WHAT NEXT FOR UKRAINE?
The illegal war in Ukraine has raged on for almost 18 months. Tens of thousands of military personnel and civilians have been killed. The Ukrainian counteroffensive is taking longer than many people predicted and clearly is going to be long and bloody. According to Ukraine’s military commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, progress is being hampered by a lack of adequate firepower, from modern fighter jets to artillery ammunition. Nevertheless, the aborted mutiny and potential coup by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner group commanders in Russia has severely weakened Putin and exposed him and the Russian military as vulnerable. News that Prigozhin and his militia are still in Russia underlines the Kremlin’s impotence.
International sanctions have also weakened the Russian economy and the war has radically reduced their supply of military hardware and missiles. In such circumstances it is hard to see the fighting continuing for another year. When Putin launched his ‘special military operation’ in February 2022, his goal was to erase Ukraine as a sovereign nation in a matter of days. At the time, in Russia and in the West, it seemed like a credible goal. Almost a year and a half later, Ukraine's survival is a much safer bet than Putin's. Putin's war is turning Russia into a failed state, with uncontrolled borders, private armies and warlords, a fleeing population, moral decay, and the possibility of civil conflict. But the only way Putin can be removed is if he dies, resigns, or is involuntarily retired or overthrown.
Despite the sluggishness of their counteroffensive, Ukraine has systemically and strategically taken back half the territory Russia seized, inflicting humiliating losses on Russian forces that have driven Putin to introduce a deeply unpopular draft. As Ukraine's battlefield victories pile up, the US and its NATO allies are giving it increasingly sophisticated weapons. There is a growing expectation that President Volodymyr Zelensky's New Year's pledge to retake all of Ukraine by the end of the year could be fulfilled.
In a growing panic, Putin has repeatedly threatened the West with nuclear weapons and has now begun to deploy short-range nuclear missiles to Belarus. However, the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, jolted into the enormity of the situation, said in early July that he was certain Russian tactical nuclear weapons deployed in his country would never be used. Earlier this year Putin declared that Moscow would suspend its involvement in New Start, the only remaining arms control agreement between the US and Russia, the two main nuclear superpowers. Meanwhile, his illegal war in Ukraine and his nuclear threats have simply encouraged NATO to expand, adding Finland to its members and thus adding another 832 miles to NATO’s border with Russia. Now that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has withdrawn Turkey’s opposition to Sweden’s membership of NATO, the alliance has expanded exponentially. There are growing pressures for NATO to allow Ukraine to join, although President Biden has warned caution on such a move, which could drag the West into a war with Russia. But Putin’s claim that he launched the special ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine because he felt threatened by NATO has totally backfired.
Inside Russia, the war has become increasingly unpopular. Young Russians in particular are deeply unhappy about the conflict, but as anti-war sentiment is heavily cracked down on by the police, few are truly open about their beliefs. These young Russians, unlike their elders, have access to smartphones and social networks, and therefore have access to a wider range of information compared with what they are told about the war on state media. Many have fled the country. They are well informed about friends and relatives who are dying in huge numbers on the front in Ukraine. An estimated 50,000 young Russians have been killed so far.
The elderly, who remember the Soviet times, are more inclined to believe everything they are told on state media and therefore they guardedly support Putin and the war. However, there are growing signs that even they are becoming more and more disenchanted by the massive increase in casualties and the failing Russian economy. Business, housing and community services, medicine, education – everything is slumping. After such colossal losses, even the army will have to be rebuilt again. The Russian middle classes are also dismayed that they are now severely restricted in where they can travel, and they are feeling the squeeze on their livelihoods with sanctions. There is therefore steadily increasing opposition to the war.
On the geopolitical front, China has become an increasingly important trading partner for Russia, as it seeks to soften the impact of economic sanctions imposed by western countries in response to Putin’s illegal invasion. At the same time, China has been steadily expanding its military production capabilities and is now the world's fourth largest arms exporter. The United States has said Beijing is considering supplying weapons and ammunition to Russia, although China strongly denies the allegations. It is believed that although China has not overtly supplied Russia with lethal weapons it may be secretly selling it hi-tech products which could be used for military purposes. It is also well known that Iran is supplying Russia with weaponised drones that are being used daily for attacks on Ukraine. Chinese President Xi Jinping has signed a long-term ‘Belt & Road’ deal with Iran worth billions, effectively turning Iran into a client-state. Xi Jinping is also behind the recent détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, where they have agreed to exchange ambassadors. Such mounting influence places China in a very strong position to facilitate an end to the conflict in Ukraine.
Western observers are watching closely for signs that Xi Jinping may emerge as a peacemaker. To do so, he will have to temper his friend Vladimir Putin’s enthusiasm for Soviet-style aggressive expansionism. In August 2008 he annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia, more than 20% of Georgian territory. The then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, claimed that he had arranged a ceasefire and single-handedly persuaded Putin not to send his tanks on to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, thwarting Putin’s plans to occupy the whole of Georgia. In March 2014 Putin annexed Crimea and the city of Sevastopol as two federal subjects of the Russian Federation. NATO and the West should have reacted forcefully to Putin’s belligerent behavior back in 2008. Their failure to do so led to the war in Ukraine.