Commentary: Putin is counting on the West’s short attention span to win Ukraine war
Putin's strategic calculus is to wait the West out, because Western tolerance for protracted confrontation has previously been low and can be counted on to de-escalate, says this professor.
CANBERRA: As Russia’s war in Ukraine becomes a quagmire of attrition, Western leaders are slowly coming to two realisations about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions.
First, Russia’s war against Ukraine won’t be over soon and is likely to grind on for the foreseeable future.
Second, it’s pointless to try to imagine a future in which relations with Moscow are characterised by anything other than mutual mistrust and hostility.
In spite of this, there is still a chance that Russia’s invasion falls off the international radar through a Western inability to deal with hard realities.
PUTIN’S WAR OF EXPANSION
In an interview with a German newspaper, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg estimated that the war could take years, rather than months. Patrick Sanders, the incoming chief of the British Army, has claimed the UK’s armed forces need to be oriented around fighting a ground war with Russia.
And after an awkwardly frosty hug with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, even French President Emmanuel Macron, whose calls to Putin have annoyed Kyiv and who previously warned that Putin must not be humiliated, has voiced his unequivocal support for Ukraine.
These epiphanies are long overdue. There’s no point in dreaming up elaborate diplomatic “off-ramps” for Putin when it’s abundantly clear he sees no need for them.
Doing so also denies Ukraine agency in determining how the war ends and presupposes a post-conflict European security order that can meet both Russian and Western requirements.
As witnessed prior to Russia’s invasion on Feb 24, the Kremlin isn’t content with anything short of regaining something close to the geostrategic footprint of the USSR. Obsessed with territorial aggrandisement and having cynically cultivated a fetish for militarism in Russian society, Vladimir Putin recently admitted as much when he compared himself to Peter the Great, noting that “now it’s our turn to get our lands back”.
At the very least, Putin’s words should put to bed the vastly overstated claim that the enlargement of Western security structures somehow forced Putin to invade Ukraine. This is clearly a war of Russian expansion, not NATO expansion.
Yet some Western security policymakers and commentators remain incapable of letting go of victors’ guilt over how the fledgling Russian state was treated following the USSR’s collapse.
While such sentiments are to an extent defensible, the West’s strategic failings nonetheless pale in comparison to Putin’s long history of internal repression, political warfare against external foes, nuclear threats and brutality against those whose continued independence irk him.
VLADIMIR PUTIN IS WAITING THE WEST OUT
Another reason the West should avoid the temptation of hand-wringing is that now is the most dangerous time in Ukraine’s efforts to repel the Russian invasion. By its own estimation, Ukraine’s forces are outgunned ten-to-one by Russian artillery in the Donbas region.
However, Ukraine has no option but to keep fighting, both for national survival and because suing for peace now – given what we know about the barbarism inflicted on Ukrainians by Russian invaders – would mean a swift end for Zelenskyy’s government.
Having initially failed to capture Kyiv in a poorly conceived and executed dash for the capital, Russian forces have adopted their typical approach to offensive operations – massive unguided fires in both urban and rural environments. That curtain of bombardment allows its military to advance, albeit painfully slowly.
This suits Putin just fine, at least for the moment. He has no incentive to go to the negotiating table, since the limited territory he has seized from Ukraine so far cannot be spun as a great victory either at home or abroad.
His military calculus is simple: To continue capturing territory and destroy as much of Ukraine’s infrastructure as possible.
It also dovetails with his strategic calculus, which is to simply wait the West out. Previously – in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea – he has correctly anticipated that Western tolerance for protracted confrontation is low, and it can be counted on to de-escalate.
THE WEST IS LOSING INTEREST IN THE WAR
Yet although Western elites are gloomily coming to the understanding Putin cannot somehow be managed, there remains a significant danger that the conflict falls off the international radar or that Western leaders waver as the conflict drags on.
We can already see some of this happening: In the tendency of the Western media to grasp at straws over Putin’s reputed ill-health, and in Germany’s egregious vacillation over allowing heavy weapons destined for Ukraine to transit its territory.
For his part, Zelenskyy is acutely aware of this. It’s why he has maintained the pressure on European nations to match words with deeds.
It’s also why he now expects something in return for the popularity sugar hit European leaders get from photo opportunities after taking the increasingly well-worn path to Kyiv to meet him.
Meeting Ukraine’s requests for heavy weapons and ammunition is in the interests of NATO members for three reasons. First, it’s critical to show Putin that escalation comes with real costs: Something Western leaders have shied away from for decades.
Second, it’s increasingly likely neither Ukraine nor Russia will be happy with any eventual settlement to the war, and a “frozen” conflict leaves Russia the chance to try again in future.
Ukraine’s armed forces have performed far above expectations in denying the Kremlin the chance to “win”, at least in terms of its original ambitions. But although Kyiv’s desire to recapture all its lost territory – including Crimea – is unsurprising, there’s no realistic prospect of that without military assistance far beyond its requests.
A third reason for the West to meet Ukrainian hardware needs concerns the credibility of NATO’s and the EU’s assertions that they protect international order and shared values. No matter how the war ends, a profoundly damaged Ukraine will take decades to rebuild.
And while it’s currently fashionable for Western leaders to proclaim how much they are doing to help, the reality is that they’re safely watching Ukraine fight a major power.
With that track record, it would be completely understandable for those in other nations that might need Western security assistance in future to have little confidence in obtaining much more beyond noble sentiments and bare minimum support.
Matthew Sussex is a Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of Australian National University. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.