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Many analysts and commentators have been speculating about how the US and NATO will find their way to an endgame in the Ukraine conflict. Some focus, for humanitarian or pragmatic reasons, on a negotiated settlement between the US and Russia. Even though as a matter of form Ukraine would be party to such a deal, with Ukraine now fully dependent on Western arms and funding, there’s no pretending who is really driving this train.
We described earlier how the various factions in the US/NATO side would spend huge amounts of time arguing among themselves to come up with ideas for how exit the conflict that they’d developed in a vacuum, with no substantive exchange with Russia and not even any real consideration of repeated statements by Russian officials, including draft treaties presented in December 2021 and in the aborted peace talks in Marcy 2022.
The new peace chatter seems to amount to:
Ceasefire > *Magic* > Russia goes away with its tail enough between its legs that we and Ukraine can declare victory
At first we thought this dynamic was the result of splits among various key parties. After all, multiparty negotiations are messy.
But upon further reflection, it may be that the West has effectively set boundary conditions for itself that make ending the war impossible….absent changes in leaders of key governments that result in a willingness to relax boundary conditions and/or such a visible collapse of Ukraine’s military that the West has to rethink its self-imposed constraints.
The West wants to have a Schrodinger’s war: to pretend that its involvement in the conflict is in an indeterminate state when the US and NATO are clearly co-belligerents. Keep in mind that so far, NATO members have slipped the leash of Ukraine attempts to depict various shellings as attacks on NATO members
Remember, we and others have pointed out that there is no reason to assume the belligerents will hammer out an agreement, since many conflicts end without a deal. And as we said from very early on, there isn’t good reason to think one will happen here.
A top priority for Russia is to get Ukraine to commit to neutrality or otherwise keep it out of NATO’s hands, while the US position is that nobody outside NATO has a say in who might be a NATO member. And for Ukraine, or at least the Banderites, the war must be kept going as long as possible. Once US/NATO money and materiel largely evaporates, the current Ukraine leaders will be at the mercy of the Russian government, with their personal power and prospects for further enrichment very much diminished. A few might survive and even prosper, but as a group, they will suffer a very big fall.
And as noted the US and NATO are still trying to escalate….or at best, escalating because past measures like the great Ukraine counteroffensive have failed. And worse, Western experts are admitting that Russia has been improving its tactics and weapons over the course of the war, as Simplicius the Thinker recounts in his latest post. So the US, which earlier nixed F-16s for Ukraine now will be sending them. ABC has reported that the US is now likely to send ATACMS missiles, which have a longer range than HIMARS. Many commentators Ukraine will use to strike Crimea and the Kerch Bridge.1
Why do we think the West has caught itself in a bind?
For Russia, the war is existential. Too many Western officials have depicted victory as Russia being so battered that Putin is ousted and even the breakup of Russia. Russian opinion has hardened due those pronouncements, along with Western efforts not just to support the Ukraine war, but also to cancel Russian athletes, performers, and even its culture, and to continued Ukraine missile strikes on the civilian Donetsk city.
At least for now, the US/NATO combine is acting as if the war is existential, even though, as Ray McGovern has pointed out, there is not a shred of evidence that Russia has any interest in acquiring territory in NATO countries. Consider how Germany has allowed itself to be deindustrialized and has not acted in response to the Nord Stream attack, which the German press depicts as the handiwork of its ally Ukraine, and the US cannot plausibly have not known what was up. Those actions show the depth of commitment.
As for Russia’s posture towards Ukraine, Putin rejected the efforts of the Donbass separatists to join Russia prior to the special military operation, and moved to annex the four oblasts that Russia had partially occupied only after the embarrassing pullbacks from Kherson and Kharkiv last year. That left the civilians who had helped the Russians exposed to reprisals, and others in areas where Russia had taken ground worried about Russia’s commitment. But now that sentiment in Russia has hardened and the West is not backing down, Russia seems destined to gobble up more of Ukraine. And what happens to Western Ukraine then is very much an open question.
However the US/NATO position that the NATO will always have an open door policy may wind up being existential for NATO. If the US were to get over itself, it could agree to stop NATO expansion eastward where it is now (not that Russia would necessarily believe that) which might allow NATO to continue to exist only a bit bruised via how badly the NATO-trained and equipped forces in Ukraine fared versus Russia. Instead, NATO is actually doubling down, for instance via the pleasing-nobody compromise floated by a deputy of NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, of Ukraine ceding land to Russia in return for an immediate NATO membership. What about “Russia will not accept NATO on its border” don’t you understand? This sort of thing only further confirms the notion that the West has no interest in considering Russia’s security needs.
And Russia can’t have missed Anthony Blinken’s position when head of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley had the temerity last fall to suggest that Ukraine negotiate after it had recaptured some ground so as to improve its bargaining position. Milley was made to walk his mention of negotiations back at that time. Blinken committed the US and NATO to continuing to arm Ukraine to revisit the war at a later date. Key extracts from his Washington Post interview with David Ignatius:
Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined his strategy for the Ukrainian endgame and postwar deterrence during an interview on Monday at the State Department….
He also underlined President Biden’s determination to avoid direct military conflict with Russia, even as U.S. weapons help pulverize Putin’s invasion force. “Biden has always been emphatic that one of his requirements in Ukraine is that there be no World War III,” Blinken said.
