Ukraine’s Strategic Deadlock

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Sergiu CEBAN
Conflicting statements from Washington and influential European capitals reflect a crisis of understanding about what to do next with the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
In recent weeks there has been growing discontent in Kyiv over the “hesitancy” of Western partners, whose ambitious aid plans don’t look particularly impressive in reality. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian leadership is pinning serious hopes on the next meeting of Western countries’ defense ministers in Ramstein, Germany, which will take place this week, as well as the NATO summit planned for the end of the month. The results of these events will in a sense be determinant for Kyiv’s further tactical steps in its confrontation with Russia. To outline the complexity of Ukraine’s situation after several months of armed conflict, perhaps for the first time in a long time, Kyiv has made public information about the difficulties on the fronts. It turned out that stocks of some types of Soviet-caliber ammunition were almost exhausted, and because of the lack of supplies, including heavy weapons, more than a hundred Ukrainian soldiers get killed and about five hundred wounded in combat every day. The active involvement of the West contributes to the fact that the conflict in Ukraine is still at the top of the international media space. However, compared to March and April, the foreign audiences seem to be losing interest progressively and switching to new high-profile topics. Vloodymyr Zelensky admits that some Western countries are looking for ways to mitigate the consequences of the anti-Russian sanctions in order to protect their political and commercial interests, while the world is growing tired of the events in Ukraine. In addition, according to Zelensky, his country is beginning to be pushed toward an unfavorable agreement with Russia. The fact that relations between Kyiv and the collective West have “sprung a leak” is also confirmed by other signals. For example, the Western press increasingly reports on the unsuccessful course of the war for Ukraine, while calls for increased arms supplies and “victory on the battlefield” are far less vocal than in March and April. In fact, White House President Joe Biden scolded the Ukrainian president for not heeding Washington’s warnings about an imminent Russian invasion. This is all happening against the backdrop of an ongoing Russian military offensive in the Donbass, where there are no serious breakthroughs but a creeping Russian advance that the Ukrainian army has so far failed to stop. The main threat remains the complete collapse of the eastern front, which will lead to a wide operational space and a shift of the front line to the Kryvyi Rih and Dnipro Raions. The military and political leadership of Ukraine is trying with all its might to hold the current positions, and in the meantime to complete the redeployment of part of the western offensive armament. It must be admitted that despite the massive onslaught of Russian troops, the Ukrainian army and state system are in principle withstanding it – although many experts have predicted Ukraine’s imminent political collapse and complete surrender. It is Kyiv’s resilience that for four months has helped lobbying groups in Western capitals to push for increased military aid to Ukraine so that it can succeed on the battlefield and restart negotiations with the Kremlin in favorable positions. Strengthening the capacity of the Ukrainian army is of high importance in terms of the possibility to further hold the contact line, should the conflict follow a temporary freeze-out scenario. And this scenario cannot be ruled out, especially amid the recent public controversy between Western leaders and European politicians over the further course of the conflict in Ukraine. The U.S. administration, judging by the statements of U.S. Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, believes that the escalation must be managed so that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict does not spill over Ukraine’s borders and reach a critical phase threatening to involve nuclear weapons. This suggests that Western capitals are likely to face a difficult dilemma: to what extent can the situation in Ukraine be escalated while preventing a frontal clash between Russia and NATO. Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov admitted that the Ukrainian military may retreat in the near future to regroup. At the same time, according to Danilov, the temporary loss of territory is not a tragedy, but the loss of the country would be. This, coupled with constant talk about severe casualties, ammunition shortages, and “late” Western aid, may suggest that the Ukrainian leadership is preparing public opinion for negative war scenarios. Perhaps, the recent statements by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that peace in Ukraine is possible, but the only thing left to determine is its price, can be used to confirm this. According to him, it is necessary to understand “how much territory, freedom and democracy this peace will cost”. Conflicting statements from Washington and influential European capitals reflect a crisis of understanding about what to do next with the Ukrainian conflict. Experts also have not yet been able to give a clear answer to what the “end game” might be, what mutually acceptable formula can be offered to Moscow and Kyiv, and what defeat or victory at the end of the hot phase of hostilities might mean. Most likely, Ukraine will face a state of strategic uncertainty and frozen conflict, which can be briefly described by a quote from Leon Trotsky: “No peace-no war: peace isn’t signed, the war is stopped and the army is discharged”. It is obvious that in order to preserve Ukrainian statehood, it is urgent to restart the almost dead economy. Kyiv does not have enough resources to fight to the finish, and whether Western countries are ready to long bear the burden of monthly financial support of 7-9 billion euros is a big question. For the U.S., the formula for ending the conflict must be of such strategic importance that defeating the Kremlin would be a long-term process, stretched out over many years. For Russia to continue to weaken, to degrade technologically and intellectually, and eventually to drift into the second group of states, tempering its global ambitions. In addition, an important achievement for Washington in the future will be Moscow’s turn against China. And Kyiv has no choice but continue negotiations with Russia, where there is a chance to agree on the de-occupation of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in exchange for guarantees of a land corridor, as well as water supply to the Crimean Peninsula. Judging by the way the Kremlin ordered the retreat from near Kyiv in March, as well as a number of northern regions, one can quite expect to regain control of most of the southern regions and even retain access to the Sea of Azov.