Can NATO Prevent Tides Turning in Russian Favour in the Third Year of War in Ukraine?

Can NATO Prevent Tides Turning in Russian Favour in the Third Year of War in Ukraine?

Author: Indian General (ret.) Sashi Asthana


As the war in Ukraine completes two years, Russia seems emboldened by success in capturing Avdivka and seems to be advancing westwards near Avdiivka, Bakhmut, Donetsk City, Robotyne and Krynky, besides capturing settlement of Pobeda. It is showing intent to unlock the frozen conflict, which was witnessing only standoff attacks from opposing sides through drones and missiles in the recent past, with both sides licking their wounds, counting their losses and struggling to recuperate their combat power.

The rhetoric of US led West seems shifting from “Putin must lose” to “Putin must not win” as it struggles to meet Ukraine’s expectations of financial and military support, wherein President Biden promises of supporting Ukraine  ‘for as long as it takes’ subtly seems shifting to “As long as we can” as he faces delay in clearing foreign aid package.

Russia too is not too comfortable having suffered considerable losses to Black Sea Fleet and struggling to contain repeated standoff attacks by Ukraine on Russian cities, which was once thought to be out of bound for Ukrainians using western long-range arsenal, to prevent escalation to NATO-Russian show down.

There is no doubt that because of Western compulsion not to lose against Putin, Ukraine will get the desired aid, arsenal and ammunition sooner or later, but the question remains as to who will provide it enough trained soldiers to match Russian soldiers on frontline, as the asymmetry of numbers might prove to be a game changer in protracted war of attrition.

Hard Realities

Certain stark realities decide the maximum limits of the war. Firstly, Russia with largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles under Putin will not get annihilated/decisively defeated without using any of these major weapons. Secondly, US will not risk annihilation of Washington/New York to save Zelensky/Poland. Thirdly Russia will not be able to annihilate Ukraine if continuously supported by NATO. Fourthly Europe will have to follow American dictate, as it knowingly fell prey to American design of cutting off its dependency on Russia and ignored its own security and Russian security concerns for too long.  Fifthly Ukraine can’t recapture entire lost territory without NATO getting fully involved with troops, meaning Third World War and Nuclear ‘Armageddon’ Risk. The war is therefore continue to be prosecuted within these maximal limits.

Russia, has three times the population than Ukraine, double the military budget and a most importantly a strong President thoroughly committed to ending the war only on his own terms. Due to lack of options NATO is still trying to use old instruments of war like economic war through additional sanctions on Russia (500 additional entities by USA) and information war by picking up Navalny’s death as rallying point, who was more of hero of western media, but no worthwhile threat to Putin.  

While the kinetic, contact, hybrid war between Russia and Ukraine is witnessing relatively slow progress on borders with frequent standoff strikes, offensive actions are also happening in the US-led NATO’s undeclared, non-kinetic, non-contact war against Russia in the economic, information, diplomatic, and political domains. The scale of war is increasing with both sides increasing use of more dangerous arsenal, proxy elements, non-state actors, drone and cyber warfare along with other modern instruments. The dimensions of war are growing to encompass targeting dual-use key infrastructure, the energy grid, covert operations, an expanded information war, and a psychological offensive.

Russian Aim, Strategy, and Outcomes

Russia’s political aim at the beginning of the war was to arrest the trend of eastern expansion of NATO into its backyard, foreclose option of inclusion of Ukraine into NATO, liberate complete Luhansk and Donetsk regions to act as buffer, and ensure security of Crimea by connecting it with Donbass Region through a land corridor.  The aim plus included completely cutting off Ukraine from warm water access to get absolute freedom of maneuver for its Black Sea Fleet and join up with Transnistria. Capturing complete Ukraine was beyond Russian capability and continues to be so, but an end state along its linguistic borders is thought to be within its achievable limits.

After two years of war Russia has captured 20 percent of Ukrainian territory after Crimea, but not yet liberated entire Donbass region. It is yet to capture Odessa and join up with Transnistria, which is not easy. It miscalculated on Ukrainians will and resolve to withstand Russian onslaught and underestimated the magnitude of support by West to boost Ukrainian resistance initially. Ukrainians fought with determination to blunt Russian offensive on Kyiv, Kharkiv,  Mykolaiv and other areas.

