Ignoring the winds of change in Ukraine

Hussein Haridy
Saturday 24 Feb 2024

NATO representatives gathered at the Munich Security Conference last week were still arguing that a Ukrainian victory is a foregone conclusion in the conflict in Ukraine.


Participants at the 59th Munich Security Conference in February last year spoke about an expected major Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Russian-Ukrainian war that would, according to Western speakers and officials, push Russian forces from their positions inside Ukraine and comes as a prelude to a decisive military victory over Russia.

It would be a major win for NATO and the cause of democracy versus authoritarianism, they argued.

No one from the West talked about an alternative outcome that would see things turn out differently or argue that the West and NATO, led by the US Biden administration, should be prepared to deal with Russia in a different manner just in case rosy scenarios of a Russian defeat on the battlefield turned out to be unrealistic and impossible to achieve.

The Ukrainians launched their long-anticipated counteroffensive in June 2023 and saw it thwarted by the Russians. Not only did the counteroffensive stall, but the Russian forces scored some military victories like, for instance, taking the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine on 17 February this year from the Ukrainians who withdrew to more defensive lines.

The 60th Munich Security Conference convened this year from 16 to 18 February and saw a mood that contrasted sharply with the one that had prevailed a year ago. However, one thing had not changed, namely the complete lack of political imagination about the day the Ukrainians would lose their independence for the sake of achieving a military victory over Russia that has proved unlikely thus far and may well be impossible.

 All the Western speakers at the conference, including US Vice-President Kamala Harris, spoke about their determination to provide Ukraine with the military, economic, and financial assistance necessary to defeat Russia. NATO is prepared and has the political will to provide all the assistance that Kyiv needs to gain the upper hand on the battlefield next year, they said.

But who knows who will be the president of the United States in January 2025? After the US presidential elections in November this year, former president Donald Trump could be back in the Oval Office for a second term as president. His positions on NATO are well-known, and two weeks ago he took everyone by surprise by telling a campaign rally that if a NATO country did not appropriate two per cent of its GDP to the NATO defence budget, the US would not care if Russia decided to do the “hell it wants” with the country.

This statement, made a few days before the Munich Conference, raised questions about the future of the NATO Alliance and transatlantic relations if Trump is reelected as US president.

Harris did her best to reassure the US allies and partners that the country is committed to NATO and that this serves the national interests of the American people. She said that the US is aware that there are questions in Europe and around the world about the future of the US role in global leadership. She assured the audience at the Munich gathering that the Biden administration is committed to pursuing global engagement, upholding international rules and norms, and working with US allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.

She said that Washington has joined forces with allies and friends to stand up for freedom and democracy. She applauded the recent $54 billion commitment the EU has made to support Ukraine, and she said that NATO would remain central to the US approach to global security.

However, despite these assurances European leaders are worried about the future, whether in terms of the resilience of transatlantic relations and the future of NATO or European relations with Russia and China. The 60th Munich Security Conference did not allay their worries concerning US-European relations, not only during a possible second term for Trump as president, but also how they would deal with Russia if Moscow comes closer to a military victory in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that a Russian defeat in Ukraine is “impossible,” but in the meantime he has left the door open to negotiations to reach a possible peace deal in Ukraine. No one in Munich this year talked about the importance and necessity of preparing NATO and Europe for such an eventuality. On the contrary, the European leaders doubled down on their continuing and unquestioned support for Ukraine, even as the prospects of a Ukrainian military victory are becoming next to impossible.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that “we in Denmark have decided to donate our entire artillery to Ukraine.” This is an unprecedented decision to say the least. The Danish minister of defence had said a week earlier that Russia could rebuild its capabilities to launch attacks against a NATO country in three to five years.

Estonian Defence Minister Hannover Pevkur, quoted on 17 February, said he believed that Putin’s objective was to show that NATO is not functioning and that Article 5 [of the NATO Charter] is not functioning. Even the US administration warned two days before the conference that Russia is developing advanced anti-satellite missiles that could pose a serious threat to US satellites. However, it also tried to reassure public opinion that the Russian programme is still in the early stages.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius was more emphatic than other European Defence Ministers when he said that Ukraine “must defeat Russia.”

Probably the voice of reason in Munich last week belonged to US Senator J D Vance, who argued, maybe rightly, that the national authorisation defence bill of $95.3 billion, $60 billion of which would go to Ukraine, has still to pass the House of Representatives and that it would not change the realities of the battlefield in Ukraine. He also said that he believes that Russia is interested in negotiating a peace deal with Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “Putin can lose” and that the Ukrainian army is “limited only by the sufficiency and range of our strength.” According to him, this does not depend on Ukraine.

Zelensky, the European leaders, and the US president are acting as if the defeat of Russia in Ukraine is a foregone conclusion. However, the realities on the ground tell a different story.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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