At the year-end news conference on Thursday lasting four hours, Russian President Vladimir Putin made some key remarks on the conflict in Ukraine which throw light on the likely trajectory of the war through 2024. To be sure, Russia will not accept a “frozen conflict” that falls short of realising the objectives Putin had laid out at the commencement of the special military operations in February last year.
Putin stated: “There will be peace when we achieve our goals… Now let’s return to these goals – they have not changed. I would like to remind you how we formulated them: denazification, demilitarisation, and a neutral status for Ukraine.”
He spelt out denazification and demilitarisation as work in progress while leaving out the crucial question of a neutral status for Ukraine, a notion which the collective West outright rejects while pressing ahead with its intervention in newer forms despite the failure of Kiev’s months-long counteroffensive. Ironically, the accent in the revised western narrative is to create a strong resilient defence industry in Ukraine eventually with western technology and capital to ward off any Russian military threats in future.
On denazification specifically, Putin said that during the negotiations in Istanbul last year in March, Kiev showed receptiveness towards the idea of legislating against the spread of extremist ideology, but that lies buried in the past. As for demilitarisation, that idea also never caught on as Ukraine began receiving weaponry “even more than what was promised by the West.”
Therefore, Russia is left with no other option but to keep destroying the Ukrainian military capability as the core of the demilitarisation process. But Putin believed that certain parameters can still be negotiated, and, in fact, “We actually agreed on them [with Ukrainian negotiators] during the Istanbul talks; although these were thrown out later, we managed to reach agreement.” The alternative to reaching an agreement on demilitarisation is to “resolve the conflict by force. This is what we will strive for.” However, to this end, Putin ruled out another mobilisation as already “there will be about half a million people [in the war zone] by the end of this year.”
These remarks bear the hallmark of a statesman speaking from a position of strength who is conscious of it, too. Putin asserted that Russian forces are “improving their position almost along the entire line of contact. Almost all of them are engaged in active combat. And the position of our troops is improving along [the entire line of contact.]” Putin conveyed no willingness to compromise with the US and EU.
Significantly, Putin said that the southern part of Ukraine has “always been Russian territory… Neither Crimea nor the Black Sea has any connection to Ukraine. Odessa is a Russian city.” This is an ominous statement implying that Russian operation may after all extend to Odessa which is on the western side of the Dnieper and even further westward along the Black Sea coast to Moldova that renders Ukraine a land-locked country. A prolonged conflict is in the cards.
On the contrary, the reports from the US media quoting American officials convey the impression that there is no willingness to throw in the towel at the present stage. That is of course predicated on the belief that Russia will be hard put to realise its objectives and by the end of 2024, the tide of war can change and Russia may be compelled to compromise. Thus, a new strategy is being worked out between the US and Ukrainian military that can be executed by the early part of 2024 with the American accent on holding the territory that Ukraine controls as of now and digging in.
The New York Times reported that Ukrainian military subscribes to a “forward policy.” The Pentagon is stationing a three-star general in Kiev with a view to “stepping up the face-to-face military advice it provides to Ukraine.” This could be the beginning of deployment of American military advisors to Ukraine to oversee the war, which will put the Pentagon in a direct role in the management of the operations from both the tactical as well as strategic perspectives.
Meanwhile, the final word is not yet spoken by the US Senate on the Administration’s demand of $61 billion as additional funds for Ukraine. The likelihood is that the senate will eventually pass the bill since there is a big groundswell of support among Republican lawmakers for the war effort. The Administration is driving home that Russia has an “imperial” agenda toward NATO countries and vital US interests are at stake in preventing Russia from winning the war.
Interestingly, in a related development two days ago, Congress approved legislation that would prevent any president from withdrawing the US from NATO without approval from the Senate or an Act of Congress. Equally, Europe is also circling the wagons and taking a long-term view that Russia’s scale-up of arms production to sustain its operations in Ukraine poses a real threat to Europe, especially to the Baltic states, Georgia and Moldova. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last week warned that “If Putin wins in Ukraine, there is real risk that his aggression will not end there.”
The German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius echoed that sentiment when he said on Saturday that Europe must ramp up its security and defence capabilities to respond to the threat Russia poses, as the US will likely reduce its involvement on the Continent in the coming years and increasingly turn its attention to the Pacific region in the next decade. As he put it, “This isn’t just sabre-rattling. Dangers could lie ahead at the end of this decade.”
The message from the European Council meeting in Brussels last Friday is also that circumventing Hungary’s opposition, EU leaders are navigating a pathway to ensure Ukraine will still get its €50 billion aid package to help prop up its hollowed out economy — if necessary, by taking the radical step of sacrificing EU unity and providing the money on a bilateral basis. The EU leaders are expected to reconvene at the end of January or early February to unlock the issue.
On Friday, Ukraine’s foreign ministry released a statement lauding the opening of EU membership negotiations and voicing optimism about the €50 billion aid package from Brussels. The tough talk notwithstanding, Russia too must be sensing that the EU will ultimately find a way somehow to solve the financial question. For the present, though, the deadlock in Brussels and Washington on aid has generated an air of uncertainty, which is bad optics for Kiev and plays into the Russian narrative.
All in all, Putin’s tough remarks on Thursday factors in that the US isn’t going anywhere but stays put in Ukraine and the Biden administration’s game plan is to revamp the war strategy to put it on a stronger footing and make it sustainable through the period ahead till the November 2024 election.
Kremlin’s hope that US support for Ukraine is on the wane seems misplaced. Curiously, spokesman Dmitry Peskov added in good measure in an interview on Friday with broadcaster NBC News that Putin would prefer an American president who is “more constructive” toward Russia and understands the “importance of the dialogue” between the two countries. Peskov added that Putin would be ready to work with “anyone who will understand that from now on, you have to be more careful with Russia and you have to take into account its concerns.”
Between now and the presidential election in March in Russia, domestic politics will be hotting up. After Putin’s re-election for a fresh 6-year term as president, which is widely expected, by the time the new government is formed, the campaign for the US election will have accelerated and it is a safe bet that Ukraine war will be on auto-pilot with the priority almost entirely lying on averting any serious embarrassment to Biden’s reelection bid.
Suffice to say, staving off a military defeat in Ukraine and keeping the stalemate on track will be the Biden administration’s singular aim through 2024. The big question is whether Putin would “cooperate” or have some surprises in store. Peskov has begun looking beyond the Biden presidency.
This article was published at Indian Punchline