Russia suffered heavy casualties in men and material in first year of war, but learnt some lessons quickly, hence it developed a strong and viable defence line along the captured territory which could withstand the much-hyped Ukrainian counteroffensive. While enduring the counteroffensive in the second year, it simultaneously worked towards its recuperation of combat capabilities faster than the West and has reached a position to threaten Ukraine to fulfill its remaining aims again in the third year, despite paying heavy cost in terms of casualties of men and material, besides economic and diplomatic squeeze. It is estimated that Russian military production grew by 400 percent as against 20 percent of Europe since 2021

Ukrainian Aim, Strategy, and Outcomes

President Zelensky was expecting a violent action from Russia after signing decree aimed at de-occupation and reintegration of the Crimean Peninsula on 26 February 2021. Joint exercises with NATO gave up his and NATO’s intentions, adequate to alarm Russians, even if such acts were aimed to impress domestic audience. Ukraine’s aim in initial stages was to blunt the Russian offensive and impose punitive cost on Russians with all the assistance from US led NATO using state of the art weaponry and systems. Ukraine’s strong resolve to resist Russian offensive has been noteworthy, having deliberately prepared for the conflict since 2014.

To overcome the adverse asymmetry in military asset holdings to deploy military assets in civilian areas, Ukraine turned towns into fortresses, and residential areas into pillboxes. It involved mercenaries and civilians to fight as part of the war machine, launched sniper attacks, ambushes, small team operations, drone attacks on softer convoys. It successfully provoked Russians to target residential areas in order to gain propaganda advantage from civilian casualties through superior information warfare, backed by the NATO, despite losing air cover in the early stages of war. It thus forced Russians to fight the war of attrition at the ground of Ukraine’s choosing. Russians were organised for mechanised warfare and inadequately prepared to deal with fighting in built up areas and western state of the art weapons and equipment, thus achieved territorial gains at a very heavy cost of casualties.

The second year of war saw an overconfident Zelensky claiming to win back all his territory, overhyped by NATO assuming that meeting his war requirements may give him fair chance to defeat Putin in the counteroffensive. The counteroffensive was supported by hollow media campaign making everyone believe that Ukraine is winning, whereas it was losing its combat power in the failed counteroffensives to Russians who were holding strong defence line.

The prolonged failures on ground has set in a war fatigue in the West. The fact that military campaign of Ukraine was mainly based on American proxy, it has been impacted adversely by the diversion of focus of US in Middle-East. Ukraine today suffers from devastated infrastructure, 14 million people displaced, tattered economy, heavily dependent on Western aid to sustain its resistance, with its sovereign decision making hostage to USA, which wants it to fight till last Ukrainian standing!   

US led NATO’s Aim, Strategy, and Outcomes

While Russia can be accused of launching ‘Special Military Operations’ violating territorial integrity of Ukraine, the eastward expansion of NATO knocking Russian doors was also a major provocation. While unprepared Europe may have no option but to follow USA for collective security against overhyped threat of Russia, but it was mainly to meet American interest. The expanded NATO means more captive market for American military hardware and oil, assured sustenance of military industrial complex, jobs, economy of USA. In 2023 alone US weapons sale overseas has jumped to a record of $238 billion and British arms maker BAE recorded its highest ever profit at $3.4 billion. Knocking off energy dependence of Europe from Russia through destruction of Nordstream pipelines doesn’t seem to be in the interest of Europe, (but it is in the interest of America) which is adequately vindicated by the downslide of economy of Europe in comparison to Russia.

The US led strategy therefore was to let Ukraine fight proxy war to weaken Russia as extension of Cold War 1.0, so that NATO doesn’t run into the risk of third world war or nuclear war and doesn’t bear the burden of body bags. They found a willing Zelensky to undertake it on their behalf with assured support from NATO. As this narrative is globally known, NATO doesn’t want to lose face by stopping the war at a point that they look embarrassed and defeated by Putin, so they find hopeless continuation of war a better face saver.

