- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2023

No end in sight: One year into Vladimir's Putin war in Ukraine

Third of three parts

The year-old Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken the foundations of a post-Cold War order that has held sway for three decades, reviving global unease about the prospect of nuclear war, rocking long-established diplomatic and political norms and aligning the world’s top autocracies — Iran, North Korea, China and Russia — in unsettling ways.

With the outcome of the war very much in question, many are asking what comes next inside Ukraine and on the global geopolitical landscape.

Beyond isolating Russia and backing Kyiv economically and militarily, the U.S. and its allies are grappling with a world no longer bound by more than a generation of rules and norms since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“This is a system-changing event. What it is, is a failure of deterrence and it is a failure of all the mechanisms we had to keep the peace after World War II and after the Cold War,” said Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official and a Russia specialist now with the Brookings Institution.

SEE ALSO: Part Two: Russian right-wing nationalists, bloggers emerge as critics of Putin’s war leadership

“So we’re going to have to rethink: Do we need a complete overhaul?” Ms. Hill asked during a recent roundtable hosted by the Washington-based think tank.

Jonathan Masters, deputy managing editor at the Council of Foreign Relations’ CFR.org website, wrote recently that Ukraine “has long played an important, yet sometimes overlooked, role in the global security order.”

“Today,” he said, “the country is on the front lines of a renewed great-power rivalry that many analysts say will dominate international relations in the decades ahead.”

If the past year has been a guide, trying to game out what the coming months will bring may be a fool’s errand.

Beyond the Biden administration’s pre-invasion warnings that Russian President Vladimir Putin was serious about sending his troops over the border into Ukraine, most expectations from the foreign policy establishment on both sides of the Atlantic have been wrong.

Many predicted that the Ukrainian army would be routed and that Kyiv would fall within days, but Ukraine is more than holding its own.

SEE ALSO: Part One: Chaos wrought by Russia in Ukraine reveals chilling reality: How far will Putin go?

Specialists predicted a massive European energy crisis once Russian oil and gas flows were cut off. It hasn’t materialized.

The Kremlin banked on the strains of the war fracturing the U.S.-European alliance. Instead, U.S. companies are signing natural gas contracts across Europe to fill the gap. NATO is not only united but also poised to welcome Finland and Sweden, which had long been wary of joining the Western military alliance.

Perhaps most important were military specialists’ expectations that Russia’s war machine, rebuilt and modernized under Mr. Putin, would live up to its billing as one of the world’s most ferocious. Instead, a series of disastrous early miscalculations and an apparent lack of planning turned a battlefield mismatch into a war of attrition that could drag on for years.

The prospect that the war will escalate in unexpected ways is no less worrisome today than it was during its first weeks when President Biden sought to draw clear distinctions with respect to American aid. The aid so far includes tanks, missile systems and other tools but avoids direct participation by U.S. military personnel, lest a much larger, world-altering conflict between two nuclear-armed camps erupt.

“The idea that we are going to send offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews — don’t kid yourself, no matter what you all say — that’s called World War III,” Mr. Biden told a Democratic Party conference in Philadelphia last March.

On the ground

The most immediate variables on the battlefield are in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, now the epicenter of the fighting and a crucial barometer of the strength and morale of each country’s military.

Russian forces made early gains in and around the region, the heart of a pro-Moscow separatist movement that had been battling the government in Kyiv since 2014. Early Russian advances were pushed back in the fall by a fierce Ukrainian counteroffensive that recaptured key cities such as Kherson and Kharkiv.

Ukrainian forces also showed a stunning ability to carry out drone strikes on targets inside Russia, dealing another symbolic blow to Mr. Putin’s army.

Military training and equipment from U.S. and European allies have proved invaluable. Mr. Biden’s decision to provide Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Patriot missile defense batteries, and other vehicles and weapons dramatically increased the Ukrainian military’s ability to fend off Russian advances and conduct its own forward operations.

On a surprise visit to Kyiv this week, Mr. Biden promised a fresh $450 million worth of weaponry, including 500 new Javelin anti-armor systems and 2,000 new anti-armor rockets. Taken with similar contributions by other NATO allies, including German-made Leopard tanks, the weapons deliveries suggest that Ukrainian forces are poised to go on the offensive this year.

Meanwhile, Russia is preparing for its own fresh push on the battlefield.

Despite thousands of troops and civilians killed and untold destruction of Ukrainian cities thus far, there is a belief in foreign policy circles that both sides are capable of much more. For Russia in particular, an unfolding mass mobilization of fresh troops suggests Moscow is following its decades-old military playbook: Send as many bodies into the fight as possible, no matter the human cost.

“The problem is we haven’t seen either side fight in their full glory yet,” said geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan, who wrote the 2022 book “The End of the World Is Just Beginning.” “The Ukrainians are the underdog, but they’re in the process of [being] rapidly armed with more and more sophisticated equipment. By the time we get to May, they will have been able to do a lot of deferred maintenance on the equipment they captured from the Russians, which was more equipment than they started the war with, and there will be 60,000 Ukrainian troops that have trained in NATO countries with more advanced equipment back in the field.

