A Ukraine spring offensive?

Abdel-Moneim Said
Friday 5 May 2023

What might come next ?


Will the much anticipated Ukrainian “spring offensive” have started by the time this goes to print, or has the meaning of the term changed? Are journalists and observers chasing a ghost that will not appear? In an article entitled “Ukraine and Russia Need a Great-Power Peace Plan” appearing in Foreign Policy on 18 April 2023, the American political scientist and Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt urged his government to adopt “a Plan B for Ukraine.” He pointed out that according to recently revealed information, the Ukrainian forces are too under-equipped and under-trained for a spring offensive and would be “unlikely to make far-reaching gains against Russian defences. The administration’s bold promises of an eventual Ukrainian triumph will probably not be borne out, and Ukraine will suffer additional damage in the meantime. What Ukraine needs is peace, not a protracted war of attrition against a more populous adversary whose leader does not much care about how many lives are sacrificed in the maelstrom.”

The term “spring offensive,” which has been gaining currency since the war in Ukraine entered its second year, derives from memories of World War II — when winter’s bitter cold and sludge made roads and fields impassable for tanks and other heavy military machinery. 

That was long before climate change made winters warm, springs hot, and summers drag on into late autumn.  This year, spring arrived on 22 March after an unseasonably warm winter. In the weeks after that, the front remained much the same as it had stood since the end of last year and certainly since the one-year anniversary of the start of the war. At the start of the year, there was much speculation in the Western press about an impending “spring offensive” to be launched by Russia. At the time, Russia had just completed a partial military mobilisation and training of called-up reserves. With the addition of large numbers of troops, Russian forces would succeed where they had previously failed in scoring sought-after gains in Ukraine, Western analysts held. Then their tone changed and it was now Ukraine that would launch the offensive to liberate occupied territory using tanks, ammunition and other equipment pledged by the US and its allies. The most frequently posed questions then became whether the Ukrainian offensive would include Crimea and whether the Ukrainian leaders’ maximalist stance or overzealous ambitions had put them in the thrall of illusory goals. 

 Despite all the preparations, the threats and insinuations, and the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, the lines of contact generally remain still except for armed turmoil in places such as Bakhmut, which cannot be called a definitive battlefront. From the stability of the front, it appears that the two sides have resigned themselves to the lines of contact as they have stood since the start of the year, and that they are now waiting for a miracle solution. Perhaps that would entail an acceptance of the status quo similar to that which has remained in place since the fighting between North and South Korea stopped around seven decades ago. In all events, China has presented an initiative to end the fighting in Ukraine. While Beijing claims its cooperation with Russia is now “unlimited,” this has stopped short of military support. French President Emmanuel Macron has attempted to lend impetus to the initiative, and now the US strategist Stephen Walt proposes a joint US-Russian-Chinese initiative to end the conflict. 

To me it seems that it is in the interest of all three powers to end the war. The drain of money, arms and ammunition and the influx of Ukrainian refugees have severely strained Washington and its European allies. US President Biden, too, is under great pressure, especially now that he has announced his bid for reelection and needs to claim a victory in a war that has prevented Russia from swallowing up Ukraine and a victory in peace settlement not just with Russia but also, and more importantly, with China. China has gained considerably as a result of that war. Above all, it now has access to Russian oil and gas at reduced prices and its relationship with Russia, now officially described as “unlimited cooperation,” is closer than ever.  Such gains will strengthen Beijing’s call for a revision of the international order when the time for reconstruction begins. Beijing also wants to avert a war over Taiwan and to ensure continued support for the “One China” policy. Meanwhile, China has won a diplomatic notch in its belt, having brokered the Iranian-Saudi agreement to restore relations. It has also offered to mediate between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It would put the jewel in its crown as a great power that seeks world peace and prosperity if it participates in the peacemaking drive in Ukraine.

Russia, for its part, seems to have achieved some of its basic goals in the war, one of which was to gain international recognition, if only in the form of silent assent, of its annexation of Crimea and the Donbas. This will clip Ukraine’s wings and achieve its main goal, which is to keep Ukraine from joining NATO. 

Ukraine is the main obstacle to the scenario of a consensus among superpowers. The ambitions of the Ukrainian leaders and the drumming up of the Ukrainian public’s zealotry behind maximalist aims hampers the ability to achieve a rational settlement. Washington will be needed here in order to convince Ukraine that it has achieved a major victory by surviving as an independent state that can still obtain full membership in the EU, look forward to reconstruction and reap the glory of having withstood Russia during the war. 

Stephen Walt, in his article, cited historical examples of successful cooperation between superpowers even at the height of Cold War tensions. For example, the US and the USSR jointly supported the UN Security Council resolutions ending the Arab-Israeli War in June 1967 and establishing a ceasefire during the October War in 1973. What Walt did not mention was that the first resolution was informed by circumstances related to the war in Vietnam and the US’ subsequent desire to reconcile  with the Soviet Union and China, leading to president Nixon’s famous visit to Beijing and to the nuclear arms control agreement between the US and the Soviet Union.

Cooperation in the framework of the Madrid peace conference in the 1990s took place against the backdrop of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the US rise as the sole global hegemonic power. Such a situation is not appropriate to the realities surrounding the Ukraine war in which a ceasefire would be complicated and cast a shadow of defeat over the leaders of both sides in the eyes of their respective citizens. Ukraine stands to lose a lot of territory while Russia’s huge losses in combat and as the result of sanctions cannot be compensated with a settlement that does not result in a change of regime in Ukraine, leaving NATO even larger. 

The world has changed a lot. Historical analyses may help make some things clearer, but they can also obfuscate the facts about this particular war.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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