Global Impact of the Outcome of the War

Two years of Russia Ukraine War has caused tremendous economic, energy and food crisis globally and pushed people not connected with the war too to face immense inflationary pressure. Strategically it has left US entangled in Cold War 1.0 and Cold War 2.0 (with China) together overstretching its capabilities. Strategically the most damaging impact for NATO has been the rise of an opposing power block in terms Russia-China-Iran-Belarus and North Korea, which US led NATO is finding it difficult to handle, with some of them are supporting military effort of Russia undeterred by West which has already sanctioned them.  

Frequent  compromises with China by the West are more frequent in recent times as no one wants China to join in war effort of Russia militarily, beyond giving dual use assistance, but China continues to extend economic lifeline to Russia with trade booming over $200 billion. It has also given more strategic space to China in areas like Middle-East. Serious distractions like Israel Hamas war and resultant Red Sea crisis have placed US in awkward position hampering its capacity to take on major challenges in other flash points specially in Indo-Pacific.

The sanctions have not been adequately effective as Western dependence on Russian nuclear fuel, fertilizers, gas is not easy to scrap overnight. The resource rich Russia has started looking at Asia for trade much more seriously than Europe. World economies have also started looking for alternatives to US dominated financial system. 

The Future of Russia Ukraine War

As of today President Putin is much more confident of prosecuting this war than any of his opponents. He has trained manpower advantage on his side, has been able to endure the sanctions and made some economic gains. His military industrial complex has been able to put his surge capacity in motion to generate more hardware, ammunition and combat power. His major concern will continue to be maritime warfare, where he is still struggling. The option to use nuclear weapons, in case of existential threat will continue to be a powerful tool to prevent NATO entering into contact war with Russia in future too.

On the other hand, Ukraine is struggling for aid and weapons. While it may eventually get them but the problem will be the shortage of trained soldiers in the battlefield which will be a major factor to change the tides in Russian favour in immediate future. The rhetoric and brave front of Zelensky talking of next counteroffensive are good for information warfare but may not swing the situation on ground in his favour as he is banking on what Sean McFate calls “Killing with borrowed knife”.

It may be too late for Ukrainians to realise that Zelensky’s wish to join NATO has been too costly for their people and call for sovereignty has made them a vassal state of USA, but they know that ultimately their geography stands changed for ever. The initiative of individual European countries signing security pacts/agreements with Ukraine may be good optics with some aid, but it doesn’t let them act beyond Article 5 of NATO’s Charter to enter into war against Russia for Ukraine, independent of NATO’s approval.

Turkey claims that in second month of war it facilitated peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul in second month of war, leading to signing a feasible deal, but it was put on hold by Zelensky after he met Boris Johnson, indicating western interest in continuation of war.  A recent survey conducted by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology indicates that 72 percent of Ukrainians believe that talk with Russia must start. Also percentage of Ukrainians feeling that they can win against Russia has dropped from 35 percent to 23 percent.  

Putin has talked of negotiations, but he would proceed on its own terms which practically seem to be Russianisation of areas captured as buffer with NATO, a neutral Western Ukraine (may be part of EU), a secure Crimea and Black Sea.  He would attempt to capture entire Donbass in 2024 and extend southern corridor to Transnistria in 2025. He is confident of getting back to power and keeps showing his physical fitness by optics like travelling in nuclear capable bomber at considerable height to nullify western propaganda about his sickness.

NATO seems to be stressed and fatigued supporting never ending Ukrainian demands over domestic needs, which will impact combat capability and morale of Ukrainian fighters in the long run. Finding manpower to fight will be biggest challenge of Ukraine, which NATO can’t help much. At the beginning of third year of war it seems NATO will find it difficult to turn the tide against Russia.  

Major General S B Asthana

(The views expressed are personal views of the author, who retains the copy right). The author can be reached at Facebook and LinkedIn as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel site email LinkedIn Profile

Youtube link

Kommentare sind geschlossen.