Officially, negotiations are still ongoing between Russia and Ukraine to reach a political solution to the devastating war in the country, which has now entered its third month. However, on the ground very few still believe in the possibility of a diplomatic solution.
The vital question now is how the parties involved in the war are preparing for a long, costly, and cross-border conflict that is open to extension on other fronts, and, worse, the possibility of using nuclear weapons.
This question is being asked more than ever in Western capitals after reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has put diplomacy on the shelf and is now focused on achieving the largest possible military gains on the ground. It also comes after the announcement by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, following a visit to Kyiv with Secretary of State Antony Blinken where they met with President Volodymyr Zelensky, that America’s ultimate goal is to “weaken Russia” strategically so that it will no longer be able to launch any war like the Ukrainian war.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kind of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said at a news conference at an undisclosed location in Poland near the Ukrainian border after the visit to Kyiv, while Blinken told reporters that Putin has “failed” in achieving his goals in Ukraine.
“Russia has sought as its principal aim to totally subjugate Ukraine, to take away its sovereignty, to take away its independence – that has failed. It has sought to assert the power of its military and its economy. We, of course, are seeing just the opposite, a military that is dramatically underperforming and an economy... as a result of sanctions that are in shambles,” Blinken said.
“We don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene,” he said.
The explicit statement that Washington aims to see Russia’s military capabilities weakened could be a moment of reckoning in the conflict. Blinken and Austin’s remarks are the most outright by US officials challenging Putin’s longevity as Russia’s president. They also emphasise the US goals of encircling, containing, and isolating Russia as long as Putin stays in power.
The remarks could suggest that even if Russian forces withdraw from the Ukrainian territory they have occupied since 24 February, the US and its allies would seek to maintain the sanctions to stop Russia from reconstituting its forces.
The statements also reflect the fact that NATO will take more hawkish policies towards Moscow by increasing military spending, deploying more troops to countries like Poland that have borders with Russia, and supporting the inclusion of more countries in the alliance such as Sweden and Finland.
The potential consequences of the statements and the ambiguity about whether they reflect a shift in Washington’s policy raise questions about why they were declared so bluntly.
Some Western diplomats argue that the forthright statements could weaken Russia’s incentive to withdraw from Ukraine, reinforcing Moscow’s narrative that NATO is waging a proxy war in Ukraine aimed at weakening Russia and even regime change and deepening Putin’s paranoia.
Isolated and under pressure, Putin, suffering from painful international sanctions, with questions even in his inner circle about the logic of the war, whose military campaign is faltering and moving slowly even in eastern Ukraine, could be very dangerous if he has nothing to lose, observers say.
One European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly that he was not sure that officials in France or Germany would have used the same language as the US defence secretary, describing it as “counterproductive.”
“The pressure on Putin is increasing to quickly end the war and not expand it, but the American rhetoric might push Moscow to make disastrous choices if it felt that the head of the regime was targeted alongside the capabilities of the Russian army,” he said.
“These statements, if they reflect a new policy, will be a prelude to a long and open conflict with Russia not only in Ukraine but anywhere from the Middle East to Latin America,” he added.
Nonetheless, on Tuesday Austin doubled down on the US stance as Washington vowed to move “heaven and earth” to help Ukraine win its battle against Russia’s invasion as he hosted defence talks in Germany with allies from 40 nations.
Speaking at the Ramstein Airbase in southwestern Germany, Austin pledged to “help Ukraine win the fight against Russia’s unjust invasion and to build up Ukraine’s defences for tomorrow’s challenges.”
“As we see this morning, nations from around the world stand united in our resolve to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s imperial aggression. Ukraine clearly believes that it can win and so does everyone here,” he said.
The US is already the biggest supplier of international military aid to Ukraine, and Austin said Washington will “keep moving heaven and earth so that we can meet” Kyiv’s needs.
The US-hosted meeting would “focus on doing things to generate additional capability and capacity for the Ukrainian forces,” according to the US defence secretary.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said a key goal of the talks was to coordinate mounting security assistance to Kyiv that included heavy weaponry such as howitzers, as well as armed drones and ammunition.
“The next several weeks will be very, very critical,” Milley said. “They need continued support in order to be successful on the battlefield. And that’s really the purpose of this conference.”
The US has been rushing more weapons to Ukraine and has said that the assistance from its Western allies is making a difference in the war. Blinken said Washington had approved $165 million in arms and would also provide more than $300 million in financing to buy more supplies.
More than half – $1.9 billion – of the US military aid to Ukraine since the war started has come in the last two weeks. More than 60 per cent of US military aid to Ukraine since the war started has come in the last month, amounting to $2.3 billion.
In another blow to Moscow, the German defence minister said Germany would authorise the delivery of tanks to Ukraine in what would be a switch in Berlin’s hesitancy to provide Kyiv with heavy weapons.
The German government has agreed to sign off on the delivery of used Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, Christine Lambrecht told the meeting at the US Ramstein Airbase.
Meanwhile, Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov warned Ukraine against provoking World War III and said that the threat of a nuclear conflict “should not be underestimated.” In a television interview, Lavrov warned that deliveries of Western weapons to Ukraine meant that the NATO alliance was “in essence engaged in war with Russia”.
In an apparent response to Austin, he said Russia has “a feeling that the West wants Ukraine to continue to fight and, as it seems to them, wear out, exhaust, the Russian army and the Russian military-industrial war complex. This is an illusion.”
Weapons supplied by Western countries “will be a legitimate target,” he said.
“Storage facilities in western Ukraine have been targeted more than once [by Russian forces]. How can it be otherwise?” Lavrov asked. “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.”
He accused Ukrainian leaders of provoking Russia by asking NATO to become involved in the conflict. NATO forces are “pouring oil on the fire,” Lavrov warned, according to a transcript on the Russian Foreign Ministry website.
“Everyone is reciting incantations that in no case can we allow World War III,” Lavrov said, adding that he would not want to see risks of a nuclear confrontation “artificially inflated now when the risks are rather significant.”
“The danger is serious,” he said. “It is real. It should not be underestimated.”
With the ongoing war and the diminishing prospect for diplomacy, the declared US goal of “weakening Russia” as a strategic goal raises more questions than answers.
“I think we are at a crossroads. Moscow’s threat of a nuclear war may be a hollow threat, but the world cannot bear to test Russia’s intentions if the war escalates and things get out of hand,” warned the European diplomat.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.