Russia’s colossal failure to achieve its military goals, Blinken believes, should now spur the United States and its allies to begin thinking about the shape of postwar Ukraine — and how to create a just and durable peace that upholds Ukraine’s territorial integrity and allows it to deter and, if necessary, defend against any future aggression. In other words, Russia should not be able to rest, regroup and reattack.
Blinken’s deterrence framework is somewhat different from last year’s discussions with Kyiv about security guarantees similar to NATO’s Article 5. Rather than such a formal treaty pledge, some U.S. officials increasingly believe the key is to give Ukraine the tools it needs to defend itself. Security will be ensured by potent weapons systems — especially armor and air defense — along with a strong, noncorrupt economy and membership in the European Union.
The Pentagon’s current stress on providing Kyiv with weapons and training for maneuver warfare reflects this long-term goal of deterrence. “The importance of maneuver weapons isn’t just to give Ukraine strength now to regain territory but as a deterrent against future Russian attacks,” explained a State Department official familiar with Blinken’s thinking. “Maneuver is the future.”
Given that the current Ukraine government continues to insist that it must recapture all of the pre-2014 Ukraine, it’s clear that any rearming of Ukraine by the West would lead to new hostilities…and not instigated by Russia.
However, as an aside, the Post also unwittingly tells us why Project Ukraine is doomed. The US has not adapted to the new ISR paradigm which Russia is perfecting with every passing day. As various military experts have pointed out, maneuver warfare (which among other things depends on massing forces to punch through enemy lines) is no longer possible with a peer power. Your build-up of men and materiel will be seen and attacked before you launch your big punch.
Keep in mind what Blinken’s position also implies: the US believes it can run what amounts to a two front war. Blinken posits Russia somehow loses in Ukraine so as to allow the US and NATO to rearm it at their leisure so as to harass, um, pressure Russia further down the war. At the same time US is also determined to Do Something to its official Enemy #1, China. Since economic sanctions are working about as well against China as they have against Russia, what does the US and its Pacific allies have left besides military escalation? Or will mere relentless propaganda be enough to snooker the credulous American public?
So unless the US relents, Russia has no option but to continue to prosecute the war until Ukraine is prostrated or Russia has otherwise precipitated regime change in Kiev. Russia needs to capture Ukraine, either politically or practically. This outcome becomes even more important if the US sends ATACMS. Russia will need an even wider buffer zone (300 km versus 77 km for the HIMARS previously sent) to prevent their use against Russian territory.
However, an undeniable Ukraine loss, no matter how much porcine maquillage US and EU spokescritters apply, will, as Alastair Crooke in particular described long-form in a recent Duran program, will rattle smaller NATO members, who will doubt they can rely on NATO to come to their rescue. NATO may still be fit for purpose as a defensive alliance. However, the fact that the US and NATO members sent in a whole mess of heavily-hyped wunderwaffen that did pretty much nothing to blunt Russian operations, and some of which were impressively destroyed, like Leopard 2 and Challenger tanks and the West is not responding with a Sputnik-level effort to get Western firepower up to Russian levels, means there is good reason to doubt how well the NATO shield would hold up if tested.
Mind you, Crooke explained in a related article that US is (or the hawks think it is) moving in the direction of a long, low intensity conflict, which is consistent with the Blinken remarks above. But that US/Ukraine hope ignores again that the war is generally very much going in Russia’s direction, with Ukraine continuing to throw men and materiel against Russian positions, and Russia only engaging in fairly minor advances in and near Kupiansk to produce even more of the same. Russia wanted to attrit Ukraine and is getting that outcome. And Russia can and will increase the intensity when it suits Russia.
One would think, given both the weakening Ukraine position, and the all-too-obvious need for the Biden Administration not to suffer a visible defeat in Ukraine, the optimal time would be between March and October 2024. However, that still may not take the form of the too-eagerly-hoped for big arrow attacks unless the Ukraine army is severely degraded.2 But the flip side is when Russia finally cracks the last Ukraine line of defense in the Donbass, there’s not much in the way of defensible positions west of Lugansk up to the Dnieper.3
In other words, the way to an end game is regime change. And the weak regimes are all in the West.
1 Admittedly, the US has pushed back the delivery date of Abrams tanks to next year….but they are so heavy they would probably be useless in the soon-to-arrive mud season.
Dima at Military Summary today noted that Russia has not engaged in the sort of massive missile strikes of Ukraine that had been its habit, although it is still regularly striking selective targets, such as yesterday an ammo depot in Kiev, rumored to hold depleted uranium shells. He speculates they are accumulating stocks for big strikes in the winter to again damage the electrical grid. If Russia indeed has been caching missiles, they could also be keeping them in reserve for major retaliatory strikes.
2 Another issue is that Russia knows it is dealing with people who do not have a good grip on reality, and you don’t make sudden moves around crazy people, particularly when they possess nukes.
3 This makes the continuing fight over Bakhmut rational. That is on the third of four Ukraine defensive lines, but the last is seen as weak. If Russia were to move forces up to the Dnieper, it is hard to see how the West could not see that as undeniable evidence of Russian success, which would threaten the position of the Ukraine regime with its patrons.