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2 YEARS OF WAR: Will Nato be able to turn the tide against Russia in Ukraine?

World2 YEARS OF WAR: Will Nato be able to turn the tide against Russia in Ukraine?

It may be too late for the Ukrainians to realise that Zelenskyy’s wish to join NATO has been too costly for them.

BACKDROP

At the commencement of the third year of the Russia-Ukraine war, Russia seems emboldened by its success in capturing Avdivka and seems to be advancing westwards near Avdiivka, Bakhmut, Donetsk City, Robotyne and Kreminna, having captured Pobeda. It is showing intent to unlock the frozen conflict, which was witnessing only standoff attacks from opposing sides through drones and missiles in the recent past, with both sides licking their wounds, counting their losses and struggling to recuperate their combat power.

The rhetoric of the US-led West seems to be shifting from “Putin must lose” to “Putin must not win”, as it struggles to meet Ukraine’s expectations of financial and military support. President Joe Biden has shifted from supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes”, to “as long as we can” as he faces delay in clearing foreign aid package. A nervous Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems to be hopping from capital to capital seeking aid and trying to garner support for his ambitious peace plan, which indirectly amounts to Russia giving back everything which it occupied.

Russia too is not too comfortable having suffered considerable losses to its Black Sea Fleet and struggling to contain repeated standoff attacks by Ukraine on Russian cities, which was once thought to be out of bound for Ukrainians using western long-range arsenal, to prevent escalation to a NATO-Russian show down. A potential 32-member NATO is not what Putin wanted after two years of war.

Because of Western compulsion not to lose to Putin, Ukraine will get the desired aid, arsenal and ammunition sooner or later, but the question remains as to who will provide it enough trained soldiers to match Russian soldiers. The asymmetry of numbers might prove to be a game-changer in a protracted war of attrition.

 

HARD REALITIES

Certain stark realities decide the maximum limits of the war. Firstly, Russia with largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles under Putin will not get annihilated/decisively defeated without using any of these major weapons. Secondly, the US will not risk annihilation of Washington/New York to save Zelenskyy/Poland. Thirdly, Russia will not be able to annihilate Ukraine if the latter is continuously supported by NATO. Fourthly, Europe will have to follow American dictates, as it knowingly fell prey to the American design of cutting off its dependency on Russia and ignored its own security and Russian security concerns for too long. Fifthly, Ukraine can’t recapture its entire lost territory without NATO getting fully involved with troops, meaning a Third World War and nuclear “Armageddon” risk. The war will therefore continue within these maximal limits.

Russia has three times the population of Ukraine, double the military budget and most importantly, a strong President thoroughly committed to ending the war on his own terms. Due to a lack of options, NATO is still trying to use old instruments of war like economic warfare through additional sanctions on Russia (500 additional entities by USA) and information warfare by picking up Navalny’s death as a rallying point. Navalny was more of a hero for the western media, but not a worthwhile threat to Putin.

While the kinetic, contact, hybrid war between Russia and Ukraine is witnessing relatively slow progress on borders with frequent standoff strikes, offensive actions are also happening in the US-led NATO’s undeclared, non-kinetic, non-contact war against Russia in the economic, information, diplomatic, and political domains. The scale of war is increasing with both sides increasing use of more dangerous arsenal, proxy elements, non-state actors, drone and cyber warfare along with other modern instruments.

 

RUSSIAN AIM, STRATEGY, AND OUTCOMES

Russia’s political aim at the beginning of the war was to arrest the trend of eastern expansion of NATO into its backyard, foreclose option of inclusion of Ukraine into NATO, liberate complete Luhansk and Donetsk regions to act as buffer, and ensure security of Crimea by connecting it with Donbass region through a land corridor. The aim also included completely cutting off Ukraine from warm water access to get absolute freedom of maneuver for its Black Sea Fleet and join up with Transnistria. Capturing the complete Ukraine was beyond Russian capability and continues to be so, but an end state along its linguistic borders is thought to be within its achievable limits.

After two years of war, Russia has captured 20% of Ukrainian territory after Crimea, but not yet liberated the entire Donbass region. It is yet to capture Odessa and join up with Transnistria, which is not easy. It miscalculated on Ukrainian will and resolve to withstand Russian onslaught and underestimated the magnitude of support by West to boost Ukrainian resistance initially.

Russia suffered heavy casualties in men and materiel in the first year of the war, but learnt some lessons quickly, hence it developed a strong and viable defence line along the captured territory which could withstand the much-hyped Ukrainian counteroffensive. While enduring the counteroffensive in the second year, it simultaneously worked towards its recuperation of combat capabilities faster than the West and has reached a position to threaten Ukraine to fulfill its remaining aims again in the third year. It is estimated that Russian military production grew by 400% as against 20% of Europe since 2021.

 

UKRAINIAN AIM, STRATEGY, AND OUTCOMES

President Zelenskyy was expecting violent action from Russia after signing a decree aimed at de-occupation and reintegration of the Crimean Peninsula on 26 February 2021. Joint exercises with NATO gave up his and NATO’s intentions, adequate to alarm the Russians, even if such acts were aimed to impress a domestic audience. Ukraine’s aim in the initial stages was to blunt the Russian offensive and impose punitive costs on Russians with all the assistance from the US-led NATO, using state of the art weaponry and systems. Ukraine’s strong resolve to resist Russian offensive has been noteworthy, having deliberately prepared for the conflict since 2014.

