April 28, 2022
This week, Russia’s war against Ukraine became Russia’s war against Europe and NATO. America declared unequivocal support and major allocations for Ukraine’s military; a good electoral outcome in France boosted NATO and European Union solidarity; Germany gave Kyiv a blank check for armaments; the IMF pledged to cover Ukraine’s $5-billion-a-month deficit; Britain blessed Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil, and Russia cut off gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria as a warning to Europe and set off bombs in Moldova. To cap off a momentous few days, the United Nations returned from Moscow empty-handed. Apparently, no one told the Secretary-General that Putin considered genocide and war crimes non-negotiable.
The world’s biggest crisis has dramatically shifted to the battlefield for two overriding reasons. Europe and America are horrified by Russia’s cruelties and have decided to step up, and Ukraine is willing to keep fighting. After Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin met with NATO leaders, he announced: “Ukraine clearly believes that it can win and so does everyone here.” He added that NATO would hold monthly meetings as part of a joint Ukraine-European war effort which means, in essence, Ukraine has been deputized as a de facto member of NATO. This is ironic given that Russia’s pretext for mobilizing and invading Ukraine was to prevent Ukraine from being part of NATO and now it’s come to pass.
Unfortunately, weapons, not protection, are what’s being given, and these have already come too late for millions of homeless, tens of thousands of victims, and cities like Mariupol that have been razed. It’s a welcome development, but to me, there’s something unseemly and exploitative about this alliance – that NATO members would arm to the teeth a poor country facing extinction against a superpower without providing commensurate sacrifice. I also find General Austin’s metaphor about “winning” unfortunate and insensitive because there are no winners or losers in wars. Everybody loses.
Orphaned Ukraine has no choice but to fight on, and NATO cannot intervene directly even if its members wanted to, which they don’t, given Putin’s threat to deploy nuclear weapons if they did. But no one should be surprised if this arrangement doesn’t result in a serious escalation by Moscow against all involved. Already Poland and Bulgaria and Moldova have been “attacked”.
This week Ukrainian and Russian forces were amassed for a critical confrontation in Ukraine’s east and south, and there have been mixed reviews about the results. Ukraine conceded that Russian forces had pushed deeper into the country’s east and captured several villages. But there were also reports that the big offensive expected in the south had become a stalemate. If true, that would be a hopeful sign, given that if evenly matched already, the Ukrainians would gain an advantage as Western heavy equipment, anti-tank weapons, surface-to-air missiles, and artillery begin to steadily arrive.
Ukraine is finally receiving its first purely offensive weapons which may turn the tide. But Moscow, on the other hand, has been unleashing hundreds of missiles daily across the country, targeting civilians, railways, logistical hubs, and large caches of weapons from the West with depressing success. The skies are not fully protected yet but are getting there, thanks to some NATO members.
Such grim conditions are why gloating by American commentators about Russia’s failure to capture Kyiv, the sinking of its flagship, or that Putin never dreamed the West would unite, are not helpful. Putin may not have foreseen setbacks, but make no mistake he’s “winning” thus far, dismantling and devouring Ukraine, then doubling down. Putin is also following his playbook: In Chechnya and Syria, he attacked civilians to bring about pressure, terror, and a refugee crisis, and “won”. In Syria, he used chemical weapons despite warnings by President Barack Obama and got away with it. And his strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” means that he will undertake any action, or use any weapon, to overwhelm his enemy and force it to withdraw or desist.
Putin’s other weapons are his persistence and patience. Russia’s war in Europe began with the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and has never stopped. Now involved in a full-blown conflict and heavily sanctioned, Putin knows that economic damage to Russia will be difficult, but he also knows that Western democracies and their publics will suffer economic hardships and may tire of warfare as the war continues. There can be little doubt that a serious recession looms, stock markets and economic growth will fall, financial sanctions plus food and energy inflation will hit pocketbooks, and the Germans and others may eventually balk at the cost of decoupling from Russian energy or of perpetuating financial sanctions. They are “hooked” on Putin’s energy.
It’s also important to note that developing nations are indifferent toward this European slaughter because they were victims of European colonialization and conquest. They are also upset at the economic costs this war is creating for them in the form of food and energy inflation. And the news cycle will eventually shift. Coverage may begin to ebb due to costs and falling audiences, then Americans and Europeans will return to sports or action figure movies.
Throughout this ordeal, however, Ukrainians will remain heroic and are clear-eyed as to what must be done. “We are bleeding morally, militarily, economically, physically, but we are fighting. And we will not stop until we win. We have no other choice but to win this war because if we lose, there will be no Ukraine. Winning is much closer if we get heavy weapons and if there are no restrictions on the sanctions that have to be imposed on Russia – oil, gas, banks. The sooner these are done, the sooner we’ll win. We will pay the price for the safety of the world,” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Meanwhile, his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, considers NATO’s involvement a dangerous escalation. “NATO is, in essence, going to war with Russia through a proxy,” he said, invoking the danger of nuclear conflict. “The risk is serious. It should not be underestimated.”
This “nuke” card is played by Russia routinely. Putin notified the world before his invasion that his nuclear forces had been put on high alert. It’s a bluff, but a scary one. The Pentagon’s Austin dismissed this as “dangerous and unhelpful” and said helping Ukraine is not an existential threat to Russia, but NATO is arming an ally to fend off its neighboring bully by “degrading” or weakening its military forces.
“We’re all here because of Ukraine’s courage, because of the innocent civilians who have been killed, and because of the suffering that your people still endure,” Austin told Kuleba. “And so they [Russians] are, in terms of military capability, weaker than when it started. It will be harder for them to replace some of this capability as they go forward because of the sanctions and the trade restrictions that have been placed on them. So we would like to make sure, again, that they don’t have the same type of capability to bully their neighbors that we saw at the outset of this conflict.”
Tragically, the cost of success will also be catastrophic for Ukrainians. On April 27, following the West’s alliance behind Ukraine, Putin raised the nuclear option again. In March, Russia tested two hypersonic missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, boasting that these are impossible to shoot down even with the sophisticated defense systems that Germany, America, and others are finally starting to deliver to Ukraine. More recently, Russians fired Cruise missiles at low altitudes over the Chornobyl nuclear site, a reckless act that’s renewed concerns about nuclear blackmail.
Fortunately, the West’s economic warfare of sanctions on exports, technology, energy, and banking is taking a toll. So are U.S. dollar sanctions, or “America’s money nuke”, that block Russia’s exporters from being paid in U.S. dollars. Moscow now insists payments for energy be made in unstable roubles, and when customers balk, like in Poland and Bulgaria, they are cut off. Other restrictions hurt its war effort. For instance, precision-guided missiles that rely on foreign semiconductor chips cannot be replaced once supplies are exhausted and tank production at two Russian plants has stopped because of a lack of foreign parts.
What’s most worrisome, however, is that it’s hard to imagine either side winning or losing or negotiating. It’s also difficult to conceive that the West will stay the course and make the immense sacrifices required in order to defeat Putin once and for all. These include increasing their militaries and burying Russia by removing it from energy supply chains wherever possible. Germany, for instance, should re-commission its shuttered nuclear plants, and America, Canada, Norway, and resource-rich allies should open their spigots to flood Europe, China, and India with oil and liquefied natural gas to bankrupt Putin’s war machine.
This week represents a turning point, and hopefully the world understands that this is not about winning or losing a war. This is not a blood feud between two nations. This is about another time-worn struggle waged between civilization and barbarity that is occurring in the heart of the richest, most developed region on the planet. Losing to Putin is not an option, and neither is allowing him to remain in power.