Russia’s plan B is working. The West must not give up on Ukraine now

Russia is playing for time, hoping that support for Ukraine will weaken.

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Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, was fooled recently by two well-known Russian ‘comics’ into saying she was ‘tired’ of the war in Ukraine and that everyone would soon be looking for a ‘way out’. Many of her counterparts in the West would have tacitly agreed.

Ms Meloni deserves no sympathy. She thought she was talking to the head of the African Union Commission, so this should have been a chance to exercise statecraft and reason. She could have argued that Russia’s war in Ukraine is nothing if not colonialist itself – a desperate attempt to maintain its empire.

Russia’s plan B

But Ms Meloni’s statement was worse than a lack of moral leadership. She was also playing into Russia’s hands by parroting its narrative: getting tired and looking for a way out of the war is precisely what Vladimir Putin now wants from the Western world.

More than 600 days into the invasion, Ukraine has largely been pushed from the news cycle. The Hamas–Israel war and national political upheavals have taken precedence. Ukraine is old news, especially as the labels ‘unwinnable’ or ‘forever war’ are unthinkingly attached to it.

The Kremlin’s plan A – to swiftly take Kyiv and rule more or less directly – failed humiliatingly in the first weeks. But plan B – wait for Ukraine’s allies to give up and go home – is working.

The Kremlin’s plan A – to swiftly take Kyiv and rule more or less directly – failed humiliatingly in the first weeks. But plan B – wait for Ukraine’s allies to give up and go home – is working.

Russia has proved resilient, persistent and patient. Liberal democracies, beholden to their electorates, do not always possess these qualities to the same extent.

UK and Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe and the Nordic states are exceptions. Remarkably, since most of them are neighbours and on the front line, they are the least cowed of all. They ‘get it’ that this war is existential for Ukraine and that a Russian victory would make it stronger and more dangerous even than it is now.

Also exceptional is the UK. Credit is due to Britain’s new foreign secretary, David Cameron, for visiting Ukraine just days after taking the role. True, it has always proven a popular move to be seen alongside someone as heroic as President Volodymyr Zelensky in the ‘danger zone’.

But that is an unfairly cynical take. Through unprecedented internal turmoil, the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, perhaps taking its lead from the British people, has been a committed supporter: in money, weapons, training and rhetoric.

The UK’s provision of Storm Shadow missiles has been important for Ukraine’s ability to reach Crimea. Its backing of a Black Sea corridor through which Ukraine can export its grain has made a significant difference to its ravaged economy.

And while the Conservatives’ days in power look likely to be numbered, Labour is in lockstep. This is in marked contrast to the Hamas–Israel war of course, which involves nuances that do not exist in Ukraine.

The larger reality is that Vladimir Putin has effectively succeeded in deterring President Joe Biden from helping Ukraine to win this war.

But the UK and Eastern Europe’s defiance toward Russia gives only small cause for cheer. The larger reality is that Vladimir Putin has effectively succeeded in deterring President Joe Biden from helping Ukraine to win this war.

Many analysts agree that had more been given sooner, particularly by the US, Ukraine’s counteroffensive would have made more progress than it has. Germany is also at fault for its refusal to provide Ukraine with longer-range Taurus missiles for fear of escalation.

‘Stalemate’

This is not to say the war is at a ‘stalemate’ and that it can’t be won. Such was a misreported quote from the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, which again has served the Russian narrative.

In fact, Mr Zaluzhny was referring to a ‘deadlock’. This is not pedantry – there is a way out of a deadlock which is not true of a stalemate. The general outlined a path to victory and what would be needed to secure it. This, of course, amounted to more military aid and developing and acquiring new technologies.

Calling it a stalemate is an obvious example of self-defeat: if it is believed that Ukraine cannot win the war, then Ukraine will not be given weapons to win the war which, in turn, means… they will not win the war. It takes rare political courage to imagine Ukraine’s victory, although EU officials Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell have managed this.

Meanwhile, while President Putin may be happy with President Biden’s hesitation, he’d be even happier with Donald Trump back in power.

Russia, presumably, will not be allowed to play such a supporting role in the 2024 US election as it did in 2016, but the return of Mr Trump would be a game-changer. The US is still providing Ukraine with 70 per cent of the materials needed to fend off Russia.

Ukraine’s EU accession (likely and in progress) and NATO accession, (less likely in times of war and very dependent on US backing) will be a hollow victory if its resources dry up.

Russia has had a poor war – its Black Sea fleet has retreated from Crimea, meaning it will have problems defending the peninsula. Ukraine’s counter-offensive at Avdiivka has been costly for Russia.

Russia can absorb costs like no other. Its industry is war-mobilized and its soldiers are dispensable, replaceable commodities.

But Russia can absorb costs like no other. Its industry is war-mobilized and its soldiers are dispensable, replaceable commodities. Depopulation and brain drain are problems for another day and arguably affect Ukraine more.

Nor should a bad plan be mistaken for a bad army that does not learn from its mistakes. Russia does. It may have been forced to turn to North Korea to fill a ‘munitions gap’, but that too has worked.

Vladimir Putin’s ideology is delusional of course, but he remains deeply committed to seeing his war through to a successful conclusion: ‘all in’ and long since recovered from the Prigozhin affair, he surely believes he can win.

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Western politicians should understand that he is unlikely to wish to negotiate except over the terms of Ukraine’s surrender.

Ukraine is committed and ‘all in’ too, of course, and better prepared for the long winter than much commentary suggests. Its city air defence is better than ever.

It has not taken the ground it might have hoped it would or, more pointedly, would have done had it been given air cover. Therein lies the deadlock.

But it also remains the case that a Ukrainian victory is possible – more than possible. In fact, it is all but certain; but only if Western countries do not ‘get tired’ or look for a way out – and if Ukraine is given the tools to finish the job.

This article was first published in The Independent.