A resolution to the Russian-Ukraine war becomes increasingly complicated
Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso)
Cross-posted from Counterpunch
By invading Ukraine two weeks ago, President Vladmir Putin grossly overplayed his hand and inflicted a political disaster on Russia from which it will struggle to recover for decades.
But are the US and Nato powers – over-confident because they sense that they are on the winning side – now making the same mistake by raising the stakes so high that the crisis is becoming less about Ukrainian independence and more about the survival of Putin and the future of the Russian state?
The extent of the Russian failure in Ukraine since 24 February cannot be overstated. Putin has presided so far over one of the great fiascos in military history, and it is getting late in the day for him and his generals to reverse this. They have not defeated the Ukrainian army, surrounded and captured the bigger cities of Ukraine, decapitated its government or found any local allies willing to work with the occupiers. A show of Russian strength has become a humiliating demonstration of weakness.
The one force that could come unintentionally to the rescue of Putin and his regime is Nato itself. Reasonable it may be to impose stringent sanctions on Russia in order to pressure the Kremlin to withdraw from Ukraine. But if sanctions become a weapon to enforce regime change in Moscow, or remain in place after the original objective is achieved, then the targeted population will view them as a cruel and undeserved form of collective punishment, strengthening the government that they were intended to undermine. US sanctions on Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea produced plenty of misery, but not any changes in regimes that have, if anything, been strengthened by these economic sieges. It should be clear that as soon as Russian troops are out of Ukraine, sanctions will end.
A no-fly zone over Ukraine was always a terrible idea, and making it into a political issue has advantages for Russia because it shifts focus from the Russian invasion to the prospects for World War III. Leaving aside the fact that Ukrainian cities are largely being bombarded by artillery and missiles and not from the air, it would inevitably mean Nato air strikes on Russian S-400 anti-craft missile batteries and airfields inside Russia, inviting retaliatory Russian airstrikes on Poland and other east European states.
Washington has for the moment vetoed the idea of Poland handing over MiG-29s to the US, to be replaced by the transfer of American aircraft to Poland, while the old Soviet planes would be given to the Ukrainian air force. These probably would not make much difference to Ukrainian air defences, but they would be another step in direct Nato involvement in the war.
It is becoming clear that this war is unlikely to produce a definitive military victor on the battlefield, though in relation to its original war aims, Russia has comprehensively lost the conflict. One remaining big question is how far Putin knows this and accepts that he needs to cut his losses and withdraw his army, and whether this is politically feasible for him.
Russian war aims were from the start ambivalent, but at first “de-Nazification” and “demilitarisation” appeared to mean the overthrow of the Ukrainian government – to be replaced by a puppet regime – and the surrender of the Ukrainian army. Obviously, these objectives are not going to be achieved and were always illusory – as was the claim that the Russian-speaking minority was the victim of “genocide”. These claims were always vague and Putin could pretend that, somehow or other, the Nazis had been repelled and Russian speakers saved from slaughter.
As for Putin’s objection to Ukraine moving into the orbit of the West, his invasion has done far more than anything Nato could have done for Ukrainians to become viscerally anti-Russian. As for the Russian demand for a “neutralised” Ukraine, Nato powers have always made clear that their soldiers would never fight in Ukraine. Issues like the Russian annexation of Crimea, which is not going to be reversed, could be left where it is, possibly with a Ukrainian promise not to interrupt the water supply.
Russian grievances against Ukraine pre-war were real enough, but they were scarcely existential. Putin was in a strong position to extract at least some concessions while he threatened to invade Ukraine so long as he did not actually do so. In the event, few invasions have foundered so swiftly and spectacularly. As with many leaders who have confidently launched wars down the centuries, Putin will find that diplomatic solutions that were achievable before blood was spilt are no longer feasible.
Advocates of widening the war through no-fly zones, sending aircraft from Nato states, stopping Russian ships entering or leaving the Baltic, and similar measures only aid Putin by providing an opportunity for him to shift the focus of the conflict from Russia against Ukraine to Russia against Nato.
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