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Russia is bluffing about its success in the war – but so is Ukraine

It will be difficult for the West to sustain support for Ukraine indefinitely. This will be a gift to Putin.

By Katie Stallard

On 16 July the Kremlin released a video of Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, in combat uniform, visiting what it claimed was a front-line command post in Ukraine. After being briefed by his commanders, Shoigu ordered them to “further intensify” their assault across all operational areas. The effect on the other side of the front line was immediate. “We can see shelling along the entire line of contact,” said Vadym Skibitsky, a Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman, the following day. “Clearly, preparations are now underway for the next stage of the offensive.”

Away from the battlefield, analysts have been divided over whether Russia or Ukraine is winning the war, and what victory for either side would mean. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly claimed that the war is going as planned, lauding the fall of the port city of Mariupol in April and declaring victory in the eastern Ukrainian province of Luhansk on 4 July (Ukrainian officials insist that part of the province is still contested). “Largely speaking, we haven’t even yet started anything in earnest,” Putin boasted to parliamentary leaders on 7 July.

He is bluffing. The Russian military has already suffered considerable losses. British officials estimate that as many as 25,000 Russian troops have died in Ukraine, more than during the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan. While Putin has so far declined to order a full mobilisation, a “stealth mobilisation” appears to be underway, with reservists offered cash bonuses and inflated salaries to sign up and prisoners promised amnesty if they agree to fight. Mercenaries from the paramilitary organisation the Wagner Group are playing an increasingly prominent role in the conflict, along with volunteers from the self-proclaimed people’s republics of eastern Ukraine and the Chechen units loyal to their Putin-supporting leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Russia’s vaunted gains must also now be defended. This will not be easy with a front line that spans hundreds of kilometres, and the Ukrainian military taking delivery of long-range weaponry such as high-mobility artillery rocket systems from the US. They have already hit Russian command posts and multiple ammunition stores. Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, claims the country is preparing a “million-strong army” to mount a counteroffensive and take back the Russian-occupied territory in the south.

This, too, is a bluff. Ukraine is also sustaining heavy losses and senior officials have complained that their soldiers are outnumbered and outgunned by as many as ten to one. Western analysts have cast serious doubt on the prospect of raising a “million-strong” force, let alone being able to train all the recruits. The first serious cracks are also appearing in Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration. The president sacked Ivan Bakanov, the head of the country’s main security and intelligence agency, and Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, on 17 July. Zelensky claimed that both the security services and the prosecutor’s office had been infiltrated by officials collaborating with Russia.

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Sadly, the West’s apparent resolve to sustain its support for Ukraine might also be a bluff. Facing inflation and rising fuel prices, Europe and the US will find it difficult to continue the current level of assistance indefinitely. While the G7 vowed in June that it would stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes”, there is a danger that this will be revoked as the cost of such support continues to grow. It is possible, for instance, that Germany will face power shortages and rationing this winter if Russia withholds natural gas supplies. The country could also plunge into recession.

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[See also: What happens if Russia doesn’t turn Germany’s gas back on?]

In the US, which provides the overwhelming majority of military aid to Ukraine, the Pentagon has expressed concerns that its own arsenals of certain weapons are being depleted, which could affect America’s combat-readiness. A Rasmussen poll in early July found that 63 per cent of American voters thought Ukraine should keep fighting until Russia ended its invasion, but that was down nine points from April. Among Republicans – who are likely to regain control of Congress in the midterm elections in November – the figure was 60 per cent. Zelensky’s own ratings among the American public have also fallen: 67 per cent said they had a favourable impression of Zelensky, down from 79 per cent in April.

These trends are perhaps not moving as quickly as Putin would like, but they are undoubtedly moving in the direction he wants. Putin will hope to see “Ukraine fatigue” take hold in the West in the coming months. It’s likely the Russian president assumes that the recent declarations of Western unity are false, and that once individual nations begin to experience discomfort their leaders will pressure Ukraine to accept terms to his liking, and then ease sanctions. Other autocrats, such as China’s leader, Xi Jinping (who has territorial designs of his own), will also be watching to see how the will of the West endures – or doesn’t – in the face of true economic pain and sacrifice.

So far Western leaders have paid little, if anything, for their support of Ukraine. In fact, for many it has been politically advantageous to position themselves as wartime leaders, fighting on the front lines of the battle for democracy (see, for instance, Boris Johnson). But as we approach the autumn, the true cost of that support will become clear as voters feel the economic consequences. It is still possible to call Putin’s bluff and for Ukraine to win this war, but it is time for political leaders to start speaking honestly with their electorates about what this will mean – and why it is essential to stay the course.

[See also: The banality of Vladimir Putin]

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party