Why the West must mobilise to let Ukraine win the war


Why the West must mobilise to let Ukraine win the war

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Resistance is not the same as victory. But will Western governments provide the level of support needed to defeat and expel Putin’s forces?

After a month of war, Russia has effectively lost, but Ukraine has not won. While Russia continues to throw troops into battle and bomb cities, few military analysts now believe that Russia will be able to regain the military initiative. As Russian forces are pushed further back from the main cities, attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure would need to be carried out using long-range guided missiles rather than field artillery.

However, long-range missiles are expensive and Russia may run out of physical ability to replace its missile stocks as sanctions restrict the supply of electronic components. Many missiles are now reportedly missing their targets, as Russia has to dig into old and poorly stored Soviet-era stocks.

There is now far less Western scepticism about Ukrainian claims of Russian losses and growing trust in Ukrainian capability. Ukraine is now well-supported by the West to continue effective defence.

But continuing resistance is not the same as winning the war, if by winning we mean inflicting sufficient military defeat to force Russia to retreat and to stop attacking civilians. Ukraine cannot win the war with the current level of Western support.

Ukraine is not yet getting precision long-range weapons to remove Russian occupation forces from captured cities. It also lacks air power to protect troop concentrations on the open steppes, and medium-range missiles to deliver strategic counter-attacks.

 
 

And the amount of Western aid that Ukraine has been getting is not proportionate to the significance of this conflict to the global balance of power. The United States has approved $1 billion in military support for Ukraine in 2022, less than Afghanistan got in the last two years of the war there.

Ukraine is not yet getting precision long-range weapons to remove Russian occupation forces from captured cities.

Whether the West would actually mobilise itself to allow Ukraine to win receives limited coverage in the English-speaking media, but is widely discussed in the countries adjacent to the conflict. Three reasons are mentioned for this lack of decisive support: the obvious fear of nuclear war; the fear that Russia itself might collapse in a series of regional wars; and inertia in Western decision-making.

We should look at these in reverse order because inertia is probably the main reason for how the West is acting.

NATO countries have long accommodated Russia, looking the other way from its outrages while looking at Ukraine as weak and corrupt and not worth committing to. Influential public voices openly advocated that Ukraine fell naturally in Russia’s sphere of influence and should be sacrificed if needs be.

That thinking has changed greatly since February 24. Decisions are being taken in Western capitals in weeks and months, not years. There is an emerging coalition of eastern European and Nordic countries that see Ukraine as fighting their fight too. Some NATO countries are breaking off from others to provide direct support. The UK has taken a far stronger stance than Germany and France.

 

Concern about Russia’s territorial stability is an incredible turnaround from a month ago, when the fear was about Ukraine’s survival as a nation. The stunning demonstration of military and institutional weakness has broken the spell of the Russian army and opened long-suppressed fissures. Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan have begun asserting themselves on disputed territory.

Russian political instability overblown

Talk of political instability in Russia is probably overblown. So far, Vladimir Putin has achieved only one out of his likely objectives from the war in Ukraine: using the war to tighten internal controls in Russia, pushing potential internal opposition into exile and making people in Russia economically even more dependent on the government.

Putin’s hysterical speeches calling for the purge of the fifth column and “national traitors” show that he is preparing the political ground to deal with the consequences of what is happening in Ukraine.

Finally, concerns about Russian use of weapons of mass destruction are likely to be influencing Western views of how Ukraine should proceed in this war. There is little doubt that most Western leaders would like to see Ukraine gain sufficient military success so that eventually there is a basis for some form of reasonable settlement with Russia.

However, many powerful voices in the West oppose letting Ukraine achieve a decisive rout of Russian forces. A decisive strategic defeat requiring Russia to sign an obvious capitulation is precisely what might prompt Russia to act irrationally.

 

By contrast, as long as Ukraine’s successes are tactical, Russia may be able to dress its retreat in something face-saving and would be less likely to lash out.

The West’s desire to see a speedy end to the conflict may also make it nervous about enabling Ukraine to gain sufficient military strength to seek to recover the territories controlled by Russia before February 24.

While Volodymyr Zelensky has been careful to focus on the return to the pre-February lines of control, there are strong political forces in Ukraine which would press for the full return of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk if there was military capability to do so.

Empowering Ukraine

This fear of empowering Ukraine to prolong the war is coming up against the growing realisation that any end to the conflagration which simply freezes the existing points of conflict is likely to lead to another war soon, particularly if an aggressively imperialist ideology continues to rule in Moscow.

Overall, geopolitical thinking appears to be drifting in the direction of helping Ukraine win this war, but the drift is slow and uncertain, and for some time yet Ukraine may continue getting progressively better at not losing rather than finally winning. This suggests that the war has not yet run its course.

 

Having said that, Australia’s rapid decision to send armoured vehicles to Ukraine as well as recent announcements from the UK indicate that the willingness to help Ukraine win is growing. The outcome of the Ukraine-Russia negotiating session in Istanbul on March 29 is also interesting and promising.

While the negotiations have not led to any agreement, there was a momentous change in tone on the Russian side. There was none of the bombast or crazy assertions which followed the previous session in Turkey. The very fact that instead of huffing and puffing the Russian side concluded the meeting by stating that they would be taking the Ukrainian proposal to Moscow for consultations, shows an emerging degree of realism.

The concluding statements were later “clarified” to the domestic media by explaining that the promised de-escalation did not contradict Russia’s commitment to “saving” the people of Donbass.

The “clarifications” showed that the delegation was walking a fine line between the growing realist faction in Moscow and the powerful “drown everyone in blood” faction. It is not yet clear which faction will win out.

However, the fact that the delegation was led by Vladimir Medinsky, who is typically associated with the ultra-nationalist neo-imperialist wing of Russian politics, gives room for optimism.

The potential rise of the realist faction in Russia together with the growing willingness of the West to help Ukraine achieve a decisive victory, are the main hope for shortening the war and providing a basis for a stable settlement.

Alex Sundakov is executive director of Castalia Advisors. He is a former IMF resident representative in Ukraine and a frequent visitor to Ukraine.

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