THE unequal weight of Russia’s military is bearing down inexorably on Ukraine, sowing increasing divisions within Nato that a prolonged war can only exacerbate.
The options are to double down on the supply of the offensive weapons the Ukrainians need to have any hope of turning the Russian tide in the Donbas, or to admit that the fight is effectively over and force a ceasefire on Kiev, as Italy and Hungary suggest.
Choosing the first, together with even tougher sanctions on Russia which hawks in Washington want, would risk the escalation by Putin that the West has so far been careful to avoid, as President Obama did when the Russians seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
This war fought in Ukraine has never been entirely about Ukraine although Nato’s invitation to join the anti-Russian alliance is of course an important cause. It is the result of ignoring Russia’s long-standing demand for the dismantling of Nato’s post-Soviet expansion to its western border.
For the Russians, their national security is permanently at stake; their fears reinforced by the decision of Finland and Sweden to abandon their neutrality and join Nato. Putin regards the invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war.
The West is in a trap of its own which has always been a factor in the Nato treaty which binds the US and its allies to intervene on behalf of any member country, however small, which is attacked from outside. What is implicit is that it endows smaller countries with the power, in pursuing their own national interests, to manipulate Nato as Ukraine is doing, although it is only a Nato candidate.
President Zelensky has been aggressive in appealing to Western publics through their media to maintain pressure on their governments to back Ukraine however reluctant they may be as the war evolves, and not in Ukraine’s favour.
Zelensky has not hesitated to accuse Nato of cowardice for not doing more on his behalf. The Ukrainians, who constantly complain that weapons promised by Nato are not arriving in sufficient quantities, now claim to be running out of ammunition as the Russians overwhelm Severodonetsk.
Putin for his part has warned that there are limits to the level of Nato intervention he will tolerate. Western arms shipments are funnelled to Ukraine through Poland, one of the Nato countries most vociferously opposed to the invasion. How would the US and its allies react if Putin attacked these shipments on Nato soil despite being warned Nato would consider it an act of war?
Any miscalculation by either Putin or President Biden, who leads Nato, carries with it the risk of creating a spiral of escalations which extends the war beyond Ukraine’s borders to levels where risk becomes uncontrollable.
The war on the ground appears to be at a turning point with the fighting over Severodonetsk as the Russians use long-range artillery from a safe distance to inflict serious casualties on the Ukrainian army and oblige it to give ground.
If Zelensky refuses to stop fighting, the risk is that the Russians, who seem to have got their military act together, may launch themselves against Odessa. The Black Sea port’s loss would be a disaster for Ukraine’s future and give Putin powerful leverage in the wider East-West security talks which will inevitably follow the war.
The Ukrainians, who are fully aware that there are red lines, military and geographical, that Nato will not cross in their defence, can prevent this by agreeing now to the ceasefire that they will almost certainly have to ask for at some point to save what can be saved.
The amputation of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, where a low-level separatist war armed by Putin has been in progress for several years, would be a price worth paying for the rest of the country if a peace agreement underwritten by Nato can be secured.
Opponents of this course – some of them in the media who are still invested in Putin’s outright defeat – say Russia cannot be trusted to stick to any deal it makes. But the immediate priority must be to extricate Zelensky from a war he cannot win on his own, which no one else will fight alongside him, and which he is visibly losing.
The West, and particularly the Biden administration, is reaping the folly of its arrogant refusal to negotiate Nato’s spread into eastern Europe. The heady determination which created a united Nato front when the war began in February is waning, particularly in western Europe where the effects of sanctions on Russia are being felt and will worsen.
Pro-Ukrainian fervour was high when the Russian botched their drive to Kiev and Ukrainian troops with shoulder-mounted rockets picked off Russian tanks in video-game style. That excitement has been replaced by the grim reality of a losing defence in eastern and southern Ukraine which no amount of positive Western media coverage can disguise any longer.
Italy and Hungary have made it clear for weeks that they want a ceasefire and Ukraine’s self-defence has continued to deteriorate in the interim. Germany and France are ambivalent, both having long-standing relations with Russia which they wish to preserve. The Nato front increasingly looks paper-thin with the US and the UK isolated as hardliners.
How hard a bargain would Putin drive? He will almost certainly want to keep his gains in eastern Ukraine, which is the part he has destroyed and will be left to rebuild himself from whatever economic resources the damaged Russian economy can provide. There would be justice in that. The larger part of the country Zelensky would keep is still largely intact and will be lavished with EU money.
The hard part for Nato will be to negotiate its status in the rest of eastern Europe in a way that satisfies Russia’s security demands which are not going away until they are resolved. We will be back to square one with nothing settled after an avoidable war which caused thousands of deaths and worldwide economic disruption. This is where the Biden administration has got us.