Ukraine war: Does Putin have his eye on the 2024 US presidential election?
OPINION: A pro-Russian president in the White House would shift the outcome of a prolonged war in Putin’s favour
In the past few weeks, Russian forces in Ukraine have been attempting to take territory in intensive combat, but their progress has been minimal. This is adding to the sense that Russia is in difficulty and Ukraine is making progress in winning the war, with considerable support from the United States.
In its determination to consolidate this apparent advantage, Washington is warning forcefully of the actions it will take to counter countries willing to aid Russia. The G7 has also recently announced specific actions against some 200 companies and individuals across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, with part of the aim being to discourage those that have not yet been involved in sanctions-busting but are in a position to do so.
The very fact that Washington is taking this kind of action may be read as a sign that the war in Ukraine is going well, but there are grounds for thinking the situation is actually more complicated. Those analysts predicting a long drawn-out war may be closer to reality, uncomfortable though that may be for many Western governments.
This cautious, if unwelcome, view of the war comes from many quarters and points to specific factors working in Russia’s favour, such as total troop numbers available and the ability to escalate.
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Concerning troop numbers, while Ukrainian morale may be high, Russia has demography on its side. It has more than three times the number of available soldiers, and Vladimir Putin has shown that large numbers of convicts can be used to boost numbers.
On the question of escalation, Russia can currently bomb Ukraine in a way that Ukraine cannot bomb Russia. This could change if Biden allows Ukraine the copious supply of longer-range weapons that it seeks, despite the risk of Russian threats of escalation. But Joe Biden is simply not providing these weapons, and we now have confirmation that not even the much-sought-after F-16 aircraft is on the current supply list.
The chair of the joint US chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, recently pointed in the direction of a long war and the probability of a negotiated settlement.
It’s also worth remembering that any predictions about the war’s outcome are complicated by the marked tendency of NATO states to ‘speak strong but act weak’.
This extends even to the US. Historian and writer Adam Tooze put the US commitment into perspective in a recent report in the Financial Times, writing: “Over the past 12 months, the US spent 0.21% of GDP on military support for Ukraine. That is slightly less than it spent in an average year on its ill-fated Afghanistan intervention. In Iraq the spend was three times larger. The Korean War cost the US 13 times as much. Lend-Lease aid for the British Empire in the Second World War ran to 15 times as much in proportional terms.
“To see the Europeans doing more, you only need to go back to 1991,” he added. “To support the American-led operation to oust Saddam Hussein from the oilfields of Kuwait, Germany gave three times as much as it is offering to Ukraine in bilateral aid.”
The outcome of war in Ukraine could well depend on the result of the US presidential election
Interestingly, the most striking exception among European members of NATO is the UK, especially under Boris Johnson’s leadership last year. As well as the widely known supply of anti-tank weapons, anti-ship missiles, drones, Challenger II main battle tanks and copious materiel, the UK is training Ukraine troops in Britain and in Ukraine, and special forces are operating in and around Kyiv, as are UK intelligence personnel.
Furthermore, up to 350 British Royal Marine commandos have been in Ukraine during the past year. While much of their work has been in diplomatic protection, it’s been reported that “the commandos supported other covert operations in an extremely sensitive environment and with a high level of political and military risk”.
The UK’s military contribution has run to £2.3bn so far, second only to the US, an indication of a greater emphasis on keeping very close to Washington in a post-Brexit world. This level of spending will no doubt continue if a Keir Starmer-led Labour Party succeeds in getting a workable majority in next year’s general election.
As to the likely course of the war now, those countries in Europe offering Ukraine Leopard 2 tanks are finding it much more difficult than expected to get them operational, mainly for logistical reasons, and the US Abrams tanks may not get near the battlefields until very late in the year because of delays in the United States. This doesn’t necessarily mean Russia’s position will improve, but it is increasingly likely that the war will continue at least until early in 2024.
If that turns out to be the case, the political significance would be considerable and could favour Putin. In this scenario, the autumn 2024 US presidential election would be taking place just a few months short of the start of the fourth year of the war, and Putin would be keen to see a less hawkish administration in the White House come January 2025.
From Moscow’s perspective, then, Russia continues with a stagnant yet brutal war that can’t be won, while the war planners concentrate on preparing for the next 18 months on that basis. Meanwhile, security and political agencies work hard to steer US electoral politics in the direction of a Trumpian candidate.
If this is how the conflict evolves, the outcome of war in Ukraine could well depend on the result of the election. If Biden or another Democrat wins, then a negotiated settlement on terms highly advantageous to Ukraine is probable, but if a Trumpian candidate gets to the White House then Ukraine will have to concede much more and Putin, in turn, will benefit with huge consequences for Ukraine and also for NATO.
Meanwhile the deaths, injuries, mental, social and economic damage will all mount up, while the world’s arms corporations have a field day selling death.
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