VLADIMIR Putin, caught unawares, suffered a humiliating defeat in Ukraine’s Kharkiv province and has begun the process of escalating the war – an escalation that has been feared since it began in February. The fighting can be expected to become more intense and less predictable as a result.
Some in the West believe Putin’s mobilisation of 300,000 reservists is a sign of weakness and that Ukraine is winning with smaller but highly-motivated and better-armed forces equipped with hi-tech weaponry supplied by the US and Britain. They question the will of the Russian people to suffer more losses. More important than that, however, is the confidence in Putin of the elites who surround him. There is no evidence of a rift in the Kremlin.
The key factor at this stage is escalation itself. It inevitably invites a response from the West at the risk of becoming a tit-for-tat spiral. Putin is more than doubling the Russian troops available to fight, presumably in hopes of overwhelming the Ukrainians by sheer numbers, which is not an unreasonable expectation unless his rule is challenged.
The Western reasoning leaves out the fact that Putin and his government are as motivated as their adversaries in Kiev and Washington, because they believe losing this war would be the greatest threat to Russia’s security since the German invasion in the Second World War, which reached the gates of Moscow. That’s why they started it.
Russia was too vast for either Napoleon or Hitler to defeat. But they weren’t equipped with missiles that threaten every city the length of breadth of the country and are operable no matter what the weather – which, in winter, has always been Russia’s critical ally.
No one expects an invasion of Russia by Nato, which is officially a defensive alliance. But to Putin, who viscerally distrusts the US, losing power over Ukraine and having Nato on its Russian border would represent an intolerable, permanent threat to Russia’s security.
Nato’s constant fear is that Putin at bay might resort to nuclear weapons, starting with tactical versions on the battlefield, but not limiting himself to these. This is why its response to the Russian invasion has been carefully calibrated; sanctions, full political support, military intelligence and weapons – but no intervention on the ground or in the air.
The Biden administration is now being pushed to send tanks and high-precision artillery to Ukraine. But how long would Putin put up with the huge disadvantage his forces would then face?
Professor Niall Ferguson cites the possibility of Russia targeting Western spy satellites to destroy the ability of the US to provide Ukraine’s war planners with the intelligence that has often given them an edge on the battlefield.
The West’s caution does not disguise the fact that the aim is to drive the Russians out of Ukraine and ally it with the West under Nato and EU protection, which Putin cannot afford to let happen. Ukraine’s sudden recapture of Kharkiv province was a wake-up call to him that he could lose a war he thought would be a walkover; hence his mobilisation, raising the stakes to a new level.
The Western media portrays Putin’s position as desperate. The war is reported to be unpopular with the public, which has been shocked by the Russian army’s death toll – officially admitted to be almost 6,000 but thought to be much higher. Do the Russians even possess weapons and ammunition reserves in quantities to make the bigger field army effective?
Anti-war protests have been staged in defiance of the police. The fighting quality of reservists is said to be poor. Ukraine’s morale is high after Kharkiv – although Russia still controls 20 per cent of its territory – and its general staff are promising more offensives to come.
The West’s strategy of using Ukraine as its proxy is to maintain enough pressure that Russia, which is bleeding manpower and resources, may be forced to concede, especially if the war lasts for years, as Ferguson believes it may.
But what about the reverse pressure applied by Putin? Ukraine’s economy is in ruins and inflation has risen to 24 per cent. Territory lost to Russia provided a third of its gross domestic product and 17 per cent of its 43million population have been driven from their homes. Single victories such as Kharkiv are quickly forgotten under the weight of economic realities that are unsustainable now, never mind for years ahead.
The Ukrainians are reliant not just on the Western weapons they need to stay in the fight, but also the stamina of Europeans suffering under the loss of Russian energy exports which cannot be replaced in the short term.
The Europeans have been hit by a crisis they never expected. Popular European support for the war – which is not as solid as the media say – depends on the severity of the winter that may break their countries’ ability to keep the lights on and industry turning.
It’s not just the prospect of an energy crunch unknown since the 1970s. Cash-strapped EU countries which spent billions during Covid are spending billions more on Ukraine while themselves dealing with high inflation and rising interest rates that on their own cause widespread discontent.
Liz Truss told the United Nations that in 2023, Britain will match or exceed the £2.6billion that it is spending on military aid to Ukraine this year, despite the threat of a recession. This spending – possibly a years-long commitment – not only costs the taxpayer money that was unbudgeted for, but has reduced our own military resources and ability to defend ourselves. This goes also for the EU.
The military spending does not take account of the cost to the West of Ukraine’s eventual reconstruction and the permanent loss to the Ukrainian economy of the territories the Russians have captured and are determined either to hold on to or use as a bargaining chip.
The burden of reconstruction will fall mainly on the US – a strong case can be made that this is Biden’s conflict – but if it is to be a war without foreseeable end, European voters struggling under the economic yoke are going to start to hold their politicians to account. The longer the fighting continues, the less committed they are likely to be.