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The Ukraine war – Strategic and Geopolitical Issues

By Major General Harsha Kakar (Retd)

Background

The war in Ukraine (Russia no longer terms it as a special military operation) has been ongoing for over two years. in terms of killed, wounded as also equipment losses have been high, true figures remain disputed. Each side claims having inflicted higher losses on the other. As per the UN Secretary General, more than 10,500 civilian lives have been lost, nearly 4 million displaced, infrastructure destroyed and 14.5 million in need of humanitarian aid.

The Ukrainian energy minister stated early this week, “Today, we are talking about losses of more than a billion dollars in the power sector. But if attacks continue, then it is obvious that the losses will grow.”

Introduction to The Ukraine war

Russia considers it as war against a combined west while the west considers the Russian action as an invasion of a free state. The difference in perceptions is evident when Kremlin spokesperson and Japan State Minister for Foreign Affairs Tsuji Kiyoto stated in recent talks

 “When the collective West became a participant in this on the side of Ukraine, it became a war for us.” – Kremlin spokesperson – Dimitry Peskov mentioned

“This is not only an European issue, nor just an issue of the so-called ‘Russia and the West — any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force must not be tolerated anywhere in the world.” – Tsuji Kiyoto, State Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan mentioned

The reasons and initiated events that shaped the dialogue that Ukraine is in war with Russia

Russia is waging a conflict with West, Europe, NATO and World and to truly understand; We need to step back and follow back to the timelines of the war

Till mid last year, the west and Ukraine were hopeful of pushing the Russians back and inflicting a military defeat on them. This was due to the influx of mercenaries, strong nationalism of Ukrainians which led to increased volunteers, induction of superior western weapons and ammunition, intelligence inputs, joint planning and western backed military training to Ukrainian soldiers. It is known that NATO was guiding Ukrainian operations on the battlefield.

Such was the confidence that in Jun 2023, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine announced the launching of a counteroffensive to regain lost territory. He mentioned, ‘I don’t know how long it will take. To be honest, it can go a variety of ways, completely different. But we are going to do it, and we are ready.’ There was hope that the counteroffensive would succeed leading to the end of the Putin era.

By mid-August the offensive had stalled with heavy losses to Ukraine. Zelensky admitted, ‘We waited too long, they put mines.’ However, Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State attempted to paint a rosy picture by mentioning, ‘Ukrainian forces have taken back more than 50 percent of the territory seized by Russian forces since February of 2022.’ This was false and aimed at convincing Americans that aid to Ukraine must continue. Since then, there have only been reverses for Ukraine.

Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the Ukrainian army chief, stated recently on telegram, ‘The situation on the eastern front in recent days has grown considerably more tense.’ He also claimed that Russian offensive actions increased in tempo post their presidential elections. Russia’s next major offensive is expected to commence in end May/ early June. Zelensky mentioned, ‘The Russian army is now trying to take advantage of a situation when we are waiting for supplies from our partners, especially from the United States of America.’

Since the Hamas attack on Israel and the commencement of its offensive into Gaza, funds and equipment flowing into Ukraine has slowed. US has had to ensure that Israel is equipped to counter any major threat including anything which may emerge from Iran. Simultaneous is enhancing military capability of Taiwan to ward off a Chinese attack. The US Congress delayed clearing military aid to Ukraine for multiple reasons. Trump, the forerunner for the forthcoming elections has a different perspective on the war including supporting Ukraine.

Europe had never enhanced its military production to levels of war and hence was alone unable to meet demands of Ukraine. Ukraine, unlike Russia, did not employ its economy to switch its peacetime industries into war production. It continued to bank on the west for support, with Zelensky even threatening, ‘This aggression, and Putin’s army, can come to Europe, and then the citizens of the United States, the soldiers of the United States, will have to protect Europe because they’re NATO members.’ He hoped that threat to Europe would push NATO enhance support.

Within Europe differences began to increase as also did funding fatigue. New governments came to power on the promise of cutting aid to Ukraine and concentrating on local economies, Hungary and Slovakia being examples. This, alongside no gains by Ukrainian forces led to reduced support.

Delay in the US Congress passing the aid package to Ukraine had its impact. Ukrainian frontlines began slowly collapsing. Artillery ammunition was unavailable to stem Russian advance and troop concentrations. Russian advances were slow but regular. The Kharkiv sector is now facing an increased threat. A Ukrainian general mentioned, ‘There’s nothing that can help Ukraine now because there are no serious technologies able to compensate Ukraine for the large mass of troops Russia is likely to hurl at us.’

