Columnist Sylvie Kauffmann observes that while the fighting continues, neither army is making headway. Faced with the prospect of a protracted war, the Russians are rearming and the West is questioning its next step.
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How do you break a deadlock? Head of Ukrainian armed forces General Valerii Zaluzhnyi took the bull by the horns in publicly asserting that the war on the Russian-Ukrainian front had reached a stalemate after more than 20 months of fighting and five months of counter-offensives. Ever since this statement, a widespread feeling of helplessness has overtaken some of Kyiv's allies. We'd like to forget this war. But not only has it not stopped, it looks set to continue for a long time.
To summarize earlier episodes: Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Initially, its forces met fierce resistance from the Ukrainian army and population. Surprisingly, the Russian army withdrew from the Kyiv region and northern Ukraine, not without committing war crimes. There was a second surprise for Moscow: the West, and particularly the Europeans, reacted in unison, sanctioning and breaking off relations with Russia and giving decisive support to Ukraine. In the autumn of 2022, Kyiv led a first counter-offensive in the east and succeeded in retaking towns from ill-prepared and ill-equipped Russian forces.
The dynamic reversed during 2023. The Ukrainians, outnumbered three to one by the Russians, faced a punishing scale of human loss. The Russian command learned from its 2022 setbacks and reorganized its forces, fortifying and planting mines along its lines of defense at the front. A second Ukrainian counter-offensive launched during the summer came up against these fortifications. By winter, the front was at a standstill. Fighting continued, but neither side was able to make significant progress. This is what General Zaluzhnyi called the "stalemate." The military confrontation is at a standstill.
In Moscow, Vladimir Putin stepped up a gear. For him, this war is existential. He has mobilized all the country's forces for arms production and considerably increased his defense budget. What Russia can't produce, it obtains from friendly regimes, such as North Korea, or those prepared to circumvent Western sanctions. He desperately wants to win. He is determined and has nothing to fear from the forthcoming presidential election, which will bring his fifth term in office in March.
The situation on the other side is different. For Ukraine too, this war, which it did not seek, is existential: its survival is at stake. But this depends heavily on the help of its allies – and they are less determined, or even skeptical.
There's a "war fatigue" factor. As Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis pointed out in Berlin on Tuesday, November 28, this "is a phenomenon of societies living in peace." Societies at war, on the other hand, cannot afford the luxury of war fatigue. Then there's the "what military strategy?" factor, a question that's agitating certain Western general staffs. They're convinced that they could do it better – but for that to happen, they'd have to send their own soldiers to be killed, and that's out of the question. The West would also have to be able to produce armaments at the same rate as the Russians, which is not the case at present. Finally, there's the "negotiation" element, being advanced by some American experts and former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The frozen state of the front line shows that this war cannot be won, so the time has come to negotiate to save the 80% of Ukrainian territory that is still not occupied by the Russians.
'We're waiting for Pearl Harbor'
In reality, neither Moscow nor Kyiv has any reason to negotiate. Putin has no interest in doing so, convinced that time is on his side. He prefers to wait until the Europeans have grown weary and Donald Trump has won the White House. President Volodymyr Zelensky isn't ready either, and what's more, he's wary. Given Russia's track record when it comes to respecting agreements, he is right to be.
On closer inspection, then, since no one is in control of the American electoral game, much of the fate of this war rests with the Europeans. If they don't want to give in to defeatism, now is the time to realize this. Listening to Landsbergis and his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, on Tuesday at a Körber Foundation conference, this is not the case. The German minister certainly asserted the clarity of her government's line on continued support for Ukraine, but then immediately expounded on this moment of "multi-crises" and "the direction the world is taking."
The Lithuanian foreign minister was much more direct: "In many cases, we try to portray this as a regional, still far away geographically issue that might not affect us all. This is a major policy issue that should drive the debate. As a person who is interested in history, what I am fearing is that we're waiting for Pearl Harbor to happen. We passed all the stages already and we're like, 'Pearl Harbor has not happened, so we're fine.' We're not fine."
He added that "if you were sure and your electorate was sure that this is already Perl Harbor happening, you would send everything you have in order for it really not to happen, to defend yourself, to defend Berlin, to defend Vilnius, to defend the borders and in extension, to defend Kyiv in the same way you'd defend your own country."
In passing, Landsbergis tackled Germany, which still can't bring itself to devote 2% of its GDP to the defense budget: "Two percent is supposed to be the minimum," he reminded us, "but some are still at a lower level."
Another way to defend Ukraine is opening the doors to NATO and the European Union, just as they were successfully opened to post-communist countries, including Lithuania, 20 years ago. The 27 member states are actually due to decide this on December 14 and 15. That's just two weeks away. Requiring unanimity, this major decision is far from assured. Perhaps the Pearl Harbor that Landsbergis warned of is about to arrive.