To overcome the adverse asymmetry in military asset holdings to deploy military assets in civilian areas, Ukraine turned towns into fortresses, and residential areas into pillboxes. It involved mercenaries and civilians to fight as part of the war machine, launched sniper attacks, ambushes, small team operations, drone attacks on softer convoys. It successfully provoked the Russians to target residential areas in order to gain the propaganda advantage from civilian casualties through superior information warfare, backed by the NATO. It thus forced the Russians to fight a war of attrition on a ground of Ukraine’s choosing. The Russians were organised for mechanised warfare and inadequately prepared to deal with fighting in built-up areas, and thus achieved territorial gains at a very heavy cost of casualties.

The second year of the war saw an overconfident Zelenskyy claiming to win back all his territory, overhyped by NATO assuming that meeting his war requirements may give him a fair chance to defeat Putin in the counteroffensive. The counteroffensive was supported by a hollow media campaign, making everyone believe that Ukraine was winning, whereas it was losing its combat power, and the Russians were holding their strong defence line.

The prolonged failures on the ground have set in a war fatigue in the West. The fact that military campaign of Ukraine was mainly based on American proxy, it has been impacted adversely by the diversion of US focus to the Middle-East. Ukraine today suffers from devastated infrastructure, 14 million people displaced, tattered economy, heavily dependent on Western aid to sustain its resistance, with its sovereign decision-making hostage to the USA, which wants it to fight till the last Ukrainian standing.

 

US-LED NATO’S AIM, STRATEGY, AND OUTCOMES

While Russia can be accused of launching ‘Special Military Operations’ violating territorial integrity of Ukraine, the eastward expansion of NATO knocking Russian doors was also a major provocation. While unprepared Europe may have no option but to follow USA for collective security against overhyped threat of Russia, but it was mainly to meet American interest. The expanded NATO means more captive market for American military hardware and oil, assured sustenance of military industrial complex, jobs, economy of USA. In 2023 alone US weapons sale overseas has jumped to a record of $238 billion and British arms maker BAE recorded its highest ever profit at $3.4 billion. Knocking off energy dependence of Europe from Russia through destruction of Nordstream pipelines doesn’t seem to be in the interest of Europe, (but it is in the interest of America) which is adequately vindicated by the downslide of economy of Europe in comparison to Russia.

The US-led strategy therefore was to let Ukraine fight proxy war to weaken Russia as extension of Cold War 1.0, so that NATO doesn’t run into the risk of third world war or nuclear war and doesn’t bear the burden of body bags. They found a willing Zelenskyy to undertake it on their behalf with assured support from NATO. As this narrative is globally known, NATO doesn’t want to lose face by stopping the war at a point that they look embarrassed and defeated by Putin, so they continue with the war as a better face-saver.

 

FUTURE OF RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR

As of today, President Putin is much more confident of executing this war than any of his opponents. He has trained manpower advantage on his side, has been able to endure the sanctions and made some economic gains. His military industrial complex has been able to put his surge capacity in motion to generate more hardware, ammunition and combat power. His major concern will continue to be maritime warfare, where he is still struggling. The inclusion of Finland in NATO and possible entry of Sweden is also a discomfort to Russia, in Baltic and North-western flank. The option to use nuclear weapons, in case of existential threat will continue to be a powerful tool to prevent NATO entering into contact war with Russia in future too, notwithstanding Macron’s isolated thoughts of sending troops.

On the other hand, Ukraine is struggling for aid and weapons. While it may eventually get them but the problem will be the shortage of trained soldiers in the battlefield which will be a major factor to change the tides in Russian favour in immediate future. The rhetoric and brave front of Zelenskyy talking of next counteroffensive are good for information warfare but may not swing the situation on ground in his favour as he is banking on what Sean McFate calls “killing with borrowed knife”.

It may be too late for the Ukrainians to realise that Zelenskyy’s wish to join NATO has been too costly for their people and call for sovereignty has made them a vassal state of USA, but they know that ultimately their geography stands changed for ever. The initiative of individual European countries signing security pacts/agreements with Ukraine may be good optics with some aid, but it doesn’t let them act beyond Article 5 of NATO’s Charter to enter into war against Russia for Ukraine, independent of NATO’s approval.

Putin has talked of negotiations, but he would proceed on its own terms which practically seem to be Russianisation of areas captured as buffer with NATO, a neutral Western Ukraine (may be part of EU), a secure Crimea and Black Sea. He would attempt to capture the entire Donbass in 2024 and extend the southern corridor to Transnistria in 2025.

NATO seems to be stressed and fatigued, supporting the never-ending Ukrainian demands over domestic needs, which will impact combat capability and the morale of Ukrainian fighters in the long run. Finding manpower to fight will be biggest challenge for Ukraine, with which NATO can’t help much. At the beginning of third year of the war it seems NATO will find it difficult to turn the tide against Russia.

 

Major General S.B. Asthana retired from the Indian Army. The views expressed are the author’s personal. The author retains the copyright.

 

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