The US Congress finally approved USD 61 billion military assistance for Ukraine. Of the funds cleared, USD 23 billion will be expended to replenish US military stockpiles, thereby enabling future transfer of war-like stores to Ukraine while 14 billion for the Ukrainian Security Assistance Initiative, permits Washington to procure new weapon systems directly from their own defence contractors. 11 billion will fund ongoing military cooperation including training of Ukrainian forces as also intelligence sharing. Only 8 billion will go to Ukraine for salaries and other purposes.

The total package for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel cleared by the US Congress is over USD 95 Billion, which as per Brahma Chellaney, ‘is larger than the defence budget of every country other than the United States, China and Russia.’ He adds, ‘The conflict has already exposed NATO’s military shortcomings, including its struggle to scale up weapons and munitions manufacturing to match the output of Russia’s war economy.’

As per SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), Russian defence spending in 2023 was USD 110 billion which was an increase of 24% over the previous year and 57% since its takeover of Crimea in 2014. It was 16% of government expenditure. Ukraine’s defence spending increased by 51% to USD 64.8bn, not including USD 35 billion it received as aid from its allies. 60% of Kiev’s government spending was on defence. The difference may appear less but import costs are much higher.

Military equipment to Russia continues to flow from North Korea and Iran while dual use technology is shared by China. The Moscow-Pyongyang-Tehran-Beijing axis is becoming stronger, largely due to western support to Ukraine. Putin’s first overseas visit, post his re-election, is to Beijing later this month. The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, visited Beijing seeking to push them to stop supporting Moscow. It is unlikely that the Chinese will listen.

There is no way Ukraine can match Russian military equipment and manpower at the front. Russia is now looking to push women prisoners to the frontlines offering them USD 2000 a month and a pardon with one year service. It has thousands of volunteers. Ukraine, in desperation, has reduced its drafting age by two years hoping to boost its dwindling manpower.

Nationalism has lost its zeal in Ukraine. Those likely to be conscripted are either leaving the country or bribing recruiters. Its manpower shortage is evident. In a display of confidence, Russia organized an exhibition of Western military equipment captured from Kyiv forces during the fighting in Ukraine. This was intending to display that the west is the aggressor and Russia defending its interests. Western nations were embarrassed by this crass action.

Macron tries to wade into the conflict mentioning that NATO forces can be deployed in Ukraine. Post summoning of a French diplomat by the Russian foreign ministry, Paris backtracked. Germany objected to Macron’s comments. Moscow, warning the west conducted a nuclear weapons exercise.

Currently, no amount of aid would enable Ukraine to regain territory occupied by Russia. Supply of military equipment is now aimed at preventing Ukraine from going under or enabling them to just hold their frontlines’, regaining territory is history. This is well known in the west but options are limited. The US has little choice but to begin backdoor diplomacy with Moscow for peace.

The Switzerland conference could be the opening act, though Russia has declined to participate.


Major General Harsha Kakar (Retd)
Major General, Head of Department in Strategic Studies at the College of Defence Management,
He is based in Bharat-India

Conclusion

However, To conclude, Russia’s demands will not change and the west will be compelled to eat humble pie. It will remain holding onto areas captured, no entry for Ukraine in NATO and removal of Zelensky as President.

As per inputs of today, Russia has commenced its offensive in the Kharkiv region. Whether this is its main or a feint will be known in a few days. However, the longer the delay in commencing dialogue to end the war, the more Ukraine loses and greater the destruction. The ball is in the courts of Brussels and Washington, Zelensky being just a puppet.

Philippines must exercise caution and restraint from drawing a blank cheque support from the Biden administration. The US has tendency to leave its allies high and dry amongst thick of conflicts in the past when it no longer suited the US geopolitical interests. If the US of today is to be involved in the conflict, it will be for strengthening US position and safeguarding its own influence over the Indo-Pacific rather than securing the interests of the Philippines. On the other hand, the dragon will tread carefully without compromising on its illegal thirst for expansion of maritime and land territories and global supremacy. China deliberately continues to question the authority, jurisdiction and the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague regarding this conflict with the Philippines. The dragon will also continue to test the patience of what it considers as a weak White House under the Biden regime. The US inacton and mere agreeing behaviour are evidence that the US is consolidating its US-centric and Euro-centric approach. Its rhetoric does not match the actual behavior. Fortress America does not care about any other nation. Its behavior belies the US promise of making free and open Indo-Pacific as a region of grave priority.