The Longer Read

Russia’s plan B in Ukraine is working – now is not the moment for the West to turn away

Despite slow progress, the war in Ukraine has not reached a stalemate, writes James Nixey. But Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces can only win if the West shows a renewed commitment to forcing Russia out

Sunday 19 November 2023 06:30 GMT
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Ukrainian soldiers undergoing combat training in the north of the country
Ukrainian soldiers undergoing combat training in the north of the country (AP)

When Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, was fooled recently by two well-known Russian “comics” – surely paid-up Kremlin agents – into saying she was “tired” of the war in Ukraine and that everyone would soon be looking for a “way out”, too many of her counterparts in the West would have tacitly agreed (and perhaps sympathised: she is hardly the first to be pranked by these two).

But Ms Meloni deserves no sympathy. She thought she was talking to the head of the African Union Commission so this should have been a chance to exercise statecraft and reason with the supposed representative from the Global South and argue that Russia’s war in Ukraine is nothing if not colonialist itself – a desperate attempt to maintain its empire. Russia, with an abundance of chutzpah and an absence of shame, claims that it is the West that is being colonialist in forcing its designs on Kyiv (even supposedly “Nazi-ruled Kyiv”). You have to apply to join Nato and the EU, of course, but facts like these are irrelevant.

But Ms Meloni’s admission was worse than just not showing moral leadership. She was also playing into Russia’s hands by parroting its narrative: being tired and looking for a way out of the war is precisely what Vladimir Putin now wants from the Western world.

More than 600 days into the invasion and it has largely been pushed from the news cycle. The Israel-Hamas war and national political upheavals have taken precedence. Ukraine is old news, especially as the labels “unwinnable” or “forever war” are unthinkingly attached to it.

The Kremlin’s plan A – to swiftly take Kyiv and rule more or less directly – failed humiliatingly in the first weeks. But plan B – wait for Ukraine’s allies to give up and go home – is working. Russia has proved resilient, persistent and patient. Liberal democracies, beholden to their electorates, do not always possess these qualities to the same extent.

Eastern Europe and the Nordic states are exceptions, however. Remarkably, since most of them are neighbours and on the front line, they are the least cowed of all. They “get it” that this war is existential for Ukraine, quite possibly for places beyond too, and that a Russian victory would make it stronger and more dangerous even than it is now.

David Cameron visited Ukraine just days after making a surprise return to government as foreign secretary
David Cameron visited Ukraine just days after making a surprise return to government as foreign secretary (PA)

Also exceptional is the UK. Credit is due to Britain’s new foreign secretary, David Cameron, for visiting Ukraine just days after taking the role. True, it has always proven a popular move for visiting high-level politicians to be seen alongside someone as heroic as President Volodymyr Zelensky in the “danger zone”. But that is an unfairly cynical take. Through unprecedented internal turmoil, the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, maybe taking its lead from the British people, has been a committed supporter: in money, weapons, training and rhetoric.

In concrete terms, the UK’s provision of Storm Shadow missiles has been important for Ukraine’s ability to reach Crimea and its backing of a Black Sea corridor through which Ukraine can export its grain has made a significant difference to its ravaged economy. And while the Tories’ days in power look likely to be numbered, Labour is in lockstep. This is in marked contrast to the Hamas-Israel war of course, which involves nuances that do not exist in Ukraine.

But the UK and Eastern Europe’s defiance toward Russia gives only small cause for cheer. The larger reality is that Vladimir Putin has effectively succeeded in deterring US president Joe Biden from helping Ukraine to win this war. Most analysts agree that had more been given sooner, particularly by the US (but Germany is also at fault for its refusal to provide Ukraine with longer-range Taurus missiles for fear of escalation), Ukraine’s counteroffensive would have made more progress than it has.

This is not to say the war is at a “stalemate” and that it can’t be won. Such was a misreported quote from the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, which again has served the Russian narrative. In fact, Mr Zaluzhny was referring to a “deadlock”. This is not pedantry because there is a way out of a deadlock which is not true of a stalemate. The general outlined a path to victory and what would be needed to secure that victory. This, of course, amounted to more military aid and developing and acquiring new technologies.

Calling it a stalemate is an obvious example of self-defeat: if it is believed that Ukraine cannot win the war, then Ukraine will not be given weapons to win the war which, in turn, means… they will not win the war. It takes rare political courage to imagine Ukraine’s victory, although EU officials Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell have managed this.

Meanwhile, while Mr Putin may be happy with Mr Biden’s hesitation, he’d be even happier with Donald Trump back in power. (This, incidentally, puts Mr Putin in opposition to Chinese president Xi Jinping who, on balance, would not want quite such a disruptive presence in the White House). Russia, presumably, will not be allowed to play such a supporting part in the 2024 US election as it did in 2016, but the return of Mr Trump would be a game-changer. The US is still providing Ukraine with 70 per cent of the materials needed for it to fend Russia off, if not to be able to beat it.

A resident removes broken glass from his window damaged by a Russian missile strike in Selydove, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region
A resident removes broken glass from his window damaged by a Russian missile strike in Selydove, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region (Reuters)

Ukraine’s EU accession, likely and in progress, and Nato accession, less likely in times of war and very dependent on US backing, will be a hollow victory if its resources dry up. Russia has had a poor war – its Black Sea fleet has retreated from Crimea, meaning it will have problems defending the peninsula, and Ukraine’s counter-offensive at Avdiivka has been costly for Russia.

But Russia can absorb costs like no other. Its industry is war-mobilised and its soldiers are dispensable, replaceable commodities. Depopulation and brain drain are problems for another day and arguably affect Ukraine more. Nor should a bad plan be mistaken for a bad army that does not learn from its mistakes. Russia does. And it may have been forced to turn to North Korea to fill a “munitions gap”, but that too has worked.

Vladimir Putin’s ideology is delusional of course, but he remains deeply committed to seeing his war through to a successful conclusion: “all in” and long since recovered from the Prigozhin affair, he surely believes he can win. There will be a vote (I resist using the term “election” – no one is being “elected”) to give him a further six-year presidential term in March. Western politicians should understand that he is unlikely to wish to negotiate except over the terms of Ukraine’s surrender.

Ukraine is committed and “all in” too, of course, and better prepared for the long winter than much commentary suggests. Its city air defence is better than ever. It has not taken the ground it might have hoped it would or, more pointedly, would have done had it been given air cover. Therein lies the deadlock.

But it also remains the case that a Ukrainian victory is possible – more than possible. In fact, it is all but certain; but only if Western countries do not “get tired”, do not look for a “way out”, and if Ukraine is given the tools to finish the job.

James Nixey is the director of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme

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