NOT everyone thinks that Volodymyr Zelensky will lose this war or, more accurately, that Vladimir Putin will win despite Russia’s apparent superiority.
Ukraine is almost certain to lose all or most of the territory that Putin has captured in the east and along the Black Sea coast. But there have been questions from the start about the quality of Russia’s armed forces, their reputation perhaps mistakenly burnished by ruthless interventions in Chechnya and Georgia.
The possibility exists, so long as Ukraine fights, of a messy conclusion in which Putin fails to achieve all of his objectives and his government suffers a reversal of its international and domestic credibility, even to the extent of threatening Putin’s hold on power.
Emotions in the West are fixed on the civilian casualty toll and alleged war crimes by the Russian army relayed by the media in areas recovered by the Ukrainians. Every day brings fresh evidence of what Zelensky claims were deliberate atrocities.
He does this to pressure Nato to step up its carefully calibrated partial involvement which has been limited to the supply of weapons and encouragement to fight while refusing any risk of western military engagement with the Russians that would escalate the war beyond Ukraine itself.
Bear in mind that the media, who are fully committed to Ukraine’s war effort, see only what they are shown. At the risk of sounding overly cynical, civilians die in every war. Whether the corpses shown on television were the victims of fighting between the two armies or deliberate executions is no indication of the real progress of the war.
A more accurate of the battlefield situation is provided by the independent, US-based Institute for War Studies (ISW) which issues a daily analysis of the fighting although its sources include the Pentagon which has a dog in the fight. The Biden administration’s main goal in supporting Ukraine is to drive Putin from power and secure Nato’s presence in eastern Europe.
The situation ISW describes the chances of the Russians of winning all they set out to achieve as bleak. Its analysis of the fighting as of April 9 concluded that:
· Russia is unlikely to be able to mass combat power for the fight in eastern Ukraine proportionate to the number of troops and battalion tactical groups it sends there;
· The Russian military continues to suffer from devastating morale, recruitment, and retention problems that seriously undermine its ability to fight effectively;
· The outcome of forthcoming Russian operations in eastern Ukraine remains very much in question.
If this is accurate, Zelensky has every reason to fight on to try to increase public pressure on President Biden to give Ukraine offensive weapons and gain at least an honourable draw while minimising further losses of territory.
If even only part of the IWS’s verdict on the Russian army’s conventional fighting capacity is true, Putin’s invasion was an enormous blunder despite having been months very publicly in the making with an enormous build-up of troops and armour on the Ukrainian border.
It would appear to come down to which side will fight longer and even if the Russian army is as reluctantly manned and ineptly led as alleged, the odds must favour Putin unless the West invests more heavily, which it shows no sign of doing. Without that, Zelensky must decide at what stage the destruction of his country is tolerable.
There can be no doubt that Putin has been sobered by the level of resistance he has met both from the Ukrainians and the West which has imposed sanctions that threaten Russia’s economic viability even as it hypocritically continues to import Russian fossil fuels which are critical to Nato’s European members.
Dimitry Peskov, the Kremlin leader’s spokesman, told Sky News that the Russians had suffered significant losses which he called ‘a huge tragedy’. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda put the number of dead at just under 10,000 with 16,000 wounded. Whether this destabilises Putin no one knows. There appear to be no firm figures for Ukrainian military losses.
Nonetheless, Putin cannot afford any outcome which does not guarantee that Ukraine never joins Nato even when its new borders are resolved, assuming that its territorial losses in the east are gone for good. Total hostility to Nato’s expansion into central and eastern Europe since the end of the Soviet Union are at the centre of Russian foreign policy and will remain a factor of regional instability whether under Putin or not.
The Ukrainians are fighting for the integrity of their country. But Zelensky, however effective his propaganda effort has been in the West where most people support him, must always have in mind the question of whom he is fighting for – Ukrainians or the Biden administration whose primary aim is to oust Putin and keep Nato on Russia’s western border.
How Zelensky decides that question will dictate how long the war lasts. Joe Biden is not necessarily his best friend.