The Economist: How to ensure Vladimir Putin suffers strategic defeat

    WORLD  07 June 2023 - 22:00

    The Economist released an article claiming that Ukraine's counter-offensive would be to show Russia that continuing the conflict would be futile. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    On the eve of the commemoration of the Allies’ D-Day landings in Normandy, General Mark Milley, America’s most senior general, drew a direct parallel with the Ukrainian counter-offensive starting some 2,800km to the east.

    The goal, he said, was the same as it had been nearly eight decades ago: “To liberate occupied territory and to free a country that has been unjustly attacked by an aggressor nation, in this case, Russia.”

    Then as now, the battles will determine the future security order in Europe. But for Ukraine’s Western supporters, at least, the ultimate aim of the war is much less clear than it was for the Allies in 1944. Unlike Nazi Germany, Russia is a nuclear power.

    It is hard to imagine its complete capitulation. Ukraine’s professed goal is to reconquer all of the land Russia has seized since 2014, restoring the borders that were set in 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up. But even if the Ukrainian army can achieve that (and many Westerners, especially, have their doubts), there are fears that Russia might view such an outcome as a humiliation so abject that it would be worth using nuclear weapons to avoid it.


    The upshot is a much vaguer aim: for Ukraine to inflict as many losses and make as many territorial gains as possible to strengthen its hand as it tries to reach a modus vivendi with a weakened Russia. By this way of thinking, a positive outcome would be for Ukraine’s new Western-armed brigades to sever the land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula or to get close enough to endanger Russian positions in Crimea.

    Most Western officials expect more modest gains, however, with Ukraine taking back and holding less strategic slices of the territory it has lost in the past year, but at least demonstrating that it can still make headway on the battlefield.

    In the pessimistic view, the Ukrainians struggle to get past Russian defences, make only minor gains and end up in a stalemate. Hearteningly, the prospect of Ukrainian forces failing, exposing themselves to a counter-attack and retreating can be all but ruled out, because Russia lacks the means to stage a big advance and because Western allies would no doubt quickly step up support to Ukraine.

    Although it is the resolve and competence of the Ukrainian forces that will be decisive, external factors will influence the outcome. America’s president, Joe Biden, has declared two broad objectives: to ensure both that Ukraine is not defeated and that NATO does not get drawn into direct conflict with Russia with the attendant risk of nuclear escalation.

    Early on he declined to send troops to Ukraine or impose a “no-fly zone”. But he has delivered weapons of ever greater quantity and sophistication to help Ukraine defend itself. Equally vital has been the provision of intelligence, planning and training by America and its allies. Ukraine today has one of the largest armies in Europe backed by the most powerful military in the world. And while it is not trained to the standard of NATO, “it only has to be better than the Russian army” to get an upper hand, say Western officials.

    China’s leader, Xi Jinping, also appears to have set boundaries, according to American and European officials. He wants to prevent the complete defeat of Russia, a close partner; he wants to prevent a breakdown in relations with Europe; and he wants to prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

    So even though he and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, have declared that their countries’ friendship has “no limits”, there have been limits so far in the help China has been prepared to offer Russia. It buys Russian exports of oil and gas at a discount, and sells Chinese goods, some of which might be useful to the war effort. But he has so far declined to provide large-scale deliveries of weapons, of the kind the West has given Ukraine. That may change if China thinks the Russians are about to be routed, Western officials worry.

    Even allowing for that risk, however, and while sticking to Mr Biden’s parameters, America’s generals increasingly think it is possible to engineer a “strategic defeat” for Mr Putin’s regime. Over time they have become less fearful of nuclear escalation.

    In part, their “boiled frog” strategy of gradually increasing conventional military aid has helped to mitigate the risk. And by prodding Russia itself, through attacks on the border region of Belgorod or small-drone attacks on the Kremlin, Ukraine also seeks to expose the emptiness of Russian threats. Increasingly, America’s top brass, backed by some in Europe, aims to ensure Russia loses both the military capacity and the inclination to launch another war of aggression. “Never again is not a difficult concept to grasp,” says a Western official.

    This goal is especially enticing to America’s military planners because they have long dreaded the prospect of having to fight two wars at once: with Russia in Europe and with China in Asia or the Pacific. If the threat from Russia were to be substantially reduced, at least for some years, it would allow more planning and resources to be directed towards deterring China, which has become America’s most pressing military concern.

    On the eve of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, a group of senior Western officials and experts gathered at Ditchley Park, a stately home in the countryside near London and a venue for informal transatlantic powwows since the cold war—to discuss how the war might unfold. They came up with three broad scenarios.

