Even with NATO’s information campaign reiterating Ukraine’s victory, attaining an end state as it existed before 24 February 2022, must be considered as nothing less than a pipe dream.
As the war in Ukraine completes one year, both sides put up a brave front, reiterating their resolve to carry on, blaming the other side for the conflictand engaging in greater miscalculations with the hope that a little extra push can put them in a stronger position to dictate terms to the other side. However, chasing such a mirage increases the risk of an unprecedented escalation by ignoring serious warnings from both sides. After a surprise stopover in Kiev announcing $460 million in military aid, President Joe Biden made a strong pitch in Poland for support to Ukraine despite the commotion caused by the ongoing Russia-China military drill in South Africa during the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine. This was in response to President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he would suspend participation in New START, the only remaining major nuclear arms control treaty with the US.
As the US-led NATO, fighting a proxy war from the shoulders of Zelenskyy, announced sending battle tanks and long-range offensive weapons, the risk of nuclear escalation is not hidden, even as President Biden said no to fighter jets and asked Russia to respect the nuclear pact with the US. The NATO is divided on fighter aircraft support, additional sanctions, swift inclusion of Ukraine into EU, and its NATObid, which first led to Zelenskyy’s showdown with Putin. Even with NATO’s information campaign reiterating Ukraine’s victory, attaining an end state as it existed before 24 February2022, must be considered as nothing less than a pipe dream.
The Russians have picked up momentum in the eastern region to speed up their gains before tanks and other offensive weapons arrive in Ukraine. With a heavy economic burden and casualties, Russia too is struggling with its desired end state of conflict termination. It makes all strategists wonder if the West is taking Russian warnings as bluff, or will a cornered Russia press the nuclear buttonif NATO continues to take Putin for granted and keeps meeting Zelenskyy’s unending wish list.
The big power contestation in Ukraine has some stark realities that both sides are hesitating to accept. Firstly, Russia with its largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles under Putin will not get annihilated/decisively defeated without using any of these weapons. Secondly, the US will not risk the annihilation of Washington or New York to save Zelenskyy or Poland. Thirdly, Russia will not be able to annihilate a Ukraine supported by NATO, without a serious breakdown internally; and holding on to captured territory without localsupport will be a long-term challenge. Fourthly, Europe will not be more secure and prosperous, as it was before February 2022, as it did not pay heed to Russian security concerns and fell prey to the American design of cutting off its dependence on Russia.
While the kinetic, contact, hybrid war between Russia and Ukraine continues, the US-led NATO is waging an undeclared, non-kinetic, non-contact war against Russia in the economic, information, diplomatic, and political spheres.
RUSSIAN CALCULATIONS AND STRATEGY
The Russian calculation is based on the premise that NATO will stop short of nuclear escalation; hence, nuclear references have credible deterrence value, as NATO hasn’t openly admitted its direct involvement, notwithstanding its experts operating in Ukraine under the garb of volunteers/contractors. The Russian calculation of freezing Europe in winters has outlived its currency as Europe has finally survived the existing winter with reduced energy supply. Heavy casualties of men and material, economic setback due to sanctions and inadequate inflow of war materiel from outside have taken a toll in the last one year, straining its surge capability of defence production to sustain the war. Surely, Russia seems to have miscalculated/underestimated Ukraine’s resolve to defend itself and NATO’s resolve to support Ukraine.
The fresh supply of weapons can adversely impact its ongoing operations; hence the Russian strategy to speed up the offensive by capturing important communication hubs like Bakhmut, before the newly promised tanks, armoured vehicles, air defence equipment and ground launched small diameter bombs (GLSDB) with longer ranges (worth US$2.2 billion) are effective in battlefield. Russia is nowhere close to achieving its strategic aim of liberating the entire Donbass region and southern Ukraine to join up with Transnistria and land-lock Ukraine. However, consolidating to retain its gains with renewed offensive, efforts to improve its territorial disposition for better end state on conflict termination, seemto be a practical approach for Russia.
From the Russian point of view, Ukraine’s energy grid and essential services are as much legitimate targets as the Russian bridge to Crimea or Nord Stream pipelines are; hence, standoff attacks on these will continue to be more impactful than casualty prone close combat operations in pro-Ukrainian areas.
Russia knows its limitations in economic, diplomatic, informationand political warfare, which is heavily skewed in favour of the US-led NATO and Ukraine, and that the collective conventional might of NATO is stronger than its residual combat power; hence, the option touse nuclear weapons, in case of an existential threat, will continue to be a powerful tool to prevent NATO entering into any contact war with Russia.
US-LED NATO: CALCULATIONS, STRATEGY
The Munich Security Conference earlier this month revealed that NATO was caught in a quagmire wherein it would like the war to be confined to Ukraine, for which it had no choice but to support it “for as long as it takes”. It cannot afford any spillover to any NATO country, as this will implyan existential threat to Russia, leading it to an awkward choice of nuclear catastrophe. NATO therefore echoes that Russia must not win; hence, boosting Ukraine’s will to continue fighting by creating the hope of winning an unwinnable war seems to be their calculation.
