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Fighters and actors in winter fatigue

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EDITORIAL -27 november 2022

Fighters and actors in winter fatigue

“Fatigue” in a war is a natural thing. We are already talking about more than nine months of pure and continuous war since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, without the ceasefires that generate the hope of an end to it, or even a truce. Despite predictions of a quick and dirty war, with Ukrainian resistance crushed within days by the massive weight of Russian weapons, reality has shown us that the facts do not always coincide with initial assessments. Despite Western warnings, Ukraine chose the path of resistance, even with a military and economic system incapable of standing up to the Russian colossus. It was its decision. The West was initially semi-blocked in the typical decision-making bureaucracy generated by the diversity of interests, especially economic, or the diversity of bilateral relations over time with Russia. Perhaps it was more convenient and cheaper to supply its wealth-generating economies from a Russia itself dependent on its resources as a major generator of its GDP. In a moment, to be misjudged, Russia announced to the world the need for a new world order in which it is participating with its military force, wrongly judged to be the second largest in the world, and seeking to engage China as the main economic force. China’s reaction was not what was expected, but Russia can do no more. The West has been unnerved, perhaps in part by Russia’s essentially revolutionary threats to what they call and want to be a necessary new world order. Russia, unlike the US, has a fairly long revolutionary tradition. It likes radical, eventful change, but in someone else’s backyard. Russia has so far used its two greatest assets: its military and its resources. At the roulette table, the West has had to take risks and support, through an increasingly complex mechanism, a Ukraine whose territory is part of the Heartland defined by Mackinder in 1919, whose summary statements are probably still valid[1]:

Whoever controls Eastern Europe controls the Heartland;

Who rules Heartland, commands the World Island;

Who rules the World Island, commands the world.

Russia sees itself positioned in the “Pivot Area” defined by Mackinder, and it is in contrast to Spykman’s theory, which argued that the littoral states of Heartland (Rimland) can control the centre. Spykman, the American political scientist who was a professor of international relations at Yale University and founder of the classical realist school in American foreign policy, did not reject Mackinder’s arguments, but rather focused on Rimland, declaring that “Whoever controls Rimland governs Eurasia; whoever governs Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.” Spykman pointed out that most important to the attainment of global power are waterways. They, as clearly defined in Russia’s new Maritime Strategy (slightly outdated under current conditions) are the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the East and South East China Seas. Here, too, Russia is dependent on economic powerhouse China, along with its meteoric military rise. Russia has felt that it stands to lose a great deal if it does not do something, at least to be counted in future geopolitical games. But here comes winter! When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Western intelligence predicted a rapid fall of Ukraine. But in these predictions and calculations, it did not anticipate either the incompetence of Russian military commanders, lies and corruption at all levels, the effectiveness of the Ukrainian resistance or the stunning leadership of President Zelensky. Nothing revealed at the outset that the war would not end in a quick Russian victory within hours of the invasion. The US offer to evacuate Zelensky and his family indicates this. This offer clearly implied an acceptance that Russia would get what it wanted, because if Zelensky had fled and his government had collapsed, we would not have seen a successful resistance. Also, no act so perfectly summed up the determination and courage of the Ukrainian people as Zelensky’s defiant response, “I don’t need a ride, I need guns.” When he said this, Zelensky knew he was being hunted by mercenaries already pre-positioned in Kiev, hired by Russia to kill him and his family. His decision to stay and fight was not only an act of leadership, but of great personal courage. Just as the West was taken by surprise, so was Vladimir Putin, and not just by the ferocity of Ukrainian resistance. He had not expected the clotting, invasion-generated effect on European nations that had, in previous weeks, sent ambiguous messages about their likely response. Nothing illustrates the pre-invasion confusion in European diplomacy better than Emmanuel Macron’s continued personal contact with Putin right up to the eve of the invasion, in the fanciful belief that he could deter him, while other European leaders, such as Boris Johnson, adopted a harsher plan based on refusing to engage in dialogue. Putin did not expect Finland and Sweden to reverse decades of policy and express their choice to join NATO, just as he did not expect the reaction of Germany, whose chancellor, Olaf Scholz, on the Sunday after the invasion, stunned the world by announcing Germany’s rearmament, perhaps the biggest change of course in European history since the collapse of communism.

What changed everything? What brought NATO and EU countries together? Russia’s unexpected failure!

And slowly it all turned into a long-lasting war, the length and scope of which was hard to predict. Is the nuclear element emerging or not? Or other sophisticated weapons of great psychological impact? Now Russia’s most general strategist is General Winter. Step by step, Ukraine is out of the “relegation zone” and hoping for a place at the top of the rankings (let’s also mention the ongoing World Cup). The similarity of the situation is real. Hoping for a top spot implies sponsors! The away (or home) victory in Herson succeeded in challenging Russia’s authority in one of the four regions declared independent (but annexed by referendum). What could be more humiliating? Russian propaganda voices are shocked. They claim the Motherland has been attacked. Is that really so? Russia’s post-reaction proves otherwise. Is it based on the fact that Ukraine’s dwindling energy resources, previously an energy exporter, are insufficient to protect the minimum population? We think so. As the European winter descends, there is unlikely to be significant movement on the battlefield on either side. Conditions on the ground will not allow this. Armies on both sides are likely to remain frozen in place until early spring next year. The Russians will continue to wage a war of attrition, but such kinetic action as we are likely to see will consist mainly of missile and drone strikes on Ukrainian cities, especially Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Russia hopes that in the meantime, the original European unity will begin to fragment. By and large, Eastern European countries, especially Poland and the Baltic states, are as steadfast as ever. Among the nations of western and southern Europe, which do not share a border with Russia and therefore feel no sense of imminent threat from their eastern neighbours, differences are emerging. Britain, which has led Europe in opposing Putin, remains steadfast. Continental European nations such as France, Germany and Italy are in the balance. The differing degrees of commitment are evident in how much money they have been prepared to spend on arming and providing humanitarian support for Ukraine: while Britain has so far spent about $5 billion and Poland about $4 billion (most of the latter on refugee resettlement costs), the total commitment of all other European nations combined has so far been just over $3 billion. Meanwhile, in the United States – which has provided the Ukrainians with some $25 billion worth of arms and aid – we are beginning to see what some commentators call “Ukraine fatigue”. Two events last week could weaken America’s resolve: the Republican Party’s success in taking control of the House of Representatives and Donald Trump’s announcement of another presidential bid. Although some far-left Democrats also oppose it, the main opposition in the US to supporting Ukraine comes from Trump’s Republicans. With such a slim Republican majority in the House, the influence of those opposed to US support for the war will be greater. This is where the right-wing Freedom Caucus parliamentary group’s modus operandi comes in. What does this mean for Ukraine? In the short term, there will be pressure on Zelensky from some European leaders, not just Macron. But that would mean ceding at least Crimea and perhaps ceding territory in Luhansk and Donesk provinces. Zelensky won’t do that. However, Putin, who still has fairly strong domestic support (still) in Russia , cannot settle for anything less than he has now. But there’s no telling what the future will hold. On the other side of the Atlantic, the public is already starting to get war-weary. In the longer term, beyond the presidential election two years from now, there is a significant possibility of an isolationist Republican administration that may not be as supportive of Ukraine.

We should not be too optimistic in predicting Ukraine’s ultimate victory. But we can certainly predict that this war will not end any time soon.

Analysis: Maritime Security Forum– 27noiembrie 2022

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