Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, now in its third month, grinds on as wars often do without a clear end game. Denied the quick victory he expected, he has settled in for what will likely be a long, costly and bloody war of attrition which could last for many months or even several years. But not forever because, absent armed intervention by the West or regime change in Moscow, Ukraine cannot win a protracted war of attrition against its much-larger neighbor.
Both sides have suffered heavy losses in lives and equipment. According to several news sources, Russia has lost more than 30,000 troops, over 1300 tanks, approximately 3300 armored vehicles, numerous pieces of artillery and at least 300 fixed and rotary wing aircraft. The war is costing the Russian economy dearly each day but Putin is willing to pay whatever it takes to stay in power which means he must win something or keep fighting because his power and perhaps his life would end if he loses. So far, he still enjoys the support of the long-suffering Russian people who have been conditioned over the years to endure hardship for the sake, they are told, of their country. And Putin’s brutal war is still being financed by sales of its abundant oil and gas which still finds buyers in Asia, Africa and elsewhere in spite of sanctions.
Ukraine, on the other hand, must rely on military equipment and supplies from western nations just to continue fighting, let alone win. The types of weapons the West provides, moreover, are limited by concerns that they might provoke Putin to escalate the conflict as he has threatened repeatedly to do. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pledged not to use these weapons against targets in Russia. Russia has been assured, therefore, that it can prosecute an offensive war without having to worry about defending its homeland while Ukraine is limited to just defending or reclaiming its own territory. Russia, the world’s largest nation in area, spans two continents, has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and contains abundant natural resources including oil and gas. It can tolerate relatively heavy losses. The salient questions are, however, (1) How long can Ukraine continue to tolerate the carnage and destruction and (2) How long will western aid continue and will it be enough and in time to matter?
The damage to Ukrainian cities and infrastructure is staggering. Who will pay the regularly-increasing cost of rebuilding the country? Nearly seven million Ukrainians have fled the country, according to the U.N. and that number is increasing rapidly. What will they return to if they return at all? By some estimates, the population has shrunk to about 30 million. There is a cost as well to the western world beyond just the expense of military and humanitarian supplies sent to Ukraine. The inability to export Ukrainian and Russian grain and fertilizer from blockaded Black Sea ports is resulting in serious food shortages, especially in Asia and the Middle East, which could precipitate unrest and riots. Sanctions on Russian oil and natural gas are contributing to huge increases in the cost of fuel and gasoline in Europe, America and elsewhere. President Joe Biden blames the high price of gasoline on the war in Ukraine rather than his own war on fossil fuels. The United States, once energy self-sufficient, is limited in how much it could help because of restrictions on drilling, pipeline construction and permits for building needed processing and export facilities. Thus, we have the spectacle of the president of the country with the world’s most abundant energy resources pleading with the Middle East oil producers to increase their production in order to ease our fuel prices.
In spite of heroic resistance on the part of brave Ukrainian fighters, the reality is that Putin appears to be slowly winning a war of attrition. His armies may have failed to take Kyiv and territory in the west but they have made substantial territorial gains in the east and south, including a much-desired land link to Crimea which they annexed in 2014. Zelensky’s goal of regaining Crimea and the Donbass region is unlikely to be achieved. As long as he lives, Putin will never agree to give up Crimea which was once part of Russia and contains the homeport for his Black Sea Fleet. It and the Donbass region contain many ethnic Russians, Russian-speakers and Russian sympathizers. Former U. S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently suggested that the time may have come for negotiations to end this costly and brutal war while there is still enough of Ukraine left to save. How many more lives must be lost in search of an ideal solution that is not achievable?
Supporters of Ukraine, and America is surely one of them, will argue that Russia cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith. A negotiated peace will be fleeting, they say, and ceding any territory to Russia will only invite future aggression. Moscow should be warned, however, that this would most assuredly provoke an armed western response. So, realistically, what are the alternatives? Fighting until the last Ukrainian is left standing? Finally, there are risks in trying to marginalize Russia.
The world’s largest country, a major military power and energy producer with a rich cultural heritage is not going away whatever the outcome of Putin’s stupid war and will always be an important part of Europe and Asia. Moreover, Putin won’t be around forever.
Vol. 38, No. 24 - Thursday, June 16, 2022
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