NATO is incrementally upgrading the military support to Ukraine as per Zelenskyy’s wish list, up to the point of weakening Russia to the extent that it doesn’t remain in a position to attack any NATO member in the conventional domain, despite leakages due to corruption in Ukraine. The fact that NATO hasn’t responded to Zelenskyy’s“Wings for Freedom”request is a case in point. The argument of supplying offensive weapons for defensive purposes to Ukraine is unlikely to be bought by Russia, which will view it as an escalation. NATO, however, seems to be testing Putin’s patience with the calculation that he too may shy away from escalating the conflict to the nuclear dimension, resulting in Zelenskyy’s greater staying power.
The US-led NATO’s calculation of Russia’s $2 trillion economy crumbling in the face of sanctions by the collective $30 trillion economic might of NATO, hasn’t worked. Russia has not only endured the sanctions, but as per the IMF, Russia is expected to grow by 2.1% in 2024, in comparison to 1% of the US and 1.6% of the EU and negative growth of the UK. It goes to prove that resource rich Russia will find buyers for its raw materials irrespective of sanctions. The biggest hypocrisy is that the US and EU continued to buy more nuclear fuel from Russia in the last one year, while announcing stricter sanctions to impress Zelenskyy.
Purely, fromthe US point of view, it has achieved some of its objectives. Nord Stream 1 and 2 have been successfully knocked out, if Seymor Hersh has to be believed, and Russia’s influence over the EU is decreasing. EU is compelled to keep purchasing its expensive oil and military equipment from the US. Major contracts to rebuild Ukraine are likely lucrative gains. The gains however are not without a long term cost to the US. The global race to adopt trading methodology independent of dollars is growing fastest ever. BRICS is looking for a common currency and its expansion like SCO.
EU’s over reliance on the US for security since World War II has left it with no choice but to give up its economic and energy interests to seek security shelterof the US. Some states like Hungary have expressed their opposition to providing Ukraine with unending materiel support. Reeling under unprecedented inflation, burdened with millions of refugees, the EU will have toraise its defence budget besides surrendering some sovereign decisions to the US, to counter an unfriendly Russia in the long run.
OPTIONS BEFORE UKRAINE
Ukraine, under martial law since the beginning of the war, has no choice but to continue fighting, as any compromise will jeopardize Zelenskyy’s survival, who is overly obligated to turn Washington’s plan into action. The cumulative aid of over $100 billion poured into Ukraine and the rhetoric of Ukraine winning this war have emboldened Zelenskyy, giving him the unrealistic hope of defeating Russia to get back his entire territory; hence, he refuses to talk to Putin.
Having lost more than15% of its territory in this war, with more than 6 million people displaced internally, and 8 million refugees sent outside,suffering significant casualties, with half of its energy infrastructure destroyed, regaining lost territory from the Russians, who are seen to be digging in for a protracted war, is not realistic. And this irrespective of the military resources provided by NATO. If Russia found it difficult to make decisive progress with similar resources in Ukraine, it can be no different for Ukraine.
THE CHINA FACTOR
The USis speculating Chinese military hardware support to Russia. It has threatened China with sanctions. China, however, is unlikely to compromise its largest consumer market in the US and EU; hence, it will make its own choice. It’s mocking the US as morally not qualified to issue any orders, after sending billions of dollars’ worth aid to fuel this war and given its history of invading Iraq and Libya. China is keeping the USguessing by offering a peace proposal, which it knows that the US/Ukraine will never agree to.
A hard slogging tug of war in an otherwise stalemate situation in Ukraine will continue with each side hoping for better gains to secure a better position for talks, putting up a brave front despite suffering war fatigue.
Globally, people want the war to end, as it is hurting everyone by inflationary pressures, unprecedented energy and food crisis, especially those who have nothing to do with this war. Russia is speeding up its offensive before additional arsenal makes its task of achieving its strategic objectives even more difficult. On the other side, the political hierarchy of US led NATO finds ongoing proxy war, without sharing any burden of body bags, as a convenient option to weaken Russia and keep the war restricted to Ukraine.
NATO seems inclined to let Finland join it to secure its northern flank, even if Sweden’s bid is blocked by Turkey. Russia, therefore might end up with the extension of its direct land border with NATO by over 1,000 km with Finland joining the latter, an outcome which it wanted to avoid.
NATO’s military backing of Ukraine may not secure victory, but it might lead it to long-term changes in its territorial boundary. President Zelenskyy has no choice but to continue fighting the war, with western propaganda depicting him as the undisputed winner, as long as the US desires. Pentagon professionals know that ultimately Ukraine will have to compromise with its territorial integrity, as it’s not possible to evict the Russiansfully. But NATO will like to delay such an outcome till as late as possible.
Major General S.B. Asthana is a retired Army officer. The views expressed are that of the author, who retains the copyright.