The following is an opinion piece first published by No 2 Nato and reproduced with thanks. Comments welcome.
The Ukraine War is unlikely to escalate along lines feared by many. Despite self-serving recent claims by excitable Western politicians and military leaders, there is no sign that Russia has significant ambitions beyond those it has already demonstrated – the ‘liberation’ of Russian-Ukraine (essentially Crimea and the Donbas and acquisition of any strategic territories required to protect those areas) and the total disruption of Ukrainian nationalist attempts to connect with NATO and the EU. An added bonus would be to drain the EU financially by forcing it into unnecessary military expenditures and to increase internal dissent against policies apparently forced on populations by European ‘liberal elites’ and their anti-Russian stance. So far, this seems to be what is happening as the legitimacy of liberal centrist rule is steadily chipped away by a range of factors, some unconnected to the war.
As to the war itself, the Ukrainians have moved into ‘active defence’ but they are now feeling the effects of lack of direct military and financial support from the West as a result of promises that cannot be fulfilled. A recent announcement suggested that national mobilisation could not proceed because there were not enough munitions to ‘feed’ an enlarged and what would be (initially) a poorly trained and increasingly reluctant military force. The Russians periodically smash into Ukrainian logistics in order to make this supply situation worse and it has been hitting ‘mercenary’ (that is, Western-sanctioned military support that is ‘off balance sheet’) with deliberation. On the front, the Russians are definitely increasing their gains, having pushed the Ukrainians back across the Dniepr in Kherson and taking a number of Ukrainian defence strongholds across the front.
As to peace prospects, these do not exist under current conditions. The Russians have hardened their position to ‘what we hold, we keep’. Russian national morale seems high as we move towards its Presidential Election. The war economy is apparently now delivering increasingly large supplies of vehicles for the front and it is probable that reinforcements are on their way from areas like Chechnya. The Ukrainians are politically exhausted with undoubted internal divisions and they will also make no concessions. The major NATO exercise on the Ukrainian border adds to an air of potential crisis and gives the option of Kiev ‘inviting in’ NATO under extreme circumstances in order to stop Russia from reaching the Polish border by occupying nationalist West Ukraine. However, Russia’s probable maximalist ambitions are limited to taking Kiev (perhaps Odessa) and making the Dniepr the new front line although this is speculation.
A lot of NATO propaganda is bluff designed to deter what is not intended in any case, setting the risk of escalation against any opportunistic action by Russia if the Ukrainian military collapses completely along 1918 lines. It is also an increasingly desperate attempt to build a ‘militarist’ mentality in the working and lower middle classes in Europe in the event of an escalation. This works the closer the voters are to the Russian border and where there are ancient grudges against Moscow but diminishes as you move westwards. Further away from the frontier, it comes up against right and left populist resistance to militarism, albeit for different reasons. The problem for NATO is that mass protests are likely at the point of escalation and that emergency powers will not work as they did in 1916 and 1939. NATO itself is not necessarily united, with Slovakia now allying with Hungary as ‘resistor’ to all but a direct Russian invasion of NATO territory.
The Ukraine War represents a medium term risk to Europe but possibly as a continued low level source of economic disruption rather than as military threat. The EU has already allowed Poland to restrict Ukrainian agricultural imports to assist the pro-EU Tusk Administration in a difficult domestic situation. The causes for intervention by Russia are few and it certainly does not want to take on NATO as aggressor. The risk of actual escalation lies only in three directions: a ‘false flag’ by desperate neo-cons seeking to trigger an escalation; gross mistreatment of Baltic or other Russians which is poorly managed by the European Union; or a desperate Polish or NATO intervention to protect Western Ukraine where the terms of this have not been ‘squared’ behind the scenes with Moscow.
Nor is everything yet lost for Ukraine – if the US Congress delivers the hoped for military and funding support in a timely matter. This is still possible but even this probably merely holds the line amidst yet more meatgrinder mortality that is gutting the Ukrainian population and forcing much of it into emigration. De Santis’ decision not to contest Trump but back him leaves Trump with only one serious competitor, the hard-line neo-conservative Nikki Haley who backs Ukraine where Trump does not. However, her supporters in Congress are not likely to break ranks on current Republican policy until they are sure that she cannot win or that she will not gain the ‘crown’ because Trump has been conveniently disposed of by Democrat-inspired lawfare or by other means. Any overt ‘stab in the back’ will not be forgiven by millions of populist supporters.