Ending the war in Ukraine on terms acceptable to its president Volodymyr Zelensky will require the West to convince Russian leader Vladimir Putin that it is losing.
Ahead of next week’s anniversary of the Russian invasion, American and Western leaders are gearing up for a show of unity and force designed to establish once and for all that NATO is in the conflict for the long haul and until the defeat of Moscow.
“Russia has lost, has lost strategically, operationally and tactically,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said Tuesday. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Wednesday that “Putin must realize that he cannot win,” explaining why arms and ammunition are being sent to Ukrainian forces. And Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to NATO, told CNN’s Becky Anderson that Washington was doing everything it could to “continue to push Moscow to affect (Putin’s) strategic calculus.”
And in an op-ed by Peter Bergen, retired US general and former CIA chief David Petraeus said the conflict would end in a “negotiated resolution” when Putin realizes the war is unsustainable on the battlefield. and on the home front.
The Western rhetorical and diplomatic offensive will escalate further when US Vice President Kamala Harris addresses the Munich Security Conference this week. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden will visit Poland, a NATO frontline state and part of the Warsaw Pact, next week, reinforcing his legacy of offering the Western alliance’s most effective leadership since the end of the Cold War.
See the war through Putin’s eyes
By most objective standards, Putin already appears to be losing. His war goals of crushing Ukrainian sovereignty, capturing Kyiv, overthrowing an elected government, demonstrating Russian might and severing Ukraine’s relationship with the West have failed terribly. Russia is a pariah state and its economy is in shambles due to international sanctions. Putin is being branded a war criminal. And far from being cut off from the West, Ukraine is now in the extraordinary position of effectively being a US- and European-backed NATO client state, whose survival, even if there is ultimately a ceasefire agreement, will likely require decades of western support.
However, the Western logic of what is happening in the war can only disguise the understanding of Putin’s mentality. For a long time, the Russian leader saw the world through a different strategic and historical lens. Many foreign observers, though not in the US government, were convinced that Russia had no interest in invading Ukraine after all, but Putin went ahead anyway. He shows no signs of being deterred by a year of defeats and a surprising influx of sophisticated NATO weapons and munitions into Ukraine. He is sending convict Russian recruits to their deaths in futile World War I-style advances even though Russian forces have already suffered massive losses.
This war is also not a mere territorial dispute to which you are likely to give up lightly. It stems from his belief that Ukraine is not a country and should be incorporated into Russia. His survival in power could also depend on not being seen to have lost. And while the West says it’s in for the long haul, Putin has already been at war in Ukraine since 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.
A frozen conflict that lasts many more years and prevents Ukraine from integrating may be a tenable position for him. He has already shown that he is indifferent to massive human losses. And judging by his rhetoric, he believes he is locked in a titanic geopolitical struggle with NATO, vital to Russia’s prestige. The question is whether the West has a similar appetite for the long term.
A crucial stage of the war
All of this explains why Western strategists view the next phase of the war as critical, as Russian forces prepare for an apparent spring offensive and Ukraine awaits the arrival of recently promised Western tanks that waits the tide.
NATO’s unity and staying power have confounded skeptics, largely due to Biden’s leadership. But political conditions in Washington and allied nations are not static and could shape Putin’s thinking.
In the US House of Representatives, for example, some members of the new Republican majority are nervous. Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz last week demanded an end to aid to Ukraine and that the United States demand that all combatants “come to a peace agreement immediately.” There is still a bipartisan majority to save Ukraine in the House and Senate. But it is not certain that Biden can guarantee massive multi-billion dollar aid packages for Ukraine in perpetuity. And American aid could be in serious doubt if former President Donald Trump or another Republican wins the 2024 election.
So while Ukraine’s supporters await battlefield breakthroughs, months more of bloody fighting seems likely.
CNN’s Jim Sciutto reported this week that the United States and its allies believed Russia’s upcoming offensive was unlikely to result in any major battlefield gains. “It’s probably more aspirational than realistic,” said a senior US military official. There are also questions about whether Ukrainian forces have the ability to break through entrenched Russian defenses in the eastern and southern areas in a way that could threaten Putin’s land bridges to Crimea. And Stoltenberg told a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday that the conflict was turning into a “war of attrition” and called on allies to send munitions to Ukraine.
Putin does not believe that he is losing the war
The outside world knows that Putin does not contemplate defeat or exit from the war due to the complete lack of a diplomatic framework for ceasefire talks.
Stoltenberg said Wednesday that there is no prospect that this situation will change anytime soon.
“President Putin shows no sign of preparing for peace. On the contrary, he is launching new offensives and targeting civilians, cities and critical infrastructure,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russia and Putin who has worked in the Trump White House, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday that there were few signs that Putin’s resolve was waning.
“I think this is a pretty bleak picture, partly because Putin wasn’t deterred in the first place,” Hill said. “The other thing is that Putin also feels that he has a lot of support from the rest of the world, including from China… It may very well be that countries like China will put pressure on Russia for a break in Putin’s resolve.”
The possibility of China relying on Putin to end the war was remote even before the shock in US-China relations caused by the flight of a Chinese spy balloon across the United States this month.
And even if Beijing might be embarrassed by Putin’s performance in Ukraine after the two sides declared an “unlimited” partnership last year, it may see an advantage in seeing the US worried about a proxy war against Russia on as it intensifies its challenge to US power in Asia.
US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, however, warned Beijing on Wednesday that a long-term bet on Putin would only lead to disappointment.
“You’re going to end up with an albatross around your neck,” Sherman told an event at the Brookings Institution, though he admitted the United States was concerned about closer ties between China and Russia at a time when it is locked in simultaneous confrontations with each power.
“The Ukrainians are going to cause a strategic failure for Putin. And that is going to create a lot of problems for those who are supporting this unholy invasion going forward,” she said.
The problem, however, is that there is still no sign that Putin agrees.