NATO, US, Ukraine and Russia should open informal lines of communication to stop war becoming entrenched
When the forces of Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" invaded Ukraine on 24 February there were three aims. Most important was a rapid assault on and occupation of Kyiv, leading to the fall of the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyi and its replacement with a pro-Putin regime. The second was to occupy northern Ukraine eastwards to the city of Kharkhiv; and then, thirdly, to consolidate control of the four oblasts (provinces) of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, linking up with Crimea in the south.
Direct occupation of the great majority of Ukraine would be unnecessary because, in the view of the Kremlin, there would be widespread support for the new government in Kyiv, with the country welcoming liberation from its 'neo-Nazi' regime.
The end result would have been the extension of Russian military power westwards to the borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Along with the adjacent client state of Belarus and aided by forward-based Russian nuclear forces in both states, this would be a strategic re-drawing of Central Europe and an important step in the evolution of a renewed Greater Russia and the creation of a Russia-led Eurasian superpower.
The operation went wrong in the first 48 hours, starting with the initial failure of the airborne assault on the Antonov airstrip close to Kyiv. Even the second aim could not be achieved, with a stalemate developing after Russian forces withdrew to the eastern oblasts and Crimea. The extent of the failure was down to a potent mix of hubris and incompetence.
While this may seem incredible from a Western perspective, it is salient to remember recent Western failures. Back in late 2001, the Bush administration thought the Taliban had been routed and it promptly extended its war on terror to embrace an "axis of evil" with Iraq in lead position. It took the Taliban two decades to drive the US-led forces out but in the end they succeeded. As for Iraq, Bush declared "mission accomplished" after just six weeks of fighting early in 2003, but instead a bitter and complex conflict ensued with consequences still felt 19 years later.
Over the past seven months, the Ukraine war has ground on, with Russia initially consolidating its power in the east and even making some gains. Since early August the balance of force has shifted back in favour of Ukraine, aided by its leadership and the morale of its army but also helped immensely by the advanced weaponry, training and intelligence resources provided by the United States and NATO allies.
It is now close to being a proxy NATO/Russia war that has progressed in such a way that not one of those four oblasts is fully controlled by Russia, while substantial Ukrainian gains have been made in the north-east. In the course of the past week there have even been gains down south in Kherson oblast, to the extent that Ukraine might well regain control of the key city of Kherson in the coming days or weeks.
In looking to the future, there are two issues to recognise. One is the huge influence of weapons provided specifically by the United States. Some highly relevant systems have been held back by the Biden administration, however, which means that the US can go a long way to determining the pace of the entire war. In a sense, it is the White House that is now calling the shots.
The second is that Putin has major domestic problems stemming from a combination of the creeping impact of sanctions, bitter opposition to the imposed partial mobilisation, endemic problems of morale across almost all the Russian armed forces and, at the same time, increasing anger from Russia's far-Right ultranationalists. That last constituency is increasingly critical of Russia's multiple military failures and is no longer directing its anger just at the generals but at the Putin regime itself.
Putin's recent annexation of the four oblasts is intended to counter this mood, and possibly to link annexation to a threat of nuclear escalation, sending a message to the White House that Russia is not prepared to seek a peaceful solution, at least at present.
Meanwhile, there is concern that the US is showing few signs of talking. And the US military's European Command (EUCOM) in Germany is currently establishing a new sub-command in Wiesbaden, with as many as 300 personnel, for the specific purpose of facilitating arms transfers, training and other direct support for Kyiv.
It does sound as if the US is getting ready for a long war, just as Putin is continuing his nuclear sabre rattling. On top of the obvious dangers of continuing warfare, there is always concern that in a tense crisis situation 'AIM' factors could come into play. AIM is an acronym for the 'accidents, incidents or mavericks' that, in time of crisis, can tip a bad situation over into something much worse.
Even so, Russia is already engaged in some direct contact with Kyiv, over grain exports, prisoner exchange and the like, and the nuclear threat may be more of case of reminding Washington that Putin still does have some cards to play. Similarly, the NATO moves may be a signal to remind the Kremlin that NATO, led by the United States, is ready for a long war if there is no negotiation.
The problem is more that there are plenty of politicians in NATO countries who see the war as a welcome opportunity to wear down the Russian military and seriously damage the Russian economy in the long term.
What is now needed is much louder advocacy for informal meetings of the main parties involved, along the lines of the 'Track Two' diplomacy that has been used in other entrenched conflicts. This typically involves groups from each side, but with no official status whatsoever, meeting to explore possible routes out of the conflict well before anything more formal happens.
If we do not move in that direction the war will probably continue right through the winter and well beyond, all the time with the risk of unintended escalation. The period from now to the end of November is the time to start that process.
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