‘The National Interest’: The looming Ukraine debacle

10:57 08.04.2024 •

A Ukrainian soldier takes cover in a trench
Photo: AP

Unsurprisingly, Western leaders are reluctant to admit that the dire situation facing Ukraine is related to their own fundamental miscalculations about Russia, writes ‘The National Interest’.

With Ukraine’s military situation deteriorating, NATO foreign ministers have gathered in Brussels to develop a long-term plan to deliver the necessary supplies to Kyiv. As NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg put it, “Ukrainians are not running out of courage, they are running out of ammunition.” Distracted by other matters, America increasingly looks to Europe to coordinate the defense of Ukraine. But, other than scrambling for shells and money or unveiling a modest EU defense industry strategy, European leaders do not appear to have the ideas or the means to intervene in a decisive or timely fashion.

French president Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion that NATO troops may enter Ukraine was supported by Poland and Czechia but caused some consternation in France itself. More importantly, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States still rule out boots on the ground. Instead of a new approach, the old pattern continues: NATO mulls over how to help Ukraine without provoking open war with Russia and fails, in the end, to deliver the kind of decisive assistance needed to turn the course of the war.

Another established pattern is the repetition of moralistic binary language. The West “cannot let Russia win.” The “rules-based order” could unravel. Then there is the new domino theory: if Ukraine falls, Russian hordes will flood further west.

What is lacking throughout the discourse is realism. What is the real balance of power between the warring nations, and what can be concluded from two years of Russia-NATO hard power competition? Unsurprisingly, Western leaders are reluctant to admit that the dire situation facing Ukraine is related to their own fundamental miscalculations about Russia.

These military assumptions have now been proven incorrect.

Russia was better prepared for the long haul of military production and has also successfully innovated in response to the military setbacks it has experienced. The Russian military has adapted to conditions of near total battlefield visibility, the mass use of drones, and the vastly reduced power of tanks and aircraft. This includes innovative infantry assault tactics, new methods of using and countering drones, and, more recently, the devastating use of glide bombs that allow Russian air power to be used while evading anti-aircraft fire. On the tactical and operational level, Russia is engaging many parts of the front simultaneously, forcing Ukraine into an exhausting and constant redeployment of troops. Presenting Russian military successes as “human wave” or “meat assaults” is clearly inaccurate. Russia’s approach is gradual, attritional, and anything but mindless.

Given these dynamics, widespread talk of a Ukrainian victory has been replaced by the specter of defeat if the West cannot deliver the needed weapons and supplies. Yet, even if the shells arrive in time, Ukraine also has a manpower problem that is much harder to solve. The Ukrainian government’s deep reluctance to issue another mobilization may reflect a fear of popular discontent and doubts over the state’s capacity to deliver the required number of men.

The current rather desperate effort to scrape together munitions to ensure Ukraine’s immediate survival does not constitute a Plan B for the West in Ukraine. A definition of “victory” is still lacking. It is unclear what prerequisites must be in place for “honorable” negotiations with Russia. The Western alliance’s Plan B must be a choice between rapidly developing an effective means of doubling down its support for Ukraine or starting to talk about a compromise with Russia.

Macron’s variant of a Western “double-down” in Ukraine looks unconvincing. Talk of NATO troop deployment is not a serious threat to Russia’s military dominance. More likely, it represents a signal of Western commitment intended to bolster Ukrainian morale at a crucial time, as well as ensure that, in case of a debacle, Macron himself cannot be accused of having been silent.

But in real terms, what could 2,000 French troops do in Ukraine to change the military balance? Surely, it would be nothing more than a stopgap, but one with risks of further debacle, given that a NATO contingent in Ukraine would not be protected by Article 5 and would most likely be “fair game” for Russian missiles and drones…

The lack of realism in Western discourse is clear. There is indeed a serious risk that, rather than the West teaching Russia a lesson and putting Putin in his place, the opposite may occur. Is Russia, in fact, educating the West on what it means to use hard power and wage interstate conflict in twenty-first-century conditions? Russia advertises its version of great power sovereignty, in which a united, resilient, and unwavering state can defeat the pooled sovereignty of the EU and NATO.

We have all heard the objection that Putin simply cannot be trusted and that he wants nothing less than the complete elimination of Ukraine as an independent state. Yet, does not the blind continuation of the West’s dysfunctional Plan A also threaten the total physical destruction of Ukraine? It is for this reason that Pope Francis has called on Western leaders not to be “ashamed to negotiate before things get worse.”


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