DESPITE those misleading headlines about ‘raging war’ that still appear in the media, the front lines in the Ukraine conflict have been static for weeks with Russia controlling about 20 per cent of its neighbour’s territory.
The Western-supplied Ukrainian army pokes at the Russian invaders, who defend their gains. Vladimir Putin isn’t trying to capture more of Ukraine, perhaps because he lacks the forces he would need to take and occupy it (more on that later). He already holds enough to bargain with.
Sporadic attacks – including one on a Russian air base – have occurred in Crimea, which Russia took from Ukraine in 2014. The daughter of a close Putin adviser was killed by a car bomb in Moscow for which the Kremlin blamed a Ukrainian woman, not necessarily believably.
These are embarrassing goads, like the earlier sinking of the Russian warship Moskva in the Black Sea, rather than events which have any decisive effect on the course of the war. They are enough to keep Ukraine’s anti-Putin drumbeat rolling and prevent the Europeans from becoming too distracted by the drastic effects of the war on themselves.
At the six-month mark, the best that can be said about the war is that it has been contained militarily in Ukraine although the external economic consequences have been catastrophic, all the more so for not having been foreseen by those who planned the West’s response.
US and European leaders remain committed to the liberation and securing of all Ukraine. Given its overwhelming superiority in hi-tech weaponry and trained professional troops, the West could mop the Russians up quickly were it not for Putin’s nuclear arsenal and the fear that he would use it rather than lose.
This is the threat which has trumped any strategy Nato has yet come up with, including sanctions that were designed to cripple Russia’s ability to maintain its position in Ukraine but which so far have been ineffective.
For the moment, Putin appears to believe that simply by sitting on what he has captured, the energy crisis he has inflicted on EU countries in retaliation for sanctions will sap the will of European electorates to continue to tolerate their leaders’ support for someone else’s war.
German politicians have warned their people to get used to cold showers, dimmed lighting and the loss of jobs if industrial production cannot be maintained, but no one knows if they will accept these privations when they arrive in full force from November onwards. Berlin in winter is a fridge.
President Macron’s government fears Germany could be the weak link in the united European alliance against Putin but has warned the French themselves that there will be unavoidable ‘difficulties’ ahead including the risk of power cuts. Britain’s energy crisis is only part of the political time bomb awaiting the new Prime Minister of a struggling government.
The extent of Putin’s gamble on the effectiveness for him of the coming energy crisis was summed up at Bloomberg by Javier Blas, who wrote after talking to UK energy traders: ‘The looming power emergency is worse than many industry executives publicly acknowledge and a lot more dangerous than the government admits.’ This applies equally to the Europeans.
The relative lull on the fighting front does not mean the West, and particularly the United States, is any the less determined to put Putin back in his box and maintain Nato’s post-Soviet expansion to Russia’s western border, now growing to include Finland and Sweden, both of which have first-rate militaries.
If the West can struggle through the winter with its resolve intact despite the loss of Russian energy, the tide may turn against Putin next year. The Europeans will need less Russian gas, alternative sources will come onstream and a manpower shortage could undermine his ability to stay in Ukraine.
There are arithmetical limits to the number of men he can mobilise. Draft-dodging is curtailing the intake of conscripts and the Russian people are also suffering under sanctions. It would become a question of whether even Putin’s authoritarian government could keep the country behind the war and its disproportionate losses of conscript lives.
Ukraine’s defence of Kiev from capture at the start of the invasion showed how beatable the Russian army is against trained opponents who have state of the art western weapons including simple-to-use tank busters. Official US sources estimate Russia has suffered up to 80,000 dead and wounded since February and 15,000 dead in July alone. The latter figure looks high compared with the scale of the fighting but the Russians admit their losses have been heavy.
Pavel Luzin at the online think tank Riddle cited the US as believing the Russians have already committed 85 per cent of the available army with only 100,000 men in reserve. Widespread draft avoidance which he described would indicate strong opposition to the war from conscriptable men and their families. These figures make Putin vulnerable domestically next year.
Is next spring the moment President Biden intends to call Putin’s bluff by exploiting his dissolving support among the Russian people for a damaging enterprise where the gains have proved so costly to achieve and keep?
President Zelensky’s government has fiercely defended key cities in eastern Ukraine but has not so far attempted a major counter-offensive to drive the Russians out despite having received substantial arms shipments from the United States and other Nato countries.
One possible reason for this is that Nato is building up an arsenal in Ukraine in readiness for scrapping its non-ground-intervention policy and threatening the invaders with overwhelming military force in the spring of 2023 which Putin cannot match.
Tucker Carlson of Fox News noted that this year, for the first time since the 1970s, the US has not published a document called ‘World Military Expenditures and Arms Sales’ which monitors the global weapons trade. He implied that the reason – none has been given officially – could be to hide the size of the arms build-up in Ukraine which arriving Nato troops would find waiting for them.
This would be a direct challenge to Putin’s nuclear veto. But threatened with otherwise certain defeat in Ukraine he might be prepared to negotiate on Nato terms for at least a withdrawal to the Russian-speaking oblasts of Luhantsk and Donetsk that would rescue some gains from the débâcle.
Putin knows the use of nuclear weapons is two-edged – he launches them, the West responds. Biden knows Russia lacks the manpower to sustain a long war. This could change Washington’s assessment of the danger of moving forces into Ukraine which it would couple with an offer of talks before the two sides fought.