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The West underestimated Russia

There will be no total victory for Ukraine, but Kyiv’s allies can help halt the Russian advance.

By Wolfgang Münchau

When Russia suffered its first setbacks in the war against Ukraine in the spring of 2022, hubris ruled in the salons of Western foreign policy. Governments pledged unconditional support for Ukraine for “however long” it would take to win. Some hotheads even called for the West to declare regime change in Russia as its official goal.

Two years later, the hubris has turned into depression. Russia has gained the upper hand in the war. On 17 February Russian forces captured the town of Avdiivka to the north of Donetsk. Western military supplies for Ukraine have dried up. The Biden administration’s military aid package is stuck in Congress – though the drought in American support began last autumn.

European ammunition supplies are also below target. For the year to March, the EU had promised a million shells, but will only be delivering half of that. Rheinmetall, the German defence contractor, said it will increase its production by 10 per cent this year, but the big boost will not come until 2025 when a new factory goes online. In the short term, Ukraine’s situation on the front lines will probably get worse.

The EU could buy ammunition on world markets, but Emmanuel Macron is blocking this on the grounds that it would damage European defence contractors. Germany could send Taurus cruise missiles that could reach deep into Russia, but Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, fears these missiles could trigger an escalation. Everybody has a reason to stall. To Vladimir Putin, it looks as though the West is backing off.

It takes a large and sustained effort to help an ally fight a long war against a military superpower. It seems that countless military and geopolitical experts in the West did not think this through. They underestimated Russia.

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The long sequence of misjudgements goes back to the beginning of the conflict, with the Western sanctions package. The idea was to deprive Putin of the means to fight the war. As such, it was a complete failure. Iran is sending him drones. North Korea is sending him missiles. China is sending him dual-use goods and high-tech components. Western goods are being rerouted through Kazakhstan into Russia.

Unlike the West, Russia has switched to a war economy. The result is that its economy grew faster than any of its large Western counterparts last year despite the sanctions. The IMF is predicting the same again this year.

One almost banal reason for the West’s collective misjudgement is a common statistical delusion. We have been telling each other that the Russian economy is tiny, about the size of Spain’s. This is true in dollar terms. But it is also meaningless, because Russia has been cut off from the dollar markets. If we measure the Russian economy in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), which compares prices across economies, we see a completely different picture, in which Russia is larger than Germany, and China is larger than the US.

So what are the options? The first and most important step for the West to take right now is to ditch the idea of total victory, and start thinking about non-binary war goals. Western leaders cannot deliver unconditional commitments beyond their terms in office. We see this in the US, where Joe Biden is unable to make good on his promises.

A realistic first goal should be to help Ukraine stop the advance of the Russian army. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, is potentially vulnerable to a Russian offensive – or at least the eastern parts of the Kharkiv Oblast are. The West should adapt its support to help Ukraine fight a defensive war, and shift supplies accordingly. The ultimate long-term goal should be to get to a point at which both sides realise they have more to gain by cutting a deal. We are not at that point yet.

When this war ends, the military front line will become the new frontier between Ukraine and Russia. I expect it will ultimately be drawn somewhere that is within half the width of a Ukrainian oblast on either side of the two armies’ current positions. Western Ukraine would become part of Nato and, eventually, the EU. The new border would then become part of Nato’s operational frontier for the purposes of Article 5, the alliance’s collective defence clause. If Russia crossed that line, it would be at war with Nato.

This is still an ambitious goal. It would require more military and financial support than what the West is currently giving, but focused on defence. In that scenario, the Taurus cruise missiles would probably not make the top-three list.

The reality in the West is that political support for Ukraine aid is waning. In Germany barely half the population supports weapons deliveries, according to a recent poll. In Italy, support is even lower. With the return of fiscal austerity to the EU, support for Ukraine is starting to compete with domestic policies. You might call the congressional Republicans irresponsible. But they would not be obstructing US aid to Ukraine if a large majority of the American electorate was in favour of it.

Ideally, we would not start from here. When total victory is no longer a realistic option, the second-best outcome is to avoid defeat. It would be a worthwhile goal, but unfortunately it is one that’s less suited to the politics of virtue signalling and photo ops with Volodymyr Zelensky – which is the extent of support Western leaders now seem most comfortable in providing.

[See also: Austerity is coming for Europe]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation