Ending the war in Ukraine on terms acceptable to its President Volodymyr Zelensky will require the West to convince Russian leader Vladimir Putin he’s losing.
Good luck with that.
Ahead of next week’s anniversary of the Russian invasion, US and Western leaders are gearing up for a show of unity and strength designed to establish once and for all that NATO is in the conflict for the long haul and until Moscow’s defeat.
“Russia has lost – they’ve lost strategically, operationally, and tactically,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said on Tuesday. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Wednesday that “Putin must realize that he cannot win” as he explained the rationale for rushing arms and ammunition to Ukrainian forces. And Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to NATO, told CNN’s Becky Anderson that Washington was doing all it could to “continue to apply pressure on Moscow to affect (Putin’s) strategic calculus.”
And in an opinion article by CNN’s Peter Bergen, retired US General and former CIA Chief David Petraeus said the conflict would end in a “negotiated resolution” when Putin realizes the war is unsustainable on the battlefield and on the home front.
The Western rhetorical and diplomatic offensive will ratchet up further as Vice President Kamala Harris heads to the Munich Security Conference this week. President Joe Biden will meanwhile visit Poland and a frontline NATO and ex-Warsaw pact state next week, bolstering his legacy of offering the most effective leadership of the Western alliance since the end of the Cold War.
Viewing the war through Putin’s eyes
By most objective standards Putin already seems to be losing. His war aims of crushing Ukrainian sovereignty, capturing Kyiv, toppling an elected government, proving Russian might and severing Ukraine’s relationship with the West have backfired terribly. Russia is a pariah state and its economy is in ruins because of international sanctions. Putin is being branded a war criminal. And far from being cut off from the West, Ukraine is now in the extraordinary position of being effectively a NATO client state propped up by the US and Europe, whose survival, even if there’s an eventual ceasefire deal, will probably require decades of Western support.
Yet Western logic about what is happening in the war may only disguise insight into Putin’s mindset. The Russian leader long saw the world through a different strategic and historic lens. Many foreign observers, though not in the US government, convinced themselves after all that it was not in Russia’s interest to invade Ukraine – but Putin went ahead anyway. He’s showing no sign of being deterred by a year of defeats and a stunning influx of sophisticated NATO weapons and ammunition into Ukraine. He’s sending Russian convict recruits to their deaths in futile World War I-style advances even though Russian forces have already suffered massive losses.
This war is also not some mere territorial dispute he’s likely to give up lightly. It’s born from his belief that Ukraine is not a country and must be folded into Russia. His survival in power could also depend on not being seen to have lost. And while the West says it’s in for the long haul, Putin has already been at war in Ukraine since 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.
A frozen conflict that lasts for many more years and prevents Ukraine becoming whole may be a sustainable position for him. He’s already shown he’s indifferent to massive human losses. And judging by his rhetoric he believes he’s locked into a titanic geopolitical struggle with NATO vital for Russia’s prestige. The question is whether the West has a similar appetite for the long haul.
A crucial stage of the war
All of this explains why western strategists see the next phase of the war as critical, as Russian forces prepare for an apparent spring offensive and Ukraine awaits the arrival of recently pledged western tanks that it hopes will turn the tide.
NATO’s unity and staying power has confounded skeptics, largely due to Biden’s leadership. But political conditions in Washington and allied nations are not static and could shape Putin’s thinking.
In the US House for instance, some members of the new Republican majority are skittish. Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz last week demanded an end to aid to Ukraine and for the US to demand all combatants “reach a peace agreement immediately.” A bipartisan majority for saving Ukraine still exists in the House and the Senate. But it’s not certain Biden can guarantee massive multi-billion dollar aid packages for Ukraine in perpetuity. And US aid might be in serious doubt if ex-President Donald Trump or another Republican wins the 2024 election.
So while Ukraine’s backers hope for breakthroughs on the battlefield, months more bloody fighting seem likely.
CNN’s Jim Sciutto reported this week that the US and its allies believed that Russia’s coming offensive was unlikely to result in major battlefield gains. “It’s likely more aspirational than realistic,” said a senior US military official. There are also doubts whether Ukrainian forces have the capacity to sever entrenched Russian defenses in the east and southern areas in a way that could threaten Putin’s land bridges to Crimea. And Stoltenberg said Wednesday at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels that the conflict was becoming a “grinding war of attrition” as he called on the allies to rush ammunition to Ukraine.
Putin doesn’t think he’s losing
The outside world knows Putin is not contemplating defeat or an exit from the war because of the complete lack of any diplomatic framework for ceasefire talks.
Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that there’s no prospect of this situation changing any time soon.
“President Putin shows no sign that he is preparing for peace. On the contrary, he is launching new offensives and targeting civilians, cities and critical infrastructure,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russia and Putin, who worked in Trump’s White House, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday that there were few signs Putin’s determination is waning.
“I think this is a pretty grim picture, in part because Putin didn’t feel deterred in the first place,” Hill said. “The other thing is that Putin also feels that he has a lot of support from the rest of the world, including from China … it may very well take countries like China, pushing Russia, for there to be any break in Putin’s resolve.”
The prospect of China leaning on Putin for an end to the war was remote even before the lurch in US-China relations caused by the flight of a Chinese spy balloon across the US this month.
And even if Beijing might be embarrassed at Putin’s performance in Ukraine after the two sides declared a “no limits” partnership last year, it may see an advantage in seeing the US preoccupied with a proxy war against Russia as it escalates its challenge to American power in Asia.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman however warned Beijing on Wednesday that a long-term bet on Putin would only deliver disappointment.
“You’re going to end up with an albatross around your neck,” Sherman said at an event at the Brookings Institution, though admitted the US was concerned about tightening ties between China and Russia at a time when it is locked in simultaneous showdowns with each power.
“The Ukrainians are going to deliver a strategic failure for Putin. And that’s going to create a lot of problems for those who are supporting this unholy invasion going forward,” she said.
The problem however is that there’s no sign yet that Putin agrees.