Ukraine: Where does it End?

Noting the 40 billion dollar aid package voted by the US Congress to the government in Kiev along with the increasingly bellicose statements being made in Washington and London, the New York Times editorial team has expressed alarm about how “the U.S. aims and strategy in this war have become harder to discern, as the parameters of the mission appear to have changed.”

This important development represents the first open questioning of the character and direction of the war in Ukraine amongst the mainstream media in the West. The New York Times then went on to say some very significant things in its editorial of 19 May:

“… it is not in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia, even if a negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions. And the U.S. aims and strategy in this war have become harder to discern, as the parameters of the mission appear to have changed….

Is the United States, for example, trying to help bring an end to this conflict, through a settlement that would allow for a sovereign Ukraine and some kind of relationship between the United States and Russia? …

A decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal… Russia remains too strong, and Mr. Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down.

The United States and NATO are already deeply involved, militarily and economically. Unrealistic expectations could draw them ever deeper into a costly, drawn-out war. Russia, however battered and inept, is still capable of inflicting untold destruction on Ukraine and is still a nuclear superpower with an aggrieved, volatile despot who has shown little inclination toward a negotiated settlement.

“In the end, it is the Ukrainians who must make the hard decisions: They are the ones fighting, dying and losing their homes to Russian aggression, and it is they who must decide what an end to the war might look like. If the conflict does lead to real negotiations, it will be Ukrainian leaders who will have to make the painful territorial decisions that any compromise will demand.

The United States and NATO have demonstrated that they will support the Ukrainian fight with ample firepower and other means. And however the fighting ends, the United States and its allies must be prepared to help Ukraine rebuild.

But as the war continues, Mr. Biden should also make clear to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people that there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will go to confront Russia, and limits to the arms, money and political support they can muster. It is imperative that the Ukrainian government’s decisions be based on a realistic assessment of its means and how much more destruction Ukraine can sustain.

Confronting this reality may be painful, but it is not appeasement. This is what governments are duty bound to do, not chase after an illusory “win.”…  The challenge now is to shake off the euphoria, stop the taunting and focus on defining and completing the mission. America’s support for Ukraine is a test of its place in the world in the 21st century, and Mr. Biden has an opportunity and an obligation to help define what that will be.”

Alarm bells are obviously starting to ring about the blank cheque Western leaders have written for the Ukrainian leadership. Up until now any concerns held about the reckless abandon that money and military equipment have been provided to Kiev have remained hidden and dissent has been voluntarily suppressed. However, with the economic war against Russia not showing the results imagined and the Western public suffering significant blowback from the sanctions regime in the form of the “cost of living crisis” the time for some open questioning of policy has arrived where it counts, in the United States.

There has been, however, no similar questioning of the war in the UK or Europe, and no breaking of ranks. Both London and Brussels have slavishly followed what they believed to be the Washington script. There has been a totalitarian character to the consensus in support of Ukraine and a willingness to go to any lengths, even if these were ultimately destructive of the Ukrainian state and people themselves, in support of the good fight for democracy.

But democracy is a double-edged sword. The electorate can change their leaders, vote down their members of Congress or Parliament, if they are dissatisfied. So a gung ho media can easily change into one which becomes relentless in pursuit of the guilty men and women when things start to go wrong.

The New York Times raises important questions about where the war in Ukraine ends and what are the Western war aims that are being fought for by Ukrainians. It is, after all, dishonest to continue to maintain the fiction that the Ukrainians are fighting and dying merely for their own interests and good. It is, after all, in the gift of the West to wind down the war or escalate it to a new level if it so chooses. The Ukrainians can only sustain the effort they have been able to with Western support. If that is reduced and it becomes largely a Ukrainian/Russian war then negotiations and a settlement have to take place.

Sustaining and Escalating the War

At the present moment all the signs are from Washington, London and Kiev that the war is to be escalated and prolonged until some form of defeat is inflicted upon Russia. All official statements from US officials and British Ministers and the actions of their legislators in recent weeks indicate this.

The strategy, according to Scott Ritter is to keep the Russian forces occupied in the East for as long as possible while a large new army is built up in the North West. This new Ukrainian army will be trained in how to handle the smart new weaponry coming from the US/UK. It will be a fresh fighting force that will replace the current Ukrainian forces being used up against the Russians in Donbas. It will prevent Moscow winning a quick war and forcing a settlement on Kiev.

Scott Ritter had stated in early May that, “Russia is winning the war, and winning it decisively.” However, he has since altered his opinion, suggesting that: “The military aid the west is providing to Ukraine is changing the dynamic and if Russia doesn’t find a way to address this meaningfully… the conflict will never end.”

