Russia Won’t let Ukraine be Bleeding Wound
Russian President Vladimir Putin: Kiev has lost 186 tanks, 418 armoured vehicles, losses mounting, St. Petersburg, June 16, 2023
With the Ukrainian offensive underway for a fortnight, all eyes are on the battlefields, and, crucially, Russia’s options ahead. In a little over three weeks from now, the NATO will be holding a summit in Vilnius and the West has choices to make too. We are arriving at a fork in the road.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or NATO expected the Ukrainian forces to punch through key Russian fortifications by now. In reality, they are struggling to get anywhere near the sprawling layered fortifications and in that desperate attempt, are taking massive losses, entrapped in minefields and taken to pieces by Russian artillery and missiles and the dreaded multi-role attack helicopters known as Alligator.
The signposts are best seen in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin press conference on Tuesday, lasting over three hours, with war correspondents. In just a week’s time after Ukraine’s offensive began, “25–30% of the supplied equipment (from NATO) has been destroyed,” Putin said.
Putin underscored three things. First, the goals set for the special military operations are “fundamental for us” because “Ukraine is part of the effort to destabilise Russia.” What does that mean?
It means Russian operations will not end without realising the twin objectives of “demilitarising” Ukraine and uprooting the present neo-Nazi regime in Kiev. The security and welfare of the Russian population also remains a cardinal objective — no more pogroms. Putin said Russia is going about realising these objectives “gradually, methodically.”
Second, Putin flagged: “The Ukrainian defence industry will soon cease to exist altogether. What do they produce? Ammunition is delivered, equipment is delivered and weapons are delivered – everything is delivered. You won’t live long like that, you won’t last. So, the issue of demilitarisation is realised in very practical terms.”
Third, the Kremlin’s preference so far has been to continue to grind down the Ukrainian military, whilst giving “selective responses” whenever any red lines were crossed — e.g., Russian strikes on Ukraine’s energy system, the destruction of the headquarters of the Ukrainian military intelligence. By the way, in that Kiev strike, Russia claims to have seriously injured Ukraine’s spy chief Kyrylo Budanov, the poster boy of western media.
Going forward, Putin said “everything will depend on the potential that is left at the end of this so-called counter-offensive. This is the key question.” After taking such “catastrophic losses,” it is up to the leadership in Kiev to rationally think about “what to do next,” Putin said.
He added, “We will wait and see what the situation is like and take further steps based on this understanding. Our plans may vary depending on the situation when we deem it necessary to move. That includes NATO equipment.”
Putin ridiculed the West’s grandiose talk about matching Russia’s vastly superior defence industrial capacity. He said: “And when they say they will start producing this or that: well, please go ahead. Things are not so simple during a recession… They are not as decisive as we are here in Russia. There is no passion there, these are fading nations; that’s the whole problem. But we have it. We will fight for our interests, and we will achieve our goals.”
Given these stark realities, Kiev should roll back the offensive. But that is not going to happen. Kiev is under immense pressure from Washington to claim some dramatic success. That said, the Ukrainian reserves are not infinite, either. Around 35,000 to 40,000 strong Ukrainian reserves are facing a massive Russian deployment manifold stronger in numbers (in hundreds of thousands) and advanced weaponry, and enjoying air superiority. There is a distinct possibility that at some point, the Russian forces may go on the offensive too.
Against this backdrop, the West claims that the NATO Allies are “looking at an array of options to signal that Ukraine is advancing in its relationship” with the alliance, to borrow the words of the US ambassador in Brussels Julianne Smith. Andres Rasmussen, former NATO chief and at present the official advisor to Ukrainian President Zelensky, has threatened that a group of NATO countries may be willing to put troops on the ground in Ukraine if member states including the US do not provide tangible security guarantees to Kiev at the Vilnius summit.
Specifically, Rasmussen claimed that “Poles would seriously consider going in and assemble a coalition of the willing if Ukraine doesn’t get anything in Vilnius. We shouldn’t underestimate the Polish feelings, the Poles feel that for too long Western Europe did not listen to their warnings.” The rhetoric took a heightened tone lately at the meeting of Heads of State and Government in the format “Weimar Triangle” (France-Poland-Germany) on June 12 in Paris where a consensus emerged that Ukraine should receive some security guarantees.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared, “It is evident that we need something like this, and we need it in a very concrete form.” French President Emmanuel Macron also called for a rapid agreement on “tangible and credible security guarantees.”
Indeed, this is all bluster. The idea of Poland “putting boots on the ground” is so patently absurd. The Polish military will wither away in a confrontation with Russia. But what such theatrics show is that nerves are on edge as the spectre of defeat in Ukraine is endangering NATO’s unity.
So, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, stepped in to inject some realism into the discussion, pointing out that for the present what matters most is that Ukraine survives as a nation. Stoltenberg stated: “I believe it’s not possible to give precise dates (for Ukraine’s admission as NATO member) when we are in the midst of a war… the most urgent task now is to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign, independent nation… because, unless Ukraine prevails, then there’s no membership to be discussed at all, because it’s only a sovereign, independent, democratic Ukraine that can become a NATO member.”
Stoltenberg took the cue from Washington. In fact, he was speaking while on a visit to Washington, in an interview with PBS.
Russia is not taking its eyes off the battlefield. In reality, Moscow is shoving down the western throat a historic strategic defeat. The choice for the West narrows down to negotiating with Russia on its terms, or to expect a military solution, which might mean the obliteration of Ukraine as a nation and the eviction of NATO.
Make no mistake, Russian offensive plans have been drawn up. There is talk among opinion makers in Moscow about creating new facts on the ground — a De-Militarised Zone along the Polish border. Now, that entails Russian forces crossing the Dnieper and liberating Kiev as well as liberate Kharkov and Odessa, two other Russian cities historically. Russia has no interest in annexing the western regions of Ukraine, which is hostile territory that Stalin annexed.
But Western Ukraine has other neighbours — Poland included — who would have unfinished business of partition of their historical lands to settle. The unresolved nationality question is explosive, as Poles still remember the killings by the Ukrainian nationalists aligned with the Nazis. Historians say that more than 100,000 Poles, including women and even the smallest children, perished at the hands of their Ukrainian neighbours in a nationalist drive in areas that were then in southeastern Poland and are mostly in Ukraine now. To put it mildly, what remains of Ukraine under the weight of a crushing military defeat no one can predict.
The Kremlin will exercise its options depending on the exigencies of the situation. Moscow seems to have concluded that there is no real alternative to a military solution. It will not allow Ukraine to remain a chronic wound infected by the microbial species from the transatlantic universe. Cauterisation of the wound is necessary, albeit with potential risks.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.
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