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Russia, Ukraine and the West vow to fight on, in a war with no end in sight

At the one-year mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden both insisted this week that they were committed to the fight. Putin prepared Russia for a long war to be waged “step by step,” while the American president said “we will not tire” in the quest to ensure a democratic Ukraine.

And in a news conference in Kyiv on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said he was “certain” his country would win, calling victory inevitable.

But none of the leaders made it clear what an attainable victory might look like, while hitching their legacies to a war with no discernible end.

“Putin is as committed as he’s ever been to his grand victory,” said Eugene Rumer, a former American intelligence officer and the director of the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Ukrainians are as committed as ever to defeating Putin, even if it will be at a most terrible price.”

Declaring the resolve to fight on, however, is much easier than mustering the resources and support to do so. Ukraine, with a population less than a third that of Russia and an economy devastated by the invasion, is increasingly dependent on Western aid. Russia, facing sanctions and voluminous front-line casualties, depends on close ties and economic cooperation with China, as well as a populace and a ruling elite that remain willing to accept the pain caused by Putin’s war.

On the battlefield, Russia’s winter offensive has so far been underwhelming. Ukraine is widely expected to mount a spring offensive of its own, but is running low on ammunition and, Ukrainian officials say, is desperate for better weaponry. Zelenskyy faces the twin tasks of keeping his country’s morale high and maintaining the resolve of Western allies.

Of all Ukraine’s challenges, the latter is perhaps the most urgent. Having held onto Western support through the winter, when economic upheaval threatened to break the will of European countries making domestic sacrifices, leaders in Kyiv as well as Biden must work to maintain solidarity.

At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, the full-throated expressions of support for Ukraine rarely included specifics, and in the corridors, Western officials and analysts privately expressed less sanguine views about Ukraine’s ability to achieve its stated goal of full victory.

They spoke of anxiety about the length of the conflict, the sustainability of weapons supplies and the political cost of higher inflation and more expensive energy and food.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Monday | DANIEL BEREHULAK / THE NEW YORK TIMES
U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Monday | DANIEL BEREHULAK / THE NEW YORK TIMES

American and European leaders repeated in public that it was solely up to Ukraine to define the aims of the conflict and decide when it is ready to negotiate an end to it. But some analysts believe that the risk of escalation by Russia and the blowback effects on the global economy mean that it is in Washington’s interest to push Ukraine toward more realistic war aims and eventual negotiations with Moscow.

“It is time for the United States and its allies to get directly involved in shaping Ukraine’s strategic objectives, managing the conflict and seeking a diplomatic endgame,” said Charles Kupchan, a former official in the Barack Obama administration now with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Senior American and European officials understand that they, too, have their own national interests that may not perfectly coincide with those of Kyiv — the main reason being that while NATO countries will supply the Ukrainian forces and train them, they will not fight alongside them.

The United States has also been carefully calibrating the weapons it supplies Ukraine to try to ensure that NATO is not dragged into a larger war with Russia.

“The problem is that the United States gives Ukraine enough to push the Russians back, but not enough to win,” said Angela Stent, a scholar specializing in Russian affairs at Georgetown University and the author of “Putin’s World.”

Putin, however, faces his own gap between rhetoric and reality. He describes a pro-Western Ukraine as a mortal threat — an “anti-Russia,” he said, again, in his state-of-the-nation speech on Tuesday — but he has not explained how the minuscule territorial gains that Russia’s grinding fighting is eking out will bring the rest of Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit.

The Russian leader still appears convinced that his victory will be sealed off the battlefield, betting that if he keeps up the fight long enough, Ukrainians will eventually tire of resistance and Western voters will rise up against their current leaders. Putin, the Carnegie analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said, thinks of his territorial conquest of Ukrainian lands as just part of a broader, multipronged conflict.

“He wants a new architecture of international security,” she said. “He wants non-expansion of NATO. He wants capitulation by Kyiv. Grabbing Ukrainian regions is just in addition.”

