US President Joe Biden’s unannounced visit to Kyiv, followed by a belligerent speech in Warsaw and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly indicate that the war of attrition in Ukraine is likely to continue for several months, multiplying civilian suffering and endangering global economic growth.
In Kyiv, Biden promised more lethal arms, economic aid, and further sanctions against Russia, while Putin in his speech said that the longer the range of the weapons (supplied by the West), the further into Ukraine Russia would have to move to protect itself. This suggests that chances of peace are today more distant than in April last year when Russia and Ukraine hammered out a deal with Turkish mediation only to see it shelved under Western pressure on Kyiv.
A Squandered Opportunity
The deal would have seen Russia withdraw to the pre-invasion borders while Ukraine would eschew NATO membership. Today, instead of peace, thousands are dead, cities and infrastructure devastated, territories taken over, and the global economy faced with uncertain prospects.
Today, the world is seeing the biggest military confrontation in Europe since World War II. Hundreds of thousands of troops are massed against each other in a confrontation that involves many of the elements of that distant war – tank formations, massive artillery barrages and trench warfare.
Initially, Russia’s swift invasion from the east and north appeared to suggest a short quick end to the war. But valiant defence by Ukrainian forces bolstered by massive supplies of western arms slowly saw a reversal of early Russian gains.
Putin’s Dilemma: To Defend Or Attack
Ukrainian advances pushed Moscow to announce a partial mobilisation in September to beef up its defences. Since then, Russian forces seem to have stymied Ukraine and now reports suggest are poised to launch a massive offensive to regain some of the territory lost during the summer and fall.
In the course of the war, Moscow appears to have trimmed its ambitions and now seems determined to move to establish full control over the four regions it formally incorporated into the Russian Federation – Donbass, Lugansk, Zaporozhia, and Kherson. Time will tell if it will declare victory with that.
Putin’s, rather defensive speech on Tuesday, suggested that Russian advances in Ukraine will be determined by the range of the weapons the West provides Ukraine. The longer the range, the deeper Russian forces will have to go into Ukraine, he said.
It must be noted that Russia’s vastly superior industrial capacities give it a distinct advantage over Ukraine in terms of ability to escalate the conflict. Even today Russia has held back most of its air force and sophisticated missiles, probably in anticipation of NATO formally entering the war.
Ukraine’s Ruin, Russia’s Losses
That is the military picture. Both countries have also been affected economically. Ukraine’s industrial and infrastructure capacities are substantially degraded, making it entirely dependent on Western aid, which is currently flowing but may not be sustained. Considering that it will require trillions of dollars to rebuild whatever remains of Ukraine and most of these amounts will have to be repaid, the prospects facing Ukraine are grim.
Meanwhile, Russia too has been hit by its decision to walk into Ukraine. However, defiantly Putin declared that the Russian economy has withstood the worst, it is affected by the harsh, all-encompassing economic sanctions imposed by the West. Being cut-off from the world-dominating Western financial system and denied access to technology are hurdles the Russian economy will take time to deal with.
Geopolitically, both Russia and Ukraine are amongst the losers. Ukraine is unlikely to regain all of its lost territories, while Russia, which launched this war to prevent Ukraine from being a NATO country , now finds NATO’s border with Russia expanded with the probable inclusion of Finland, Sweden and the rump of whatever is left of Ukraine.
US The Winner, But
But tellingly, it has managed to mobilise less than 50 nations behind its sanctions against Russia and is facing resistance to its agenda in many parts of the world, including West Asia, Africa, and South America.
The only real winner in this war has so far been the United States, which has succeeded in deepening its alliances, despite them being economically affected, and has brought home unprecedented profits for its military-industrial and energy sectors.
Clearly, the war in Ukraine is not the global event that will change the existing world order, at best maybe shake it. It may underline the pre-eminent position of the U.S. in the world, but it also puts the onus for peace in Ukraine squarely on Washington.