To end the war in Ukraine on terms acceptable to President Volodymyr Zelensky, the West must persuade Russian leader Vladimir Putin that he is losing.
Best of luck with it.
Ahead of next week’s anniversary of the Russian invasion, US and Western officials are preparing a show of unity and strength aimed to demonstrate once and for all that NATO is committed to the conflict until Moscow is defeated.
“Russia has lost – strategically, operationally, and tactically,” said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley on Tuesday. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg cautioned Wednesday that “Putin must know that he cannot prevail” as he explained why weaponry and ammunition were being rushed to Ukrainian forces. Meanwhile, according to CNN’s Becky Anderson, US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith, Washington is doing everything it can to “continue to impose pressure on Moscow in order to impact (Putin’s) strategic calculus.”
In an editorial piece published by CNN’s Peter Bergen, retired US General and former CIA Director David Petraeus predicted that the conflict would end in a “negotiated manner” after Putin realised the war was unsustainable on the battlefield and at home.
As Vice President Kamala Harris heads to the Munich Security Conference this week, the Western rhetorical and diplomatic onslaught will be ratcheted up even more. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden will visit Poland and a frontline NATO and ex-Warsaw Pact state next week, cementing his legacy of providing the most successful Western alliance leadership since the Cold War’s conclusion.
Looking at the conflict through Putin’s eyes
Putin appears to be losing by most objective metrics. His war goals of smashing Ukrainian sovereignty, conquering Kyiv, deposing an elected government, demonstrating Russian might, and breaking Ukraine’s alliance with the West have all failed spectacularly. Russia is a pariah state and its economy is in tatters because of international sanctions. Putin has been labelled a war criminal. Thus, far from being cut off from the West, Ukraine is now in the unprecedented position of being basically a NATO client state propped up by the US and Europe, whose existence, even if a ceasefire is reached, will almost certainly necessitate decades of Western assistance.
But, Western logic about what is going on in the war may merely be a cover for insight into Putin’s thoughts. The Russian leader has long viewed the globe through a geopolitical and historical perspective. Many foreign observers, including many in the US government, concluded that an invasion of Ukraine was not in Russia’s best interests – but Putin moved through nonetheless. He is unfazed by a year of defeats and a remarkable surge of modern NATO weapons and ammunition into Ukraine. Even though Russian forces have already sustained significant losses, he is sending Russian convict recruits to their deaths in fruitless World War I-style pushes.
This battle is also not some minor territorial quarrel he’s inclined to give up lightly. It stems from his conviction that Ukraine is not a country and must be absorbed into Russia. His ability to maintain power may also be contingent on not being perceived as having lost. While the West claims to be in it for the long term, Putin has been at war in Ukraine since 2014, with the annexation of Crimea.
A frozen conflict that lasts many years and prevents Ukraine from being united may be a viable posture for him. He’s already demonstrated indifference to tremendous human losses. And, based on his rhetoric, Putin believes he is embroiled in a gigantic geopolitical battle with NATO, which is critical to Russia’s status. The question is whether the West shares this long-term outlook.
A critical period in the war
All of this explains why western strategists regard the next phase of the war as critical, as Russian forces prepare for a possible spring attack and Ukraine awaits the arrival of freshly pledged Western tanks that it believes will reverse the tide.
NATO’s unity and staying power have astounded critics, owing entirely to Biden’s leadership. Yet, political situations in Washington and its allies change and may influence Putin’s views.
Several members of the new Republican majority in the US House, for example, are wary. Last Monday, Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz insisted that all combatants “negotiate a speedy peace accord.” A bipartisan majority in the House and Senate remains committed to protecting Ukraine. Yet it’s unclear whether Biden can guarantee Ukraine enormous multibillion-dollar aid packages in perpetuity. And if ex-President Donald Trump or another Republican wins the 2024 election, American help might be jeopardised.
Hence, although Ukraine’s supporters hope for victories on the battlefield, months more bloodshed appear to be on the horizon.
According to CNN’s Jim Sciutto, the US and its allies believe that Russia’s upcoming onslaught will not result in significant battlefield advances. “It’s more aspirational than feasible,” a senior US military official said. There are also uncertainties about Ukrainian forces’ ability to cut entrenched Russian positions in the east and south, threatening Putin’s land bridges to Crimea. Yet, speaking at a NATO defence ministers conference in Brussels on Wednesday, Stoltenberg claimed the conflict has devolved into a “grinding battle of attrition,” urging partners to transfer weapons to Ukraine.
Putin does not believe he is losing.
Because there is no diplomatic framework for ceasefire discussions, the outside world knows Putin is not contemplating defeat or withdrawal from the war.
Stoltenberg stated on Wednesday that the situation is unlikely to change very soon.
“President Putin shows no signs of preparing for peace. On the contrary, he is initiating new offensives that target civilians, cities, and essential infrastructure,” warned Stoltenberg in Brussels.
Fiona Hill, a top expert on Russia and Putin who served in Trump’s White House, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that there are few evidence that Putin’s determination is weakening.
“I believe this is a fairly bleak picture, in part because Putin didn’t feel deterred in the first place,” Hill said. “The other problem is that Putin feels he has a lot of backing from the rest of the world, notably from China… it may very well require countries like China pressuring Russia to break Putin’s determination.”
Even before the downturn in US-China ties created by the passage of a Chinese surveillance balloon across the US this month, the likelihood of Beijing leaning on Putin for an end to the war seemed improbable.
Even though Beijing is humiliated by Putin’s performance in Ukraine after declaring a “no limits” cooperation last year, it may find an opportunity in seeing the US distracted with a proxy war against Russia as it continues its challenge to American hegemony in Asia.
Nevertheless, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned Beijing on Wednesday that a long-term bet on Putin would be futile.
“You’re going to wind up with an albatross over your neck,” Sherman said at a Brookings Institution event, while he agreed the US was concerned about increasing connections between China and Russia at a time when it is embroiled in showdowns with both.
“The Ukrainians will deliver a strategic failure for Putin. And that will cause a lot of issues for those who support this demonic invasion in the future,” she said.
The problem however is that there’s no hint yet that Putin agrees.