We cannot let Putin dictate the pace in Ukraine

Antony Blinken’s impromptu rendition of Rocking in the free world, knocked out on a cherry red guitar in a basement in Kiev, went down badly with my friends in Ukraine. It looked tawdry while people were dying during the new Russian attack on Kharkov.

But I would put up with some unbearable voices from American politicians if it means that the Biden administration suddenly finds a strategy in the region.

Blinken arrived in Kiev confident that the $60 billion US arms package, held up for months by Congressional Trumpists, is finally starting to arrive. The problem is that neither the US nor – to be fair – the Ukrainian government currently has what analysts call a “theory of victory.” For now it is focused on survival.

Russia has doubled defense spending to 6% of its GDP; it receives ammunition from North Korea, drones from Iran and a flood of raw materials and supplies from China. The country has reshuffled its wartime leadership, putting economist Andrei Belousov in charge of the Defense Ministry with a mission to win the war through economic power.

Vladimir Putin has stepped up his hybrid warfare efforts against the West, while his disinformation fighters are in overdrive as elections in the US, Britain and EU loom, and a wave of inexplicable fires at Western arms factories. For good measure, he has ramped up the nuclear rhetoric, staging sudden nuclear war exercises and issuing a warning that Russia could attack British military bases if British weapons are used against Russian targets.

So the legitimate question, given that the West is pumping money and political capital into Ukraine, is: what is the most positive, achievable outcome? And what needs to change to make this possible?

Let’s first understand that the situation for Ukraine is about to get even worse. Since Kharkiv resisted the first attack, in the spring of 2022, Russia has been trying to strangle the city, turning it into a ghost town, unable to rebuild due to rocket attacks and now threatened by a new land invasion, less than 30 kilometers away from the city. north.

Losing a regional capital, a major industrial center with 1.4 million inhabitants, would be a catastrophe. It would create a humanitarian crisis and provide Russia with significant industrial resources. The Ukrainian military is thus forced to exhaust the forces holding back Russia’s slow and costly advance south to weaken the attack.

But even if Kharkiv is a diversion, analysts expect the most significant Russian attack of 2024 to be unleashed within weeks.

Although Ukraine is on the defensive on land and in the Black Sea, and in its war of drone strikes against Russia’s oil industry, the country is doing better. It has pushed the Russian Navy back into its own territorial waters and has repeatedly sunk Russian warships. As a result, Russia’s ability to threaten Ukraine’s grain supply to the global south is reduced.

But the strategic picture is clear: Russia’s combined actions, through its “meat grinder” attacks, its missile strikes, its allies in the Middle East and its political proxies in the US Congress, have put the West on the defensive. Russia sets the pace, chooses the location of the conflict and can decide when to cut its losses and focus elsewhere. This in turn increases pressure on Kiev to accept a peace that would involve permanently ceding Crimea and Donbas.

There should be no doubt among Western voters who are growing tired of this war. If it turns out that this formula works against Ukraine, it will be used against us too.

That is what Belousov’s appointment is about: he is a proponent of economic centralization and state control. His order for Russian defense companies to innovate faster than Ukraine and its allies means that Russia is preparing for a future confrontation with NATO once it has brought Ukraine to a standstill.

Threatening a NATO ally while in possession of large tracts of Ukrainian land, manufacturing capacity and rare minerals would significantly strengthen Russia’s position, even before you consider the moral force it has already humiliated from the US.

The West has options – both to prevent further loss of Ukrainian territory and to enable Russia’s defeat, but that will require a step change in political willpower. One of these is the deployment of European gendarme units and advisors in Ukraine, to guard the currently undisputed border with Belarus and free up Ukrainian troops for the fight. Another is the establishment of a no-fly zone in western Ukraine, using air defense assets supplied by the US and Europe.

Both would carry immediate threats of direct retaliation, and so far neither Blinken, Emmanuel Macron, nor David Cameron are willing to commit to them – although Macron has opened the debate by saying boots on the ground are possible.

Other options could include strict action against Russia’s “dark fleet” of oil tankers, which – because they are unregistered and uninsured – cannot pass through the Suez Canal and must use the Strait of Gibraltar. A coordinated maritime police action, using the laws of the sea, could seize or stop these ships and seriously affect Russia’s ability to export oil. In addition to sanctions, there could also be sanctions against sanctions that undermine the sanctions, including mainly China.

I have no doubt that these measures are being considered. What is needed is a willingness to confront Putin’s endless nuclear bluff and move from reactivity to proactivity. I don’t think we’ll get there this side of the big upcoming election. But after that, those who want Ukraine to win and not be destroyed have the right to ask our politicians to get serious.