Ritter explained that the Western will to continually resupply the Ukrainians had changed his view on how the war would proceed:

“This is a transformative moment in the war, because what it means is that demilitarization is not taking place. For all the forces Russia is destroying in the east, Ukraine is rebuilding significant capability (in the west) I liken this to Moscow in December 1941, when the Germans were moving towards Moscow and the Russians just started throwing things at them, sacrificing everything to slow the German offensive. until General Winter and the combination of Siberian divisions gave them the ability to counterattack. The Germans were bled white and they were stopped and turned back. If Russia doesn’t change the calculation, then that is the trajectory we are heading on, because 200,000 troops–however capable they may be, are only capable of doing so much. And the fighting that’s taking place right now –even though it is slaughtering Ukrainians– it isn’t cost free to the Russians. They’re losing equipment, they’re losing men, they’re losing material, and unless Putin mobilises or transfers forces in, those aren’t being replaced.

… I believe Russia is going to win in the east, they are grinding them down as we speak, they are slaughtering them; the amount of death and destruction that is being dealt to the Ukrainians is unimaginable, but I believe the Ukrainians are willing to take these losses in order to buy time to reconstitute a military that will challenge Russia because unless Russia is willing to jump across the Dneiper River and head into western Ukraine where it can eliminate the strategic depth that the Ukrainians are being gifted by the Russians, then demilitarisation of Ukraine is not going to take place.” (Saturday Morning Live with Scott Ritter and Ray McGovern)

This would explain why President Biden is getting Congress to vote through enormous sums for military support to Kiev, despite the reverses and losses the Ukrainian army is suffering in Donbas. It appears that the Russians will not be allowed by Washington and London to win a cheap victory through their Special Military Operation/limited campaign, within an area confined to the Russian element of the Ukrainian population. They will have to take on the whole of Ukraine, and make it a complete wasteland, killing a substantial part of its male population, to satisfy the Western interest.

To be clear: Washington seems to favour a long war of attrition for Russia when the Kremlin would be content with concluding proceedings in the fastest possible time with minimum loss and cost on both sides.

The Kiev government is also issuing statements about the contingencies it is making for such a protracted conflict. President Zelensky has stated that the Ukrainian military now consists of 700,000, dwarfing the small Russian Special Military Operation Force of around 200,000. This makes the Ukrainian military almost six times larger than it was at the beginning of the conflict, according to Zelensky.“We needed an army of more than 250,000 or 260,000, but there were only around 120,000” battle-ready troops in Ukraine before the start of the Russian military operation in late February, Zelensky told Ukraine24 outlet on Friday 20 May. Zelensky noted that he’d given an order in early 2022 to boost the number of soldiers by another 100,000 “no matter if we had the money or not.” He acknowledged that those numbers weren’t enough to stop the Russian military from advancing, but with the West now providing the necessary finance it was only a matter of putting Ukrainian men in uniform.

From the start of the war the government in Kiev were preventing men of military age from leaving Ukraine across its borders, sometimes at gunpoint. Zelensky ordered a general mobilisation after the conflict began, saying that all men aged between 18 and 60 should stay in the country and fight. Many thousands escaped with the womenfolk and children, however.

A law has just been submitted to the Ukrainian parliament which would legislate for those males who managed to flee and failed to return to the country within 30 days to be deprived of their citizenship. This is obviously meant as a deterrent to others to leave and to press them into military duty for the long war ahead. It should be noted that the Ukrainian army has been in the field for around 8 years now. However, most of the male population only saw short periods of service in the war to bring the separatists back under Kiev’s authority. Now with the Russian presence and the Western military, financial and moral support a total mobilisation is possible.

There is a clear division of labour in the war. The Ukrainians provide the blood and the West provides the treasure. The West is willing to provide the required military and financial resources as long as the will and ability of the Ukrainians to remain on the field of battle persists.

However, it is a moot point whether a newly trained Ukrainian army would be any more effective than the existing battle-hardened one, whose best troops have been fighting for 8 years. It is doubtful whether much of the Western military supplies will ever make it the front, if the current level of destruction Russian aerospace is currently applying to arms dumps, transit points and training camps continues.

Perhaps it is all bluff and an attempt to lure Russia into western Ukraine forcing a commitment of larger forces to the conflict.

But whether the new Ukrainian army with its first class Western military hardware proves a “game changer” will depend very much on the continued willingness of the Ukrainians to fight and die, and what happens over the next month or so in Donbas will surely have a strong bearing on that.

Scenarios of the Endgame

So what is the endgame for the West?

The Council on Geostrategy’s paper ‘Global Britain and the Black Sea region’ authored by James Rogers and Dr Alexander Lanoszka and signed off by Sir Michael Fallon,
British Secretary of State for Defence, 2014-2017, has constructed 4 scenarios for the British government to consider in relation to Ukraine.