    The first involves the Ukrainians breaking through, a collapse of Russian forces, perhaps with Ukraine even threatening Crimea. This might result in Mr Putin’s losing power. To some that is the best way to restore peace in Europe. But assessing Russia’s capacity to maintain discipline among its troops is hard; gauging the brittleness of Mr Putin’s regime is harder still.

    Nuclear worries are not entirely gone. Still, some American officials are less worried about Mr Putin’s use of nuclear arms than they are about Russia’s descent into chaos and a concomitant loss of control over its nuclear arsenal.

    A second scenario entails more limited Russian losses—and the prospect of further defeats if the war goes on—which may be enough to chasten Russia and weaken Mr Putin. Especially embarrassing would be to lose some of the territory in the eastern region of Donbas that Russia grabbed in 2014, and that Mr Putin has pledged to defend.

    A third, gloomier outcome would be a stalemate that lets Russia hold on to most of what it has taken. That would undermine Western confidence in Ukraine and embolden Mr Putin. For all Russia’s military setbacks, says Alexander Gabuev, of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, a think-tank in Berlin, Mr Putin does not appear to have abandoned his intention of subjugating the whole of Ukraine, annexing more of its territory and installing a puppet government in Kyiv.

    Mr Putin may imagine he can still achieve that by grinding out the conflict for years, making Ukraine dysfunctional and depopulating it. His air force and navy are largely intact, and he can mobilise more soldiers, though that risks popular discontent in Russia. He will want to wait out the West, perhaps hoping that elections there bring deliverance.

    In particular, Mr Putin will be hoping for a return to power of Donald Trump in next year’s presidential election in America. Mr Trump complains that America has been wasting billions on Ukraine, depleting its own arsenal and prolonging a bloody war. If elected he claims he could put an end to the conflict within 24 hours, without saying how.

    Ukrainians fear that he might either cut off the flow of aid or otherwise agree to Mr Putin’s terms. There is also the possibility of the election in France’s presidential election in 2027 of Marine Le Pen, a far-right leader, who does not hide her sympathy for Russia and promises to bring France out of NATO’s integrated command.

    How to avert a protracted war? One hope is that Ukraine will inflict such a smarting military defeat as to bring Mr Putin to the negotiating table, especially if prolonging the war seems likely to lead to further defeats.

    Some Western officials, notably in Germany, hope the fighting in Ukraine’s counter-offensive will soon be followed by peace talks. But others, especially in America, caution that Mr Putin is unlikely to be ready for serious negotiations unless he suffers a rout. Even if talks were to take place, Russia’s participation might be an entirely insincere stalling tactic. Genuine diplomacy might have to wait for a further round of Russian defeats next year.

    In the meantime, many are looking for ways to give greater credence to the West’s promises to keep supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes”. Eric Ciaramella of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank in Washington, argues that Western leaders should set out plans for Ukraine’s reconstruction and integration with the West, not least through security arrangements enshrined in law.

    Hitherto some Western leaders thought such matters would best be left until after a cessation of hostilities; but Mr Ciaramella argues they would help bring the fighting to an end by denying Mr Putin’s hope of winning a drawn-out conflict.

    The security “assurances” given to Ukraine by America, Britain and Russia itself in the 1994 Budapest memorandum, in return for its agreeing to the removal of Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its soil, proved hollow. Ukraine and eastern European friends argue that only membership of the NATO alliance—with Article 5 enshrining the mutual-defence commitment that an attack on one is an attack on all—can protect Ukraine from further attack. For all the devastation he has visited on Ukraine, Mr Putin has been careful not to strike at NATO countries.

    Western allies are divided. Germany, in particular, argues that a country with unresolved territorial disputes, especially one at war, cannot become a member (to which others retort that West Germany became a member of NATO despite the partition of German territory during the cold war).

    In any case, it is difficult to see Mr Biden extending America’s nuclear guarantee to Ukraine in the near future, given his reluctance to send American troops to defend it now. All the more important then is to turn Ukraine into a porcupine that could deter Russia by putting the cost of attacking it too high.

    Mr Ciaramella sets out a five-point proposal to give Ukraine “less than Article 5 but more than the Budapest Memorandum”. This includes legally codified commitments to help Ukraine defend itself, inspired in part by those that America gives to Israel and Taiwan, to ensure they endure regardless of who is in power in America and Europe. He also advocates multi-year commitments to arm Ukraine; support to rebuild Ukraine’s arms industry; mechanisms for political consultation like NATO’s Article 4; and a clear path to EU membership.

    All this would not be an alternative to NATO membership, but a bridge towards it. The goal, much like those hoped-for territorial gains in Ukraine’s counter-offensive, would be to demonstrate to Russia that there is nothing to be gained by prolonging the war.


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