The Moment of Truth

US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrive to hold a press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, December 12, 2023.

When the Kremlin launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, it did so in the belief that the West lacked the strategic purpose, steadfastness and moral fibre to enable Ukraine to prosecute it to its conclusion.

Within weeks of the war’s outbreak, many were complimenting themselves on the West’s cohesion. There is no doubt that in 2022, Western unity defied expectations. But whereas unity is often temporary, cohesion manifests itself over time and under pressure. Short-term cohesion is as meaningless as short-term endurance. The ideologists of ‘great’ Russia have long viewed Western civilisation as fragmented, unaccustomed to trial and turmoil, and congenitally unwilling to accept the costs and risks that its declaratory aims force upon it. Recent events are proving these assumptions correct.

Instead of leading, the United States has become the epicentre of ambivalence. Even before President Biden’s 31 May 2022 New York Times article (‘What America Will and Will Not Do in Ukraine’), its policy was hobbled by self-imposed constraints. The administration has been more concerned to avoid provoking escalation than rolling back the escalation that already has taken place. It has sought negotiations but has failed to define the objectives that must be pursued whether they take place or not. It has not set out the consequences of Ukraine’s military defeat and further dismemberment for European security and the contest with China. The relationship between means and ends has developed piecemeal. There is no sign of a rigorous attempt to weigh them against the adversary’s brazen objectives, its lurid methods and the investment it has made to render Ukraine indefensible and reduce it, pace Putin’s former adviser Vladislav Surkov, to a ‘brochure’ reality. Russia’s perfidy, its visceral hostility, its serial untrustworthiness and its failure to honour any agreements regarding Ukraine have not shaken Washington’s belief that negotiation can produce an outcome worth having.

The administration’s latest comprehensive policy statement by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Foreign Affairs (November/December 2023) shows no sign of despondency, let alone urgency.[1] In a 6 900 word article subtitled ‘A Foreign Policy for a Changed World’, Sullivan employs the terms ‘competition’ or ‘competitor’ thirty times, but the words ‘rival’ and ‘adversary’ do not appear once. He reiterates the objective of imposing ‘costs’ on Russia, in apparent disregard of the costs that Russia has willingly assumed. Virtually nothing is said that could not have been said in November 2022, when confidence in Ukraine’s success was at its height. It is an etiolated representation of the world and the dangers we face.

What are these dangers? Russia’s irreducible interest is control of the core of the Russian Empire (however its leaders choose to define it); its enduring ambitions are pre-eminence in eastern Europe and the Baltic, dominance of the Black Sea and the detachment of Türkiye from West. An unsentimental realist of the old school would argue that by conceding Ukraine to Russia, the West would place itself in a stronger position to contest the rest. A rigorous rebuttal would proceed from the premise that Putin has resurrected Muscovy and that Ukraine has become a part of Europe. The attempt to coerce Ukraine into joining Muscovy — for there could be no other means of doing so — would produce irresolvable conflicts and monstrous consequences whose acceptance would fray and ultimately dissolve the West itself. That is precisely the outcome that Russia seeks.

Yet no such argument takes place. With the arguable exceptions of John Mearsheimer and Edward Luttwak, realists display no such clarity. ‘Realism’ now embraces a spectrum of views ranging from accommodation, appeasement and ‘grand bargains’ to isolationism, nativism and the disavowal of alliances. The ‘internationalism’ of Biden and his following rests on a faith that a balance between firmness and reasonableness will induce the adversary to compromise and change his ways. There is an inability on either side to grasp that ‘not losing’ is a form of dying. The words ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ are taboos. Lacking clarity and rigour, each position shades amorphously into the other.

We face a second problem. As in the 1930s, feebleness abets cynicism and defeatism. Victor Orban flirts with the devil because he sees no angels in the room and no evidence that anyone will stand up to him. Recep Tayyip Erdogan undermines sanctions because he has lost faith in the resolution of the West and is unwilling to tie Türkiye’s interests to the losers. Trumpian nihilism now resounds across the vacuum of ideas. Its firmest rejoinder, the joint report by the Republican chairmen of the House foreign affairs, armed services and intelligence committees, is paradoxically pitched against Biden rather than Trump.[2] The consequence of such disarray is demoralisation amongst those whose mobilisation and support are urgently needed.

The question today is not whether the West is doing what is required but whether it is capable of doing it.