The most pessimistic one is called “Russia triumphant” in which “Russia’s successful offensive sees it dominate the Black Sea and threaten other countries in the region, such as Moldova and Georgia.” In this scenario “Russia annexes all of Ukraine east of the Dnipro River and renders the rest of the country a puppet state under the Kremlin’s control. Ukrainians, morally and economically drained by the fighting and devastation, submit to the new order.”

In a second scenario Russia contained the paper envisages a situation in which “Russia gets bogged down in a protracted insurgency in Ukraine and employs brutal counter-insurgency tactics. The…Russian threat, whilst still acute, is manageable”. However, “the protracted humanitarian crisis that resulted from Russia’s initial invasion and counterinsurgency would continue to destabilise countries in Central and Northeastern Europe”.

The other two scenarios are therefore what will occur if the West is more successful in prolonging the conflict by maintaining the Ukrainians on the battlefield.

In the second-best scenario, Russia embittered” in which a partial Western victory is achieved “Russia’s invasion fails to achieve its objectives, yet effectively destroys Ukraine. Immense refugee flows to Black Sea states cause a humanitarian crisis, and maritime governance breaks down”.

A rather bleak picture is painted for a Ukraine that has successfully hurt Russia and frustrated its objectives:

“Russia and Ukraine having fought so hard that they both effectively lose. In this scenario, the renewed Russian invasion fails to achieve its political objectives due to the tenacity of the Ukrainian Government and Armed Forces. As the Kremlin becomes more desperate, it deploys a combination of large thermobaric and chemical weapons to shock the Ukrainian Government and force its submission. It also uses defoliants to disrupt Ukrainian agriculture, particularly rapeseed production in Western Ukraine. This leaves the centres of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, and Odesa as burnt-out shells and undermines Ukrainian agricultural production – critical for Kyiv’s ability to resist. Many Ukrainians die, but their resistance to Russia grows. Unable to prevail in Ukraine, the Kremlin begrudgingly sues for peace; it surrenders control over the so-called ‘People’s Republics’, but holds onto Crimea and even parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Primarily destroyed, Ukraine has become a lawless zone of chaos.

Facing one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in European history, NATO allies would need to respond to stabilise their southeastern flank. As commercial activity is severely hampered and maritime governance breaks down, regional states may need to prepare for potential pirate activity in the Sea of Azov and around Ukraine’s broader coastline.

The resulting state weakness in Russia and Ukraine would create unique risks for the Euro-Atlantic region. The ongoing humanitarian crises would mean major outflows of Ukrainian refugees or, in the case of Belarusian and Russian citizens, asylum seekers. Not only would such outflows require military assistance to the affected parties, but they could reignite the populism seen in Europe in the mid-2010s as social services strain and job competition intensifies. While Russia may be sufficiently weakened to the extent that it no longer poses a major military threat to neighbouring countries, to say nothing of NATO, fears may persist over the command and control of its large nuclear arsenal, not unlike after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.”

That is not an outcome, I imagine, that the people of Ukraine or Europe would consider worth the cost of the war but it seems to be a positive scenario for British strategic thinkers. This seems to suggest that the most important objective in escalating and prolonging the war and enabling Kiev to fight on is the geopolitical interest of the West rather than the interests of Ukraine and its people.

In the final scenario, Russia defeated it is envisaged that “The Kremlin’s renewed offensive in Ukraine is thrust back, and the security of Ukraine and the Black Sea, and beyond that, the Euro-Atlantic, mostly assured”.

The victory over Russia, however, would still leave Crimea with the Russians:

“In this scenario, Ukraine, supported by the Euro-Atlantic democracies, eventually gains the upper hand over Russia. Under robust economic sanctions, the Kremlin sues for peace and surrenders control of the so-called ‘People’s Republics’ in Donetsk and Luhansk – areas Ukraine has retaken – but clings tenaciously to Crimea. Ukraine surrenders sovereignty of Crimea in exchange for fast-tracked entry into the EU and NATO. Kyiv also receives an extensive financial assistance and development package from the UK, US, Canada and the EU to help stabilise the Ukrainian economy and enable post-war reconstruction.”

So that seems to be what all the sacrifices of Ukrainian and Russian blood are all about. And then, after victory over Russia it is made clear we can expect a move to be made against China. Welcome to the fight for democracy and the liberal World Order.

When is it going to become apparent to Western liberals and socialists that their support for winning at all cost in Ukraine will not only mean the deaths of tens of thousands of Ukrainians but the destruction of their state? And after that…?

Perhaps it is the awful thought, now that the die has been cast, that an ending of the war in the Donbas would be the least worst option for all, that makes saying it just beyond contemplation.

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