“On the other side, the Russians will finish their second mobilization, and they will have at least another half a million men in the field,” Mr. Zeihan recently told “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast.

“Now, [the new Russian troops] will be badly trained and badly equipped and badly led with low morale, but troops like that have a technical term attached to them: ‘Russian,’” Mr. Zeihan said. “There’s nothing about this war that is unique in Russian history. The first year is always an absolute s—- show. And then the Russians throw bodies at the problem until it goes away.”

Moscow has demonstrated a cold-blooded willingness to target Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, including energy systems, and has given no reason to believe such attacks will end this year.

The long-term prospects for the Russian war effort also are uncertain. The Pentagon has assessed that Russian forces could begin running out of ammunition this spring, and administration officials say the reason has to do with U.S. and European Union sanctions.

Successive Western sanctions packages “have degraded Russia’s ability to replace more than 9,000 pieces of military equipment lost since the start of the war,” U.S. Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo told the Council on Foreign Relations this week.

Russia has also lost up to 50% of its tanks,” Mr. Adeyemo said. “While we have far more to do, we are succeeding in reversing the course of Russia’s budget and undercutting its military-industrial complex.”

A new global order

Western sanctions, coupled with spiraling Russian wartime spending, are resulting in major logistical headaches for the Kremlin while triggering a dangerous wave of global geopolitical shifts.

Russia has appeared increasingly eager since invading Ukraine to foment a 21st-century axis of powers openly hostile to the U.S. and its allies.

Iran and North Korea have emerged as key arms suppliers for Moscow. Cheap Iranian drones have undergirded the offensive and defensive capabilities of Russian forces in Ukraine. Pyongyang reportedly has supplied missiles and rockets to the Wagner Group, the Kremlin’s private mercenary firm.

Specialists say the arrangement benefits the Iranian and North Korean regimes as much as Moscow because all three regimes have a direct interest in undermining the U.S.-backed international order.

“The shuttering of many Western market opportunities to Russian firms could also open new — albeit limited — opportunities for economically isolated and cash-strapped Pyongyang and Tehran,” researchers with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote in a recent analysis.

“While Russia has long criticized international and unilateral sanctions on North Korea and Iran,” they wrote, “Moscow had not gone so far as to blatantly disregard them altogether. However, that calculus may be changing as reports emerge of new Iran-Russia economic cooperation in the energy, aerospace and automotive sectors.”

Meanwhile, speculation is rampant that Pyongyang is accepting compensation for weapons sales to Russia in the form of cash transfers and fuel as well as advanced weapons technologies that North Korea has long struggled to procure under international sanctions.

As troubling as the Russia-North Korea-Iran partnership may be, it pales in comparison with developments between Russia and America’s leading geopolitical and military challenge, China.

Beijing has tried to strike a delicate balance by avoiding the appearance of directly backing Russia’s war while offering rhetoric for Moscow’s position and providing limited behind-the-scenes support.

U.S. officials fear China will ramp up direct military aid to Russia this year. Such a step would carry short- and long-term implications. Most immediately, it could give Russian forces the means to push deeper into Ukraine while making Mr. Putin ever more reliant on Beijing as it challenges the U.S. and its allies in Asia.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue with leading Chinese diplomat Wang Yi during a discussion at the Munich Security Conference last week.

Mr. Blinken told CBS News that his team specifically conveyed “concerns that we have that China is considering providing lethal support to Russia in its efforts in Ukraine.”

“I was able to share with him … the serious consequences that would have for our relationship,” the secretary of state said.

Further erosion of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, already strained by the recent discovery and shooting-down by U.S. forces of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the United States, could be one of the year’s most significant geopolitical developments.

Specialists argue more broadly that the Russia-Ukraine war has heightened the stakes of uncertainty about Washington’s ability to not only lead a democratic world order but also forge a united front with other key governments in an increasingly turbulent era of great power competition.

The U.S. and Europe have mostly been in lockstep on countering China’s rise and have responded collectively to the Russia-Ukraine war, but some warn that Western messaging is falling flat with many emerging global players.

A host of nations from key corners of the world have not adopted the stringent economic sanctions that Washington and the EU have imposed on Moscow, raising questions about the limits of the West’s ability to build multiregional coalitions in times of war.

“When you don’t have strong support from Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, India and Turkey and Indonesia, you do have to wonder: Is our message resonating?” said Bruce Jones, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution.

“Trying to rally the non-Western world around the rules-based order does not work,” Mr. Jones said at the think tank’s recent roundtable. “Rallying it around this framework of divisions between democracies and autocracies does not work.

“We have to do a much better job of understanding the interests of these major players from the south who do not see the world the same way we do, who have much deeper interests in China’s economic rise,” he said. “They don’t see that issue the way we do, and we’ve gotten a lot of that stuff wrong.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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