helped the embattled country target Russian generals and sink Russia’s flagship Moskva in the Black Sea.
The leaks were not deliberate and the White House is upset that it challenged its otherwise disciplined message, which revolved around support for Ukraine, but in a way calibrated to prevent escalation, according to the latest. reports.
But whether specific intelligence-related leaks were deliberate or not, or whether Austin revising US goals in the war from preserving Ukrainian sovereignty to weakening Russia for the future was seen as a policy or not, there is a marked escalation in Western rhetoric and support for Ukraine in terms of military equipment.
Debate over assumptions in the West
This apparent expansion and recalibration of Western goals, in turn, has led to debate within Western capitals. All key policy makers in the West agree that it is essential to support Ukraine and ensure that Russia cannot claim victory after entering another sovereign country.
But then, there are two schools of thought.
Some in Western capitals, particularly Washington, believe that Russia is vulnerable, that Russian military strengths have been clearly overstretched, that Putin can be cornered, that Russian ambitions can be tamed for the foreseeable future, and that the Ukraine can defend itself.
Russia’s dismal economic indicators, the exodus of its professional class, especially those in the technology sector, its degraded military capability and the fact that even other countries that may not be sympathetic to Russia’s offensive sanctions regime the West don’t necessarily support Russia’s war give a set of policymakers reason to believe that now is the time to erode Moscow’s power – and by extension, to also teach Beijing a lesson on the costs of belligerence.
Others believe that the United States is playing a risky game, because Russian weaknesses are exaggerated, and when it comes to the south and east, Russia has already had successes, and its stakes and interests are so important that Moscow will not let go even if it has to suffer heavy losses.
“Ukraine cannot defeat the Russian army. Defending territory was one thing, but recapturing territory is much more difficult,” said a retired general in a key Western NATO member country. “Yes, Russia has suffered military setbacks and the morale of its brutalized troops is at rock bottom. But he did not deploy all his strength. Its firepower is high. Ukraine is already devastated and will be in ruins by the end. Start looking for a political solution that gives Vladimir Putin some sort of face covering.
On the other hand, it’s unclear if Putin thinks he needs a face saver.
Internally, Russia has bled in both military and economic casualties over the past ten weeks, but its bleeding capacity and ability to absorb casualties on both fronts is high. There is no threat to regime stability and even the West has, after the first few weeks of actually thinking regime change was possible, realized that Putin is not going anywhere.
Moscow also appears to have calculated that despite the deep economic fractures caused by the war, there are enough voters – China, South Asian, East Asian, East Asian countries. West and Africa – who will be willing to engage with Moscow, and this willingness will only increase over time. Russia still believes that European unity is a passing phenomenon, and as energy costs in these countries continue to rise, the appetite to support confrontation on Ukraine’s behalf will diminish.
Whether these assessments are true or not is irrelevant; they exist and have led to a set of actions.
Diplomatically, while the United States has shown no interest in diplomacy, neither has Russia shown any interest in seeking a negotiated settlement at this stage. The talks have stalled. Neither Turkish nor Israeli efforts, nor German or French nudges towards a diplomatic breakthrough have gone far.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Moscow and Kyiv in late April, and while that paved the way for humanitarian aid to Mariupol, it doesn’t seem to have made Guterres any more optimistic than he expected. was perhaps before his diplomatic incursion.
And militarily, if the West and Ukraine think they can weaken Russia, Moscow seems to believe it has natural historical, geographical, strategic and cultural advantages to maximize gains in Donbass.
All of this – Western and Russian assumptions, strategies and goals – explains why the hostilities are not about to end. The war will continue. Unfortunately, the time is not ripe enough for a resolution. And things will get worse before they get better.
But how this war, where Moscow undoubtedly faces its most serious strategic challenge of the 21st century, will shape next will depend on what Putin says on Monday, the day that is central to Russian memory of its greatest strategic victory. of the 20th century.