Crucial signals about the future of the war will come most visibly on the battlefield. Moscow’s winter offensive has so far delivered only minor gains. A failed attack near the town of Vuhledar saw more of the Russian dysfunction that plagued its invasion early in the war. Ukrainian officials say Moscow’s stock of artillery and missiles is running low, and that morale remains a big problem.

But Putin, with little domestic pushback, has millions of Russians he can throw into battle, and American officials say that Russia is currently trying to persuade China to provide military support — an alarming scenario for Ukraine and its allies.

A tank repair unit working in the Donbas region of Ukraine on Friday | TYLER HICKS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
A tank repair unit working in the Donbas region of Ukraine on Friday | TYLER HICKS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

On paper, Russia’s size would appear to give it a growing advantage as the war drags on: It occupies one-tenth of the earth’s landmass, with some of its most prized natural resources.

Nevertheless, Putin will face hard decisions as he seeks to keep up the fight. He will need to weigh any potential escalation in his war effort against the potential pushback from China and India — critical economic partners for Russia.

And he will need to keep an eye on the potential for domestic instability, as he weighs whether to declare another draft ahead of a possible new offensive. His “partial mobilization” of 300,000 civilians last fall thrust Russia into its biggest domestic crisis since the war began, as tens of thousands of young men clogged airports and border crossings to escape being sent to the front.

Analysts believe that Putin will need to call up more forces in order to have a chance at substantial territorial gains on the battlefield. That has become even more apparent in recent weeks, as Russia has suffered some of its heaviest casualties of the war and its main alternative to conscription — convicts recruited from Russian prisons — has dried up.

“They will need personnel replenishment,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation focusing on Russia. “It’s just a question of: Is it going to be small, rolling call-ups, or is it going to be another large batch? And that answer will depend on how far they think they can take an offensive.”

In the presidential administration building in Kyiv, Zelenskyy’s senior leadership has been huddling in offices spread across a labyrinth of hallways and secret corridors behind towering columns and sandbags. For Ukrainian officials, balancing military strategy with diplomatic reality has been a challenge since Zelenskyy emerged from his bunker a year ago to plead for Western allies to provide weapons and ammunition to beat back Russian invaders pressing in on the capital.

Officials in Kyiv have said that they do not think Russia can continue to sustain the losses of men and equipment at the rate it is currently being battered forever, and will try to find a way to pause the conflict by increasing international pressure for a cease-fire.

The Kremlin’s best chance of succeeding, Ukrainian officials say, is convincing Ukraine’s international partners that Kyiv cannot prevail.

The longer Russia occupies part of Ukraine, they say, the more it can cripple Ukraine physically, economically and psychologically while it rebuilds its own arsenal. So the faster that more powerful weapons like tanks, longer-range precision missiles, armored fighting vehicles and fighter jets are put in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers, they add, the faster the war can be brought to an end.

Biden’s dramatic visit to Kyiv and the commitment of another $2 billion in military assistance made it clear that the U.S. support critical for Ukraine’s survival would continue as Kyiv plans to go on the offensive in coming months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a rally in Moscow on Wednesday | NANNA HEITMANN / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a rally in Moscow on Wednesday | NANNA HEITMANN / THE NEW YORK TIMES

“The timing of weapons supplies from our partners” was a major concern, said Oleksiy Danilov, the head of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council. “The longer it takes, the more people we lose.”

In a recent interview, Danilov noted the comparisons popping up in media outlets comparing Ukraine and Korea, raising the notion that a “38th Parallel,” akin to the line that divided North and South Korea, could be imposed in Ukraine.

But he dismissed such talk as Moscow-fueled propaganda.

In his news conference on Friday, Zelenskyy also rejected the idea of a settlement under current conditions. For there to be peace, he said, Russia must stop committing atrocities like “murdering Ukrainian children” and “bombing Ukrainian cities” and show that it can “respect the right of Ukrainians to live on Ukrainian land.”

“Only then will we tell you the form we can use to put an end to the war,” he said.

Source: Japan Times