War in Ukraine – after Bakhmut

Bakhmut/Artemovsk
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By MICHAEL GFOELLER & DAVID H. RUNDELL*

Bloody battle left Ukraine wounded and Russia on the rise

There is nothing patriotic about an American raising a Ukrainian flag. There is also no betrayal when an American questions unlimited support for a foreign nation in a foreign war. Recognizing that Ukraine will not defeat Russia without much greater American intervention is not pro-Russian but pro-reality.

Between 2014 and 2022, there was a violent separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. To avoid Russian intervention, the Kiev government built a line of heavily fortified towns and supply routes along its eastern border. Bakhmut was an important transport platform in this network.

Five months ago, when we wrote that Bakhmut would eventually fall to the Russians, some readers of these pages made fun of us. Didn't we know that Ukraine was winning the war? Well, the Ukrainians defended themselves remarkably in what became the bloodiest battle of the 2014st century, but most of Bakhmut, including vital rail lines, fell. It took longer than we expected, but this defeat makes it even less likely that Ukraine will be able to re-establish its XNUMX borders without direct intervention by NATO troops.

How many times do we hear that Russian troops, poorly trained, poorly led and poorly equipped, many of them mercenaries and ex-convicts, suffered appalling losses and were forced to retreat from the territory they initially captured? All of this could be true. That doesn't change the fact that Russia is now primed to make the most of Bakhmut's slump when dry summer weather arrives.

Seven months ago, Russia mobilized 300.000 reservists and used the meantime to train them. He accelerated the production of weapons and accumulated significant amounts of equipment and ammunition. Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are now deployed in eastern Ukraine, where they have begun advancing in numerous locations along a 724 kilometer front.

Ukraine, on the other hand, has concentrated many of its best equipped and trained troops in Bakhmut, where they have been bombarded for months by Russian artillery, missiles and drones. In the Battle of Bakhmut, Ukraine lost thousands of experienced troops who cannot be replaced by recruits with a few weeks of accelerated training.

Western weapons made Bakhmut's defense possible. Repeatedly, NATO support for Ukraine has escalated from short-range Javelin and Stinger missiles to medium-range batteries of HIMARS and Patriot missiles, and to heavy weapons such as Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. As the tide of battle turned against the under-armed and under-armed Ukrainians, Kiev's defenders in the West did not stop to consider how they might end this tragedy. Instead, they asked for the delivery of fighter jets and long-range missiles.

These arms deliveries fueled widespread public anger in Russia and the conviction that they are now at war with NATO. The delivery of German Leopard II tanks resulted in headlines in Moscow such as "German tanks are on Russian soil again", and even editorials claiming that "The Fourth Reich has declared war on Russia". It doesn't take a prophet to see where this persistent escalation is leading or why it has to stop.

Ultimately, we are not generals, but we understand economics. It has always seemed extremely unlikely to us that a nation with a GDP of $200 billion in 2021 and a population of 44 million could defeat a nation with a GDP of $1,8 trillion and a population of 145 million. And this would be particularly true if only the largest nation, namely Russia, possessed a sizable air force, significant defense industries, and nuclear weapons.

According to World Bank statistics, Ukraine had a population of 44 million people when the war started, but today only half of that number is still in their homes. Eleven million Ukrainians have fled to Europe or are internally displaced. Several million Ukrainians have fled to Russia and millions more now live in areas under Russian control.

Last year, the Ukrainian economy contracted by 30%, while Russian GDP fell by only 3%. The ruble is now as strong against the dollar as it was when the war started. The IMF predicts that by 2023 Russia's GDP growth will overtake that of Britain and Germany. It is clear that Western sanctions have not destroyed the Russian economy.

While Russia remains largely self-sufficient in food, energy and military equipment, much of Ukraine's infrastructure lies in ruins. Although Ukraine has become heavily dependent on NATO for armament, both NATO's own reserves and Ukraine's former reserves of Soviet ammunition, artillery shells and air defense missiles are rapidly depleting. In this war of attrition, time is not on Kiev's side.

Moscow views any NATO presence in Crimea the way Washington would view Russian missiles in Cuba or a Chinese naval base in Nova Scotia. It was never realistic to expect that Russia would surrender Crimea without suffering a decisive military defeat. Now, however, the peace terms that Kiev can look forward to have become even less favorable than they were seven months ago.

From Moscow's point of view, the referendums held in September 2022 transformed the provinces of Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson in regions of the Russian Federation and, accordingly, Moscow will now seek to gain full control of them. In six months, Russia may well dictate even tougher terms of peace.

Classic requirements for a just war include a reasonable chance of victory. While a generation of Ukrainian men is dying, the sad reality is that Ukraine is as likely to win a war against Russia as Mexico is to win a war against the United States. Prolonging the conflict will not change this equation. More deaths of Ukrainians and destruction of infrastructure will only further traumatize that society. Unless we are prepared to risk a significant escalation, which could very well involve NATO forces fighting the Russians, the best way to ensure the survival of a viable, independent Ukrainian state is to negotiate a deal now.

*Michael Gfoeller is an ambassador, member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served for 15 years in the Soviet Union, Russia and Eastern Europe.

*David H. Rundell is a former head of mission at the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia. author of Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads (IB Tauris).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the magazine's portal Newsweek.


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