Ukraine Becomes a “White Elephant” for the USA

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Sergiu CEBAN
It seems that Washington currently has no strategic vision of Ukraine’s prospects in the war and is acting more out of inertia
As expected, the beginning of summer 2024 is active for the Ukrainian conflict, both in military and diplomatic terms. The front is under constant strain for several months now, with hotbeds regularly emerging in various areas as a result of offensive and counter-offensive actions of both armies. At the same time, there is a possibility that the Russian operation to create the Kharkiv bridgehead will not be the only one because of the Russians’ intention to expand the war zone and disperse the AFU’s combat-ready units to prepare a long-range operational and tactical breakthrough. Meanwhile, the overall rate of advance of Russian troops is not high, a sign of nominal parity of forces. Meanwhile, the international Ukraine Recovery Conference started yesterday in Berlin. The topic is rather relevant, given the deficit in the Ukrainian energy system after several targeted Russian air attacks. Since March, Russian forces have destroyed more than 9 GW of power grid capacity. In Berlin, Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost 80% of thermal generation and a third of hydropower production. Since the end of May, the Ukrainian president has been on a protracted diplomatic tour before the start of the global summit in Switzerland, which, according to Kyiv’s plans, should be a prologue to the peace talks. However, over time, the Ukrainians had to “cut short” the agenda of the upcoming forum in order to attract as many heads of state and official delegates as possible right now, and only after setting up the “global coalition” to try to include more pressing issues. As of today, 106 countries and international organizations have confirmed their participation, but no more than 50 countries will be represented by their leaders. This suggests that not everyone is ready to follow the Ukrainian scenario. Because of this, the status of the summit was significantly lowered, especially after the heads of countries that can really influence Moscow and the course of events refused to come – first of all, the United States and China. In addition, the leaders of Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries of the so-called “Global South” refused to go to Switzerland on the pretext of their desire to maintain neutral. Another type of patronage for Ukraine remains bilateral security memorandums that provide for its long-term military and economic support. Before the summit in Switzerland, the US president is expected to sign a similar document with Kyiv on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Italy, along with 15 other countries with which these agreements have already been concluded. On the other hand, Biden’s refusal to come to Switzerland was construed by many as a consequence of the growing tension between Kyiv and Washington. The last visit of Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed significant disagreements between them on the future strategy. Unlike the Ukrainian authorities, who continue to be determined to maximize results, the White House is trying to more rationally assess the prospects for the conflict and the reasonability of its escalation. While the United States and Ukraine are searching for a compromise, China expects to take the initiative by talking about a new peace conference that would suit both sides of the conflict. Of course, Beijing sees itself as its main mediator. Probably, these considerations led to China’s refusal to participate in the Swiss conference. So, there is a creeping escalation by which the EU and the United States want to thwart Russia’s offensive plans: admission for the AFU to hit Russian border territories, statements about the possible sending of instructors and the creation of a no-fly zone over western Ukraine. But along with this we hear frank statements of the head of the White House that Ukraine’s accession to NATO is not planned. In other words, the key players are bargaining and exchanging opinions, some of which are voiced publicly. Nevertheless, there is still a high probability that Russian forces will increase the intensity of combat operations in the coming months in order to create a negative international backdrop ahead of the active phase of the election campaign in the United States. In order to bolster its negotiating stance with the new U.S. administration, Moscow may well intensify its onslaught, provoking the retreat of the AFU and, at the same time, the loss of large territories. This may, among other things, lead to the fall of all coalition projects currently being set up by Ukraine. Despite this, the peace talk prospects still look dim, mainly because of the electoral processes in the United States. The opposing sides themselves, as before, take polar positions and show no interest in any contact or settlement on the basis of a compromise formula. The main problem of getting on the peace track is mainly that for now the current White House administration has no clear vision of what the U.S. wants to achieve in this war. There are some common narratives: the need to strategically weaken Russia, regime change in the Kremlin, “Ukraine must not lose”, etc. But after two and a half years of war, things have become rather unpredictable. China, for example, has something more or less similar to a structured peace plan, which, probably, will be proposed to the parties in some updated form at one of the expected peace conferences under Beijing auspices. In this respect, Washington is much less specific, keeping silent about concrete conditions and a conceptual framework for a possible end to the conflict that it finds acceptable. Delays in delivering aid to Ukraine may suggest that the United States does not even have a military campaign plan for Kyiv for 2024 and is actually acting on inertia without any systemic strategic vision. Such behavior weakens trust in the United States and lowers expectations, disvaluing its exclusive position as a global leader and hegemon that defines and enforces international rules. Alas, when there is no clear idea of where things are heading, no planning and no methods of achieving both tactical and strategic goals, things usually end up in trouble and crises for American administrations. History knows plenty of relevant examples. The most recent of them is the 20-year U.S. stay in Afghanistan, which ended completely ignominiously because of Washington’s passivity. All signs suggest the Ukraine plot risks turning into a problem that the US will need to abandon to focus on more crucial areas of foreign policy.