The Poisoned Chalice of Negotiation

On 23 December, The New York Times reported that Putin is ‘signaling through intermediaries since at least September that he is open to a cease-fire that freezes the fighting along the current lines’.[3] But the intermediaries have been more explicit than that. In the journal Politique Internationale (Autumn 2023), Ivan Timofeev, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, sets out an outwardly dispassionate enumeration of the ‘essentials’ of Russia’s negotiating position.[4] It makes for sober reading:

  • recognition of Ukraine’s ‘territorial status, in conformity to amendments of the Russian Constitution’ (i.e. the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts);
  • a ‘statute of neutrality’ for Ukraine;
  • guarantees of ‘human rights’, including the ‘rights of [Russian Orthodox] believers’;
  • the ‘dissolution’ of ‘neo-Nazi movements’ (‘the importance of which for Russia cannot be underestimated’);
  • ‘drastic reduction of Ukraine’s military potential’ to ‘proportions not judged menacing by the Russian Federation’;
  • the ‘lifting of sanctions and the restitution of public and private assets frozen by Western banks’;
  • ‘compensation for the damage caused by bombardment of [Russian] territories’.

Consistent with his diplomatic tone, Timofeev suggests there might be ‘margins of manoeuvre’, without offering any suggestion of what these might be. There is also the enticing suggestion that Ukraine would remain in the ‘Western sphere of interests’ without any indication of what this conceivably could mean after such swingeing concessions were agreed.[5]

The ‘adult’ Western response to these points is that they will be bargained down in negotiation. Yet so long as Russia treats negotiation as a theatre of war, its terms will expand or contract like forces on the battlefield. If Kharkiv is occupied, will it then be renounced, and for what in return? Once an agreement is reached, will Moscow no longer insist that Odesa is a ‘historical Russian city’ and that Kyiv is ‘the mother of Russia’? If Ukraine collapses, how long will it be before Russia’s draft treaties of December 2021 are resurrected?

Moreover, if an agreement does emerge, what mechanisms of enforcement will underpin it? The Minsk accords had no such mechanisms. In their absence, Russia disregarded provisions that were not to its liking and insisted that Ukraine implement others ‘as written’, according to Russia’s selective reading of them. Has the West drawn conclusions from this process?

Some distinguished figures (notably, former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former Chairman of the London-based IISS, François Heisbourg) have done so.[6] Their separate proposals stem from the premise that no sustainable peace will be achieved until Ukraine is incorporated into NATO. But to minimise the risk of direct conflict between NATO and Russia, Article 5’s remit would extend only to territory under Ukraine’s de facto control. This is an elegant solution, but it is likely to prove unworkable. Lines of demarcation between Russian and Ukrainian forces are not fixed today, and tomorrow they might be even less favourable than now. With NATO membership imminent, Russia will have every incentive to intensify its military operations across all domains of conflict and destabilise everything it can. So long as Russia is capable of waging war in Ukraine, it will.

In contrast to Rasmussen, Heisbourg believes that the war must first stop. Ukraine can only join NATO as ‘part of a post-war dispensation’. He therefore proposes an ‘Adenauer option’: NATO guarantees for West Germany as a prelude to unification of the whole. Nevertheless, he concedes that ‘[w]hile the Soviet Union did abandon East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, doing so required a radical change of political course in Russia itself.’ It is an inventive but shaky analogy. Leaving aside the 35 years that elapsed between West Germany’s accession to NATO and Gorbachev’s consent to unification, the were no military hostilities during those 35 years. Today, Ukraine is locked into a high-intensity war that shows no sign of abating; there is no Gorbachev on the horizon either. Therefore, the key questions are how to end the war and how to do so on the West’s terms. Whilst negotiation might secure the first objective, it will not secure the second, at least until Russia is forced to sue for peace.

The Tough and Necessary Conclusion

The precondition for peace and security in Ukraine is Russia’s military defeat. In the words of an advocate of negotiations, a ‘former Russian official’ quoted by the New York Times, ‘[Putin is] not willing to retreat one meter’. Not willing. The ‘former official’ thus agrees with what we have long maintained: if Russian forces are not driven out of Ukraine by force of arms, they will not leave.

Today there is mounting evidence that President Biden and Chancellor Scholz, like their realist critics, believe that the military defeat of Russia is impossible.[7] Based on today’s battlefield deadlock, this is an understandable conclusion, but it takes no account of the surprises this war already has produced and the role that external support, and curbs on that support, have played in Ukraine’s fortunes. Lawrence Freedman is surely right that the interesting point about Russia’s current offensive ‘is the urgency it betrays’.[8] Putin might have convinced the West that time is on his side, but the urgency suggests that he is not convinced of this himself. Appearances are deceptive. Given adequate support for Ukraine by the West, the balance of advantage is likely to turn against Russia in 2025.

