The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is prepared for a “prolonged conflict” in Ukraine and he is “probably counting” on the resolve of western allies to soften in the face of inflation, food shortages, and rising energy prices.
On last Tuesday, Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence, told the US Congress that Putin still intends to achieve his goals, because in his judgment Russia has a greater willingness to endure challenges than his adversaries. Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, Head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, acknowledged that the war was “at a bit of a stalemate” with neither side winning. The stalemate could last for a while, but if Russia declares war (as opposed to calling it a military operation) and mobilises thousands of more soldiers, the situation could change.
The sober assessment by two top intelligence officials was in contrast to the rhetoric from other senior US officials, including Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who recently revealed that he aimed to see Russia so “weakened” by the current war that it would lose all appetite for mounting similar invasions in the future.
“Finland is on the verge of joining NATO—President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin issued a joint statement on Thursday, saying that the country must apply for membership without delay.”
Some in Europe share Austin’s objective. Gen. Thierry Burkhard, Chief of Staff of the French military, echoed Austin’s sentiments when he said, “The interest of European countries is to weaken Russia.” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has vowed to go “further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine.”
To be sure, Russia’s war against Ukraine has changed Europe’s security landscape. Finland is on the verge of joining NATO—President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin issued a joint statement on Thursday, saying that the country must apply for membership without delay. Sweden is expected to follow suit, even though it is more politically divided on the question.
Against the background of Washington’s expanding war aims and European countries following its lead, no one is talking about peace anymore. Those who did in the past such as Turkey and Israel have given up because the main protagonists—Russia, Ukraine, and western allies—don’t seem interested. In Europe’s large countries, there is proportionately less talk of autonomy and more of unity under the US leadership.
NATO allies continue to pretend they are not directly fighting Russia even though they have provided real-time intelligence and targeting information to Ukraine’s military, to say nothing of the billions in military aid. Washington is considering a US$40-billion military and economic aid package having already sent US$3.8 billion worth of weapons since the war began.
Putin is also playing a pretend game of sorts. He knows he can’t “win” against NATO but he can grind on and create a Syria in Europe. His war aims have shrunk from taking over Kyiv and imposing a pro-Russian government to dominating southeast Ukraine. Low morale of troops and obvious battlefield failures will result in a war of attrition. The siege of Mariupol and its decimation was a curtain raiser.
“Washington’s political establishment seems unwilling to consider the risk of escalation and miscalculation—something it always recommends to other countries when hostilities cross a certain threshold.”
Talk on Russian television is interspersed with ominous hints about nuclear weapons. This is happening when the US and Russia have allowed arms agreements to expire for reasons that don’t stand the test of scrutiny. Talk on the US television is all about Putin’s blunders and war crimes, encouraged in no small measure by lobbyists working for Ukraine and Washington’s army of Russia sceptics, who surface at the smallest of opportunities. And Putin has given them a big one this time.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dominates the discourse in western countries and keeps it firmly in his favour. Questions from the US Congress are few and far between on whether the flood of military aid should be restricted. Washington’s political establishment seems unwilling to consider the risk of escalation and miscalculation—something it always recommends to other countries when hostilities cross a certain threshold.
Given the risks, there is an urgent need to clearly define the end goal because Russia is already “weakened” and struggling. Ukraine is being destroyed as the war continues with the death toll going to tens of thousands even if no one in the West wants to talk about it.
The question is whether a flailing, desperate Russia is more dangerous or less.
Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. She writes on US foreign policy in relation to South Asia. She has worked with several Indian newspapers over the last three decades. Views are personal.
The article originally appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.