Ukraine’s war of sorrow is West’s strategic failure - Hindustan Times
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Ukraine’s war of sorrow is West’s strategic failure

Feb 26, 2024 12:21 PM IST

The war has imperilled European — rather than American — security but it is American assistance that has kept Ukraine in the game so far.

What is the state of play two years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Ukraine mounted a strong resistance and liberated large parts of its territory in the first year. But the counter-offensive it launched in 2023 was unsuccessful. In contrast, its hopes of a swift victory dashed, Russia looked disorganised and on the defensive in the first year. But it entrenched its position through 2023 and is poised to extend its territorial conquest.

A local resident and her child walks past the railway station destroyed by a Russian missile attack in Konstyantynivka, Donetsk region, on February 25, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
A local resident and her child walks past the railway station destroyed by a Russian missile attack in Konstyantynivka, Donetsk region, on February 25, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP)(AFP)

This is not how the West expected the war to unfold. In the beginning, it hoped that the unprecedented technological and military sanctions it imposed on Russia would degrade Moscow’s war machine while also depriving the latter of finances to continue the aggression. And it hoped that non-western pressure, especially from China, as well as nudges from India, would cause Russia to back down.

There is some evidence of degradation of Russian armament, particularly tanks, but a favourable net artillery balance and effective use of airpower have produced excellent results. Supply chains of critical technology and expanded markets in the non-West for its fuel have kept the resources coming. And it has established a war economy, which has led to surprising growth figures and an impression that it has beaten sanctions. Medium- to long-term prospects for Russia’s economy and defence are not bright but the translation of resource depletion into war outcomes is never guaranteed, and the tipping point in Russia’s weakening may come after Ukraine has capitulated. Meanwhile, western efforts aimed at generating non-western support have elicited the response that the war is the West’s problem.

All that said, it is worth remembering that Russian casualties have been staggering, and the prosecution of this war has involved more persecution and suffering for Russian citizens. As Ukraine struggles to recruit personnel for its army and its artillery crunch deepens, its prospects are bleak. That it has survived two years of Russian onslaught when few gave it more than a few weeks in February 2022 speaks of its tenacity and tactical sharpness. But its war strategy was always going to be a function of western support, and the West has not fared well.

One problem has been that western military assistance has not matched up with Ukraine’s needs in terms of both time and volume. Western countries initially hesitated to send lethal assistance as they feared Russian retaliation. When that fear receded, weapons came, but they came late — the counteroffensive of 2023 was delayed by weeks — and not in enough numbers for the Ukrainian army to outgun the Russian ones.

But the key problem has been Europe’s challenges to transforming itself into a geopolitical unit and taking ownership of the war. The war has imperilled European — rather than American — security but it is American assistance that has kept Ukraine in the game so far. European governments have by and large accepted that they must develop their militaries and make defence a core part of their foreign policy strategy, which has continued to be American responsibility as part of the Cold War’s long hangover. But decades of neglect of military power and the time it takes to readjust economies to build that power up is shaping the war in Ukraine to Europe’s disadvantage. The slowness and distraction witnessed in Germany’s attempt to build up its military illustrates the issue. The eastern flank from Finland to Poland is militarily reinforced.  The inclusion of Finland and Sweden has expanded and strengthened the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But NATO itself is considerably underwritten by American money, arms and political commitment.

This is a structural problem that is unlikely to go away even if the Democrats retain the American presidency later this year. Domestic American fatigue with guaranteeing European security is likely to grow in the years ahead. The United States is a global power whose primary geopolitical concern remains managing China’s rising heft in the Indo-Pacific, a region that matters more than Europe does to international stability. By virtue of its global spread, America is also likely to get entangled in other regional crises — such as the one in West Asia currently — from time to time. Given this scenario, America’s political, diplomatic and military resources will always be engaged, and it is, therefore, in Europe’s interest that it becomes the provider for its own security while making American power a reserve that it could draw upon as a last resort.

This is easier said than done given that it requires individual countries as well as the European Union (EU) to change orientations and institutions. Used to viewing security in terms of conflict resolution and policing functions, they need to transform into a warfighting unit that could defend itself without American assistance. The inability to do this in the coming years will put strains on European unity, disrupting internal peace and prosperity, while jeopardising the transatlantic alliance. One likelihood is Europe will need to think of its security parallel to the NATO framework. But first, it must struggle to ensure Ukraine survives another year of war.

Atul Mishra teaches international relations at Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi-NCR. The views expressed are personal

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