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Will US support for Ukraine and Putin’s spin at home keep both sides fighting?

Putin’s framing of the Ukraine war as an attack on Russia by the West could make it hard to end the violent stalemate

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 May 2023, 2.57pm
Power of persuasion? Putin meets workers in Tula, an industrial city south of Moscow

Contributor/Getty Images

With the Ukrainian army likely to start a military offensive in Donbas, is the war becoming too costly for Vladimir Putin, or is the current violent stalemate set to continue?

Until recently, the assumption has been the latter. If Russia was winning and Ukraine was losing, NATO would have far too much riding on the war to allow that situation to continue and would increase its interventions, but if Ukraine was winning and Russia losing, Putin could always threaten to escalate to more devastating weapons.

Is that still the case? Or are there now changes under way in the political outlook in Washington or Moscow?

In the US, Joe Biden may be continuing with an unexpectedly progressive domestic policy, but his administration remains hardline when it comes to foreign policy, especially with Russia and China. That is not likely to change any time soon, or at least until the primaries for the 2024 presidential election have their full impact.

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Commentators on the Democrat right are much in evidence and ready to point to the experience of the Cold War era, calling for total victory over Russia. An example, from the current issue of The Atlantic, sees journalist and historian Anne Applebaum and the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jeff Goldberg, argue for full support for Ukraine to end the Russian presence in the country, including the retaking of Crimea. Usefully critiqued by Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute, this does represent a view common in traditional Democrat policy circles and contrasts with a more isolationist stance among Republicans.

Given that the war is proving to be very profitable for the world’s arms companies, especially in the United States and western Europe, the military-industrial lobbies will be pushing their sales for all they are worth, with the advantage that it is Ukrainians doing the actual fighting and dying, not them.

Support for Ukraine among European NATO members may decline, but that will not be crucial if the United States maintains its stance. Given that Ukraine shows little sign of flagging if US support remains, a break in the stalemate will have to come primarily from Russia, with war weariness and internal opposition the most likely catalysts for change.

Are there parallels with other conflicts that might give a clue as to whether this is likely? From the quite recent past, one sticks out – the Soviet attempt to maintain control of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. The withdrawal towards the end of that period was very nearly total, if not rapid, and followed largely from three factors.

One was the transition from the successive semi-moribund leaderships of the ailing Brezhnev, Chernenko and Andropov regimes to the radically different governance of Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985 onwards.

Second, Gorbachev bought into the arguments of some of his younger economic and political advisers that the Soviet Union was spending itself into an early grave by trying to keep up with the West and its far greater economic potential.

Instead of trying to match the West missile for missile Gorbachev sought to move away from this costly excess and opt for what was known as ‘reasonable sufficiency’, while engaging in arms control talks. These even went as far as that rarity, the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which actually scrapped current weapons rather than obsolete ones.

Finally, Afghanistan was becoming an economic millstone and the cause of growing anger within Russia at the continual loss of life of young conscripts. The seemingly never-ending counter-insurgency war was even having a slow but persistent impact on support for the Kremlin, and before the end of the decade the Soviets had withdrawn.

Since his special military operation in Ukraine went so badly wrong over a year ago, Putin has focused much more on the perception of Russia as under attack from the West

There are other examples. In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on the policy of withdrawing troops from Iraq, then in its fifth year of war with no clear end in sight. It was a popular policy and most troops were back home by the end of 2011.

It was hardly the end of the matter, though, since the country was left in an insecure mess and within three years ISIS was rampant across northern Iraq and Syria. That led to the intense 2014-18 air war and the apparent defeat of ISIS, but even now, ISIS and similar groups remain active and are spreading their influence across the Sahel.

In the case of Afghanistan, the Americans, British and NATO allies spent two decades there after 9/11 – twice as long as the Russians two decades earlier – before eventually pulling out in 2021, considering their continued presence futile.

But perhaps the more significant comparator is the French experience in the Indo-China war against the Viet Minh that started in 1946. By late 1953 the war was at a stalemate, with the French able to control the few urban areas but the Viet Minh in firm control of the much greater rural districts of North Vietnam.

In an increasingly desperate attempt to turn the war around, the French massively reinforced the inland garrison town of Dien Bien Phu. With up to 15,000 troops, they were initially confident, but in an appallingly violent and costly two months of bitter fighting from March 1954, the Viet Minh eventually overran the garrison in early May.

Around 2,000 French metropolitan, Foreign Legion and colonial troops were killed, and 11,000 captured, only 3,300 of them eventually being repatriated. The Viet Minh losses were reported to be even larger, with 8,000 killed. Following this one battle, the French political will to fight was finished and ceasefire talks started within weeks in Geneva.

It had been an eight-year-long conflict and the French had remained engaged not least because of their need to maintain an imperial power base overseas, especially after the German occupation during the Second World War. In the end, though, the human and financial costs simply became too great.

The final writing on the wall for British imperial power was Suez in 1956, and for the French it was that single battle at Dien Bien Phu, but this does not mean a parallel experience is inevitable for Putin and his power base nearly 70 years later. One single battle or surge may not end the Russian will to fight.

Since his special military operation in Ukraine went so badly wrong over a year ago, Putin has focused much more on the perception of Russia as under attack from the West, developing his long-standing claim that Russia was treated with contempt at the end of the Cold War, followed by a decades-long attempt by NATO to weaken and subvert it.

There are sufficient elements of this to appeal to older Russians, though it appeals less to the young. But NATO’s running what amounts to a proxy war through Ukraine plays into the script, and it does resonate with many older people, who remember with bitterness the struggles of the early 1990s as turbo-capitalism tipped so many into poverty.

In these circumstances, and if at some stage there is any chance at all for talks, even if just for local ceasefires, then they should be grabbed, with those wanting to press on to a great victory actively discouraged.

Meanwhile, the monstrous anger of the guns is at large once more, with trench warfare in the heart of Europe for the first time in decades. The armourers may indeed be thriving but for innumerable people, civilians and military, the cost is appalling.

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