Russia-Ukraine war drags out

Bobby M. Tuazon
13 April 2024

After more than two years of the Russian-Ukraine armed conflict it remains fuzzy which warring side is winning. One perspective goes that Russia will eventually win given the reported 20% of Kyiv’s territory under its control as of March this year. Another lens is that Ukraine may cut a deal with Moscow so long as none of its territory goes to the latter. Russia has made it clear that it has no plans to seize any Ukrainian territory but mainly to ensure that the latter remains neutral and will not join the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which has expanded westward threatening Russia’s red line.

So far, at least 42,284 Russian soldiers have been killed since the start of Moscow's special military operations (SMOs) of Ukraine in February 2022, according to Mediazona and the BBC Russian Service. Another claim shared on Twitter cited by Elon Musk said that more than 150,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed. (Other independent estimates cite 500,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed.)

The Ukraine war dates back 75 years ago – in 1949. Three years after the founding of NATO in 1949, Secretary General Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay sounded out the call to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Formed at the onset of the U.S.-USSR Cold War, NATO was an alliance against Moscow under the U.S.’ 1949 containment strategy that sought to encircle its enemy and bring down its ruling regime.

The Cold War ended with the collapse of the USSR in 1990 with Russia, Ukraine, and 13 other republics parting separately. The cataclysmic breakup should have disbanded NATO and brought peace in Europe. No sooner had the breakup happened than the U.S. found a rationale to keep the organization. In 1992, the Wolfowitz Doctrine pledged to ensure America’s new unipolar power and global dominance by preventing any other country from dominating any part of the world.

Four years later, NATO’s15-year expansion began by adding Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Albania, and Croatia — just west of Russia. The perceived military encirclement of Russia stationed troops, military arsenal, and missile sites in the new NATO countries.

The accretion alarmed the architect of the U.S.’ 1949 anti-Soviet containment strategy. Shortly before he died at age 103 in 2005, top American diplomat George Kennan warned: “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post-Cold War era. [It will] inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion.”

Then in 1999, a close Russian ally, Yugoslavia, was carpet-bombed for 78 days by U.S.-led NATO, leaving 1,200 civilians dead and 5,000 wounded. Yugoslavia was carved out into seven separate states including Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. It was also a dire warning to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2007 at Munich: “NATO expansion … [is] a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.”
NATO finally closed in on Ukraine bordering Russia. As documented, on Feb. 26, 2014, the U.S. through the CIA plotted the “Maidan Revolution” led by trained neo-Nazi Ukrainians replacing the freely-elected, neutralist President Viktor Yanukovych with the pro-U.S. and neo-Nazi Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Overseeing the coup was Victoria Nuland, U.S. President Obama’s central agent. Volodymyr Zelenskyy took over in 2019.

At the same time, an incremental war was launched by neo-Nazis from the Ukrainian army against Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern region. The strikes killed 15,000 ethnic Russians. Peace agreements brokered by France and Germany leading to the Minsk Agreement II in 2015 - which called for the withdrawal of foreign armed groups, arms, and mercenaries; charter reform and decentralization of Donetsk and Luhansk; and elections - has not been enforced by Ukraine to date. Soon, Ukraine revised its constitution by providing for its NATO membership.

That was the final straw for Russia. With the red line crossed and a gun pointed to its head, Moscow responded to Kyiv’s move by deploying troops and tanks near its border with Ukraine. An incensed Putin blurted: “You promised us in the 1990s that (NATO) would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly.” Russian forces crossed the border on Feb. 24, 2022.

Since 2022, Russia has waged an aggressive attrition and grinding strategy on Ukraine to wear it down and to force it eventually to the negotiation table.

Aside from supporting Ukraine militarily, the U.S. and EU imposed sanctions to derail the Russian economy and a concerted diplomacy to isolate the Putin government. The optimal outcome would be Russia’s humiliation and withdrawal from Ukraine.
However, western sanctions on Russia’s energy exports have backfired, damaging some European economies more than Russia. They also caused a spike in energy prices, ensuring Russia received more than enough revenues to fund its war effort. The hope that most non-Western states would stop trading with Russia also proved unfounded; Russia has increased its trade flows with India, Turkiye, and China, while many of Russia’s neighbors quietly profit by reselling sanctioned goods to Moscow. While Ukraine faces shortage of weapons and ammunition with its domestic arms production lagging behind Moscow’s huge military-industrial complex which even outranks NATO’s own, the war has even strengthened the Russian army.

There are two competing interpretations on Russia’s involvement in the war with Ukraine. One, coming from the neo-cons, posits that Putin aims to create a Russian empire with Ukraine incorporated. As far as it is concerned, however, Russia is NATO’s target by using a proxy war to force a regime change or instigating the collapse of Russia. Moscow’s SMOs on Ukraine aim for a regime change in Kyiv, de-Nazification, and ensuring autonomous Russian populated territories which have long been the reported target of genocide. Russia, Putin iterates, will not occupy Ukraine but it should remain out of NATO, neutral, and demilitarized.

To date, U.S.-EU financial aid and military equipment helps Ukraine sustain the war with Zelenskyy warning his allies that without support Russia will eventually win. Some western countries especially France’s Emmanuel Macron have called for sending troops to Ukraine but the summons have been intercepted by the U.S. itself as futile. (Putin has warned that France will be a target of Russian retaliatory measures and will not preclude the use of nuclear weapons. Macron balked.)

Grimly, the Ukraine economy is a shambles and, together with its military campaign, has been dependent on U.S. and NATO aid. On the other hand, the IMF says Russia’s economy will expand much more rapidly this year than previously expected even as President Vladimir Putin’s military spending feeds through into wider growth.  GDP is forecast to rise 2.6 per cent this year, more than double the pace the IMF predicted as recently as October, and slightly slower than the 3 per cent expansion estimated for 2023.

The U.S. and its allies cannot support Ukraine unrelentingly with financial and military aid already near exhaustion. Critical to Biden is his reelection chances this November – the U.S.-backed Ukraine war against Russia has proved counter-productive as highlighted by last year’s failed counter-offensive and could spell an election loss for the sitting U.S. president. Donald Trump, who may yet be the Republicans’ presidential bet, has vowed to end the war by cutting a deal with Putin, purportedly an old friend.

Seeing limited chances for Ukraine to win the war, U.S. security experts are now shifting from “total victory” to shoring up Ukraine’s defense position to prepare for an eventual peace deal with Moscow. For any talks to start, the U.S. should be able to match Russia’s open demands: Ukraine must be neutral and will not be a member of NATO. In exchange, as Putin had earlier announced, Russia will not control any Ukrainian territory but both Russian-populated Donetsk and Luhansk should remain autonomous.

Going further, there is a proposal for a new European security architecture. The idea came from Russia, Turkiye, and global think tank groups. The proposal seeks to work for a balanced security system, guaranteeing the security interests of Russia and, at the same time, making sure that Moscow will not use the Ukraine war to get back at the threats that endangered its own security.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, France’s Macron, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have agreed on a de-escalation of the conflict and full play of diplomatic initiatives. A proposed new European security system needs a space in the diplomatic table to allow a peaceful solution to conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere. It will create a security balance which means a freeze if not a complete halt to NATO expansion. This, of course, is complex and demands similar concessions from Russia. #

A retired professor of UP Manila where he earned academic distinctions, Bobby M. Tuazon is currently the Director for Policy Studies of the Diliman-based think tank, Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG).



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