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The Economist: How to ensure Vladimir Putin suffers a strategic defeat

The geopolitical stakes of Ukraine’s counter-offensive

A placard depicting Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Russian President Vladimir Putin displayed on the Maidan camp on Independence Square in Kiev. July 28 2014.


On the eve of the commemoration of the Allies’ D-Day landings in Normandy, General Mark Milley, America’s most senior general, drew a direct parallel with the Ukrainian counter-offensive starting some 2,800km to the east. The goal, he said, was the same as it had been nearly eight decades ago: “To liberate occupied territory and to free a country that has been unjustly attacked by an aggressor nation, in this case, Russia.”

Then as now, the battles will determine the future security order in Europe. But for Ukraine’s Western supporters, at least, the ultimate aim of the war is much less clear than it was for the Allies in 1944. Unlike Nazi Germany, Russia is a nuclear power. It is hard to imagine its complete capitulation. Ukraine’s professed goal is to reconquer all of the land Russia has seized since 2014, restoring the borders that were set in 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up. But even if the Ukrainian army can achieve that (and many Westerners, especially, have their doubts), there are fears that Russia might view such an outcome as a humiliation so abject that it would be worth using nuclear weapons to avoid it.

The upshot is a much vaguer aim: for Ukraine to inflict as many losses and make as many territorial gains as possible to strengthen its hand as it tries to reach a modus vivendi with a weakened Russia. By this way of thinking, a positive outcome would be for Ukraine’s new Western-armed brigades to sever the land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula or to get close enough to endanger Russian positions in Crimea. Most Western officials expect more modest gains, however, with Ukraine taking back and holding less strategic slices of the territory it has lost in the past year, but at least demonstrating that it can still make headway on the battlefield. In the pessimistic view, the Ukrainians struggle to get past Russian defences, make only minor gains and end up in a stalemate. Hearteningly, the prospect of Ukrainian forces failing, exposing themselves to a counter-attack and retreating can be all but ruled out, because Russia lacks the means to stage a big advance and because Western allies would no doubt quickly step up support to Ukraine.

It is still too early to say how the counter-offensive is going. The destruction of a huge dam on the Dnipro river has dominated the headlines. In the coming weeks it is the resolve and competence of the Ukrainian forces that will be decisive, external factors will influence the outcome. America’s president, Joe Biden, has declared two broad objectives: to ensure both that Ukraine is not defeated and that NATO does not get drawn into direct conflict with Russia with the attendant risk of nuclear escalation. Early on he declined to send troops to Ukraine or impose a “no-fly zone”. But he has delivered weapons of ever greater quantity and sophistication to help Ukraine defend itself. Equally vital has been the provision of intelligence, planning and training by America and its allies. Ukraine today has one of the largest armies in Europe backed by the most powerful military in the world. And while it is not trained to the standard of nato, “it only has to be better than the Russian army” to get an upper hand, say Western officials.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, also appears to have set boundaries, according to American and European officials. He wants to prevent the complete defeat of Russia, a close partner; he wants to prevent a breakdown in relations with Europe; and he wants to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. So even though he and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, have declared that their countries’ friendship has “no limits”, there have been limits so far in the help China has been prepared to offer Russia. It buys Russian exports of oil and gas at a discount, and sells Chinese goods, some of which might be useful to the war effort. But he has so far declined to provide large-scale deliveries of weapons, of the kind the West has given Ukraine. That may change if China thinks the Russians are about to be routed, Western officials worry.

Even allowing for that risk, however, and while sticking to Mr Biden’s parameters, America’s generals increasingly think it is possible to engineer a “strategic defeat” for Mr Putin’s regime. Over time they have become less fearful of nuclear escalation. In part their “boiled frog” strategy of gradually increasing conventional military aid has helped to mitigate the risk. And by prodding Russia itself, through attacks on the border region of Belgorod or small-drone attacks on the Kremlin, Ukraine also seeks to expose the emptiness of Russian threats. Increasingly, America’s top brass, backed by some in Europe, aims to ensure Russia loses both the military capacity and the inclination to launch another war of aggression. “Never again is not a difficult concept to grasp,” says a Western official.



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