Will Kyiv Cross the Rubicon?

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Semyon ALBU
Ukraine is now facing a serious dilemma: the potential benefits of a long-announced counterattack do not outweigh the risks in case of its failure. Yet, Kyiv seems to have no choice
In only a few months, the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Zaporizhzhya (ior somewhere else?), without even being launched, has become probably one of the main “brands” of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Hardly any other military operation in modern history has been so pompously advertised, and the excitement around it has been buoyed for weeks by the world’s top media. Official statements, both in Ukraine and in the West, have turned this attack into a symbol of a crucial turning point in the conflict and the beginning of the Russian troops’ total defeat. The AFU is expected to go on the offensive in the very near future. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for example, spoke about this. However, before this crucial - as they are trying to tell us - moment in the war, some strange things started to happen. For example, Western media, primarily American and British, began to publish almost daily articles criticizing... Kyiv. Journalists point to the insufficient preparation of Ukrainian troops for the coming operation, the large losses in Bakhmut and the generally inept tactics of holding it at any cost. The President of Ukraine who also comes under fire was unexpectedly reminded about his 11% rating plummeting before the war, with a warning that it will plummet again after the war because of “popular disappointment”. These are just some of the many negative narratives that the western press is pouring as from a cornucopia onto Zelensky’s office. Even though the verbal political support for the Ukrainian government has not weakened (we do not take into account the statements by European renegades like Victor Orban), Kyiv is being sent quite clear signals. Let’s try and find out what is going on here. Almost two months ago, the conflict in Ukraine crossed its first one-year mark. Today, one can easily notice war fatigue around the world, though initially many countries enthusiastically involved in the Ukrainian events in one way or another. Especially when reports from the battlefield are reminiscent of the classic “no change on the Western front”, where there is endless “meat grinder” in several small areas, with no significant advances. Now each, so to speak, bloc of countries has its own reasons to end this war as soon as possible. The European Union, one of the main losers in this war, suffers losses due to the reorientation of energy imports from cheap Russian to more expensive American ones, the flow of refugees, and the need to provide huge sums of money to support Kyiv. The U.S. is forced to project the course of the Ukrainian conflict onto domestic political events related to the presidential election. And even though Americans have profited enormously from this proxy war, they also have to spend a lot of money, which will eventually be used against the current White House administration. The so-called neutral countries (in Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East) simply want to return to a more predictable and stable global configuration without the need to take sides explicitly. The warring Ukraine itself is in a very bad position. Let’s be frank – now it is a bankrupt country with a shrunken economy, a badly damaged industrial and energy sector, a huge area of mined land and a ruined quarter of the country. Its authorities are already forced to sell off for nothing the largest state-owned enterprises in order to meet minimal needs. But the main problem is the huge demographic void caused both by the fighting and by the wave of emigration, with no clear idea of how to remedy it. Even the return of all those who have left (which is utopian) will not save the vast territories of Ukraine from almost irreversible rapid depopulation. All this is already clear to experts, yet, so far, the Ukrainian state is kept afloat by Western tranches and the population – by hopes to return to the 1991 borders, with Crimea and Donbass, and their propaganda-imposed view tells them this will return everything to normality. Ukrainians can tolerate and wait, as long as there are victories and prospects. Therefore, a counteroffensive is needed. Under such conditions, it will be extremely difficult for the Ukrainian government to “backtrack”: no one will understand this, neither its partners nor its own population, which has already been promised a new victory, even larger than that in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. At the same time, Kyiv understands that stepping forward is very risky. Attacking a deeply echeloned defense, no matter how much you prepare, never promises guaranteed success, especially with more or less parity of forces. The Ukrainian authorities are actually facing their own Rubicon. They need to cross it, but they do not want to, because they can end up in a bad place. And after a long, more than a year-long grueling campaign, one does not want to drown in shallow water. Especially since the potential benefits of a counterattack, even if it is totally successful, do not outweigh the risks in case it fails. Many experts argue that the Russian Federation is stalling the conflict by fortifying itself on occupied territories and engaging in local battles. Indeed, this is not the worst option for Russians, as it eliminates the risks of super-negative scenarios (a new wave of mobilization, major defeats, territorial losses, excessive casualties, etc.). Russia has more than enough margin of safety, even in the face of Western sanctions. The funny thing is that Kyiv is also happy with the current pace of the war for exactly the same reasons. Yes, it doesn’t enjoy the same stability as Russia, but Western assistance allows it to hold on as long as necessary, while the state of war provides grounds to preserve the current regime. Except that the West, of course, is not satisfied with such a disposition. The freezing of hostilities and the exhausting ‘grinding’ in Bakhmut is not what our partners want to see, as they spend tens of billions dollars and their political assets to support Kyiv. And this support in itself is not axiomatic and has limits, both in terms of volume and time. Remarkably, how quickly the story with the export ban on Ukrainian grain to Eastern Europe is unfolding. Moreover, there is already talk of banning other Ukrainian products. In the same vein, injections into the Ukrainian budget and economy may be reduced (or completely stopped) at any moment. The U.S. has ultimately achieved many of its strategic goals. Europe is cut off from Russia for a long time (or maybe forever), the dream of a "Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok" is buried. The countries of the European Union have abandoned Russian oil and gas in favor of American LNG. The EU has failed to achieve sovereignty, but instead has fallen into an even greater dependence on Washington. Instead, NATO, which was in crisis until recently, is now flourishing, with new members (and more are on the way). Russia's military potential has significantly depleted: The country has lost lots of equipment and weapons, including missiles, and suffered great human losses. Its economy has suffered greatly because of the sanctions, and it will take years to recover. All in all, the results are such that we can slowly wrap this up. Therefore, the U.S. and states in the area of American influence will be willing to tolerate some costs and continue military supplies only as long as Kyiv demonstrates its ability to keep inflicting damage on Russia. But if this geopolitical tool no longer serves its purpose, few options remain: it will either be “repaired” (by changing the regime) or ‘thrown away’ (by ending the conflict depending on the actual frontline realities). This explains all these unambiguous hints via Western media. Such is the difficult dilemma that Kyiv now faces. It is clear that Zelensky’s coin toss in the form of a counterattack cannot hang in the air indefinitely – it will definitely fall to the ground. Heads or tails, time will tell.