Consider two sectors of Russia’s now ‘mobilised’ economy, first of all energy. The results of Russia’s efforts to compensate for the annual loss of 155 bcm of gas exports to Europe may have defied Western expectations, but they fall well below Russia’s needs. Its western Siberian fields are exhausted, China refuses to finance Russia’s Power of Siberia-2 pipeline (which it needs far less than Russia); it pays half the former European price for imports from Power of Siberia-1 and is pressing for further price cuts. Even at current prices, Russia’s revenues from the latter are below the costs of extraction and transport. Moreover, the much vaunted North-South Corridor via Iran largely remains a declaratory project.

Possibly the most ominous news is the increasingly onerous tax burden on the energy sector and the reversion to Bolshevik ‘grab and share’ policies designed to transfer revenue to the defence-industrial complex. This reversion to Soviet modes of command administration is a self-defeating measure. The sustainability and adaptability of the Russian economy demand preservation of the core elements of the market, and the current state leadership has never doubted this. Thus, the longer the war lasts, the tighter the squeeze on energy, the harsher the tradeoffs and the greater the threat to the foundations of the economy.

The second critical sector is defence. According to the law adopted in November 2023, spending on national defence, security, intelligence and law enforcement, will increase to 38.7 percent of the 2024-6 budget. Yet the analysis conducted by Pavel Luzin demonstrates that much of this increase evaporates under the impact of inflation and accounting tricks. In his view (and the author’s), the mandated force level of 1.32 mn will be impossible to meet.[9]

Add to this Russia’s vaunted advantage in artillery. It too is likely to contract and gradually disappear if the West follows through on planned expansion of production: 700 000 rounds from Rheinmetall in 2024, additional production from BAE, Nammo, Saab and PGZ; not least important, a planned 1.2 mn rounds from the US in 2025.[10] One can dispute some of this assessment, but the picture of limitless Russian resources, widely internalised in the West, is built on embroidered truths and artful lies. Secular trends are not encouraging for Russia. Russia’s prospects in a long war are critically dependent on the scale of Western support to Ukraine. Time will only favour Russia if we allow it to.

In 2022, the West possessed the means to put Russia’s armed forces on the back foot and keep them there. In the event, it temporised thanks to the effectiveness of Russian nuclear blackmail and the underestimation of the threat that Ukraine faced. Even if Western governments overcome their inhibitions and the obstacles erected by their political opponents, there will be no quick reversal of the forbidding balance of forces confronting Ukraine. Russia is now set on a long war, but its capacity to wage one is predicated on the erosion of Western support for Ukraine. Ukraine and the West therefore need a strategy for a long war and a provision of resources consistent with that strategy.[11]

Prerequisite to both is a definition of victory. What we wrote in April 2022 (‘The Fear of Victory’) can be restated with minimal modification. ‘The military objective must be the expulsion of Russian forces to the lines they occupied before 24 February….The longer-term (military)-political objective must be the restoration of Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders, the return of the territories it lawfully possessed before 2014 and the restoration of its sovereignty de facto as well as de jure’.[12] These are complementary objectives, not least in Crimea, which will lose its land bridge to Russia if the first objective is realised. Without Crimea, Russia cannot control Ukraine.

These objectives are realisable if we believe in them.

[1] Jake Sullivan, ‘The Sources of American Power: A Foreign Policy for a Changed World’, November/December 2023

[2] Chairmen Michael Mc Caul, Mike Rogers, Mike Turner, Proposed Plan for Victory in Ukraine, 15 November 2023

[3] ‘Putin Quietly Signals He is Open to a Cease-Fire in Ukraine’

[4] Ivan Timofeev, ‘What Moscow Wants’, [Ce que veut Moscou’], Politique Internationale, Autumn 2023, pp 83-4

[6] ‘Ex-Nato chief proposes Ukraine joins without Russian-occupied territories’, The Guardian, 11 November 2023; François Heisbourg, ‘How to End a War: Some Historical Lessons for Ukraine’, Survival, August–September 2023 | pp. 1–18

[7] Julian Röpke, ‘Scholz and Biden’s strategy revealed New secret plan for Ukraine’, Bild, 25 November 2023 [in German]

[8] Lawrence Freedman, ‘Self-assessment: setting expectations on the Russo-Ukraine War’, Comment is Freed, 28 December 2023

[9] Pavel Luzin, ‘The Russian Military’s Inflation Paradox’, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 20, Issue 187, 7 December 2023

[10] Rheinmetall wins artillery ammunition order for Ukraine; U.S. aims to make 100,000 artillery shells per month in 2025

[11] For an authoritative and comprehensive analysis, see Republic of Estonia Ministry of Defence, ‘Setting Transatlantic Defence up for Success: A Military Strategy for Ukraine’s Victory and Russia’s Defeat’, 27 December 2023

[12] James Sherr, ‘The Fear of Victory’, 21 April 2022

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