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4 May 2022

Risk of a direct clash between Russia and the West is rising

The longer the fighting goes on, the more likelihood there is of a wider war – and both sides are preparing for a protracted conflict.

By Jeremy Cliffe

When histories of Russia’s war in Ukraine are written, 25 April 2022 will surely go down as a symbolically significant date. US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and the secretary of state Antony Blinken held a press conference in Poland, having just returned from a visit to Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv that had visibly moved both men. Asked whether US goals in the conflict had now changed, Austin replied with startling frankness: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Was it a gaffe? Administration sources downplayed the comment as a restatement of existing sanctions policy. But really Austin had said the quiet part loud: US and wider Western policy on the war has changed in recent weeks, just as Russia’s has done. Both sides are digging in for a longer conflict, with wider goals, than had been anticipated. As they do, the risk of some form of direct confrontation is rising. 

On 24 February, as the invasion began, Moscow and Western capitals alike expected a short conflict. Kyiv was widely expected to fall within two days – an event that likely would have been followed by the deposition (or worse) of Zelensky and either the imposition of a pro-Kremlin government or some sort of partition. As Eerik-Niiles Kross, an Estonian politician and the former head of his country’s intelligence service, put it to me in Tallinn last month: “Biden, Scholz and Macron were all ironing their shirts in preparation for the negotiations.”

[See also: The new Iron Curtain]

Yet as Ukraine has fended off the attack around Kyiv, and Russia has refocused its bloodied troops on taking the Donbas in the country’s east and a corridor along its Black Sea coastline in the south, the stakes for both Ukraine’s allies and the Kremlin have risen. Putin has reportedly given up on a deal and now wants to take as much territory as possible. Where his regime did little to prepare the Russian people for a full-blown war before 24 February, now it is “mobilising for an ideological struggle”, according to Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI): “The narrative appears to be not only laying the groundwork to explain why the losses in Ukraine are justified, but also to prepare the population for further sacrifices to come.” 

For the West, too, the conflict has become more existential. Horrors such as the slaughter of civilians in places like Bucha and Mariupol make any sort of deal with Putin unthinkable. Western opinion has rallied to the Ukrainian cause and not (yet, at least) grown weary. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate the Nato and Ukrainian positions,” writes the geopolitics guru Ian Bremmer. Austin’s comments reflect this emergent consensus that it is not enough for Ukraine merely to defend itself: it needs to triumph, and Russia needs to be resoundingly defeated. On 28 April, right after Austin and Blinken’s trip to Kyiv, Joe Biden asked Congress for the staggering sum of $33bn more in funding to support Ukraine. The same day, Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told an audience in Brussels: “We need to be prepared for the long term. There is absolutely the possibility that this war will drag on and last for months and years.”

That both sides are doubling down can in no way muddy the truth that Russia alone started the conflict, unprovoked, and bears sole responsibility for it. The West is right to respond robustly: Ukraine deserves to be able to defend itself, and precedents set in this conflict will almost certainly shape the global order of the rest of the 21st century.

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It is entirely reasonable to take this view and simultaneously acknowledge the growing risk that Russia’s war will spill over, by accident or design, into other arenas and even spark some form of direct Russia-Nato confrontation. One flashpoint is the growing flow of arms, including heavy weapons such as tanks, from the West to Ukraine. What happens if Russia strikes a column of such arms on, say, Polish soil? There is a real danger of exchanges of fire in contested airspace or waters around Ukraine. In an article for the Rand Corporation, Samuel Charap and Dmitri Alperovitch argue that “Putin appears poised to use his intelligence agencies’ significant cyber capabilities to hit back at the West”. And then there is Moldova, which last week suffered a series of mysterious explosions in the Moscow-backed breakaway region of Transnistria.

[See also: Putin’s war risks a “clash of civilisations” – the West must not fall into his trap]

All of which points to another date that will likely become significant in the overall story of the war: 9 May. It is speculated that Putin will use the occasion of this Victory Day, when Russia commemorates the end of the Second World War, to ditch the pretence of a “special operation”, declare war formally on Ukraine and launch a general mobilisation. This, suggest the RUSI authors, could indicate “an intention to bring about a summer offensive to finish Ukraine off”. 

It is essential that the West back Ukraine, and back it to win. But it is also essential to be clear-eyed about the dangers of the situation. What many assumed would be a swift and decisive war may now last well into 2023 and beyond. The longer it goes on, the greater the risk of a collision between Russia and the West – a Cuban missile crisis of our times. “We’re on a deteriorating and unsustainable trajectory,” warns Bremmer: “At some point, something needs to break.”

[See also: The atrocities in Bucha show that remembrance without resolve is empty]

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future