RUSSIA has lost the battle to capture Kiev – if that was ever its intention – and has paid the price in confusion and casualties like any retreating army. But the war itself is far from over and is developing elsewhere in Ukraine.
According to the daily report of the independent US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the main thrust of the Russian army is in eastern and southern Ukraine where it has made substantial territorial gains along the Sea of Azov and Black Sea coastlines. These consolidate Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and, critically, threaten the loss of Odessa which is Ukraine’s main seaport.
Since Vladimir Putin never laid out precise war aims, it is possible that the drive towards Kiev was a feint – though it cost his army dear in lives and credibility – while his forces moved heavily against the true objectives in the east and south.
The Russians appear to have been humiliated around Kiev but Ukraine is remains in danger of losing strategic territories including the economically-critical Donbas and possibly its access to the sea.
With the Russian retreat from conquered soil, the parallel propaganda war being waged through the media by Ukraine and the United States has moved into a familiar atrocity phase in which the Russians are accused of massacring civilians and other war crimes. Russian denials are ignored but the truth of the accusations, which cannot be independently verified, is beside the point.
The purpose is to keep Western public opinion motivated behind Ukraine and the West’s support for it despite the mounting economic consequences. These are chiefly evident for now at the petrol pump and in electricity bills. Consumer energy prices are soaring despite continuing supplies of Russian oil and gas on which EU countries depend. Much worse is to come, as commodity markets testify.
Energy prices were taking off anyway because of the West’s obsession with transition to renewables but have been supercharged by the war. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC on Sunday that the government had no plans to ration gas and fuel, as France and Germany are contemplating. His categorical assurance could easily backfire. Britain last had petrol rationing in 1956 because of Suez.
The issue for Western governments is how long their electorates’ humanitarian instincts will put up with the economic pain of supporting Ukraine in a war it could have avoided had it not been pressured by Nato and the EU to take sides against Russia. It is dawning on people that Ukraine has been used as a pawn in a US effort to remove Putin from power.
Seen in this light, public opinion could decide that it has been tricked by the Biden administration’s ulterior motives and that the huge international risks involved in continuing what began as a local war – that Ukraine can only lose – are not worth it.
The longer Nato supplies the Ukrainian army with defensive weapons, which it has used with stunning success, the longer the war will last and the more other bad actors – specifically China and Iran – will be tempted to press their own agendas. It goes without saying that the longer Putin is forced to fight, the greater will be the temptation to use nuclear or biochemical weapons.
Warnings from President Biden not to use these will not deter him any more than they deterred his invasion on February 24. The US is fighting the war safely from offices in Washington. Russia is fighting it on the ground and its surviving credibility as a superpower depends on it rescuing at least the appearance of a victory.
The ISW’s assessment of the Russian army performance in conventional warfare confirms that Russia would be no match for Nato were it not for its nuclear arsenal. Quoting the Ukrainian general staff, it said the Russian retreat from Kiev has been disorderly, that battered army units would need time to recover and that some soldiers had refused to fight while others had killed their officers. It stressed these claims were unverified but if true, it’s easy to conceive of Putin escalating his war effort by other means.
Should he do this and should Biden insist on pursuing the defeat of both Putin and the Russia he leaves behind, we enter an unchartable future, as happens when wars elude control. Russia began the war to stop Ukraine joining Nato and to remove the Nato security threat on Russia’s western border. These aims have been lost sight of as the implications of the geopolitical crisis widen far beyond Ukraine.
Foreign relations experts are speaking of the possibility of another world war creating itself of its own volition as happened in 1914.
Historian Niall Ferguson wrote at Bloomberg: ’Even now, after five weeks of war notable for the heroic success of the Ukrainian defenders against the Russian invaders, I still cannot quite rid myself of the uneasy feeling that this is merely the opening act of a much larger tragedy.’
This pessimism is justified when one side in a war possesses nuclear weapons and possibly the will to use them, which makes the world a more dangerous place than it has been since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Incredibly, Biden is about to sign off on a deal with Iran that enables it to become a legal nuclear power in a region where it is already harries its neighbours and threatens the West’s energy supplies. What if China decides to exploit the West’s engagement in central Europe by moving forward its plan to attack Taiwan?
We still have time to contain the unnecessary Ukrainian war within central Europe before Putin is pushed to a potentially irreversible next step – the end of absolute nuclear deterrence – by Nato’s insistence on maintaining the Zelensky government’s resistance to its inevitable defeat. But that time is running out and the unknowable consequences – with Biden in charge – look ever more frightening.