There is no sign to suggest that the Russia-Ukraine war will see a peaceful resolution any time soon.
On the contrary, the speeches of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the first anniversary of the war and US President Joe Biden in Poland and before that in Ukraine after a surprise visit in which he stressed that the West was prepared for a long war and ready to arm Ukraine with the most modern weapons signal that the war is probably now entering its most dangerous phase.
In his speech on Tuesday, the Russian president accused the Western countries of igniting and sustaining the war in Ukraine.
“It’s they who started the war. And we are using force to end it,” Putin said before an audience of lawmakers, state officials, and soldiers who had fought in Ukraine. “We aren’t fighting the Ukrainian people…Ukraine has become a hostage of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters, which have effectively occupied the country,” Putin said.
“The Western elites aren’t trying to conceal their goals, which are to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia,” Putin said, before adding that Russia was prepared to respond as “it will be a matter of our country’s existence.”
The Russian leader vowed there would be no military let-up in the Ukrainian territories Russia has annexed. Referring to the referendums in the partially occupied areas of Ukraine, Putin said that “I would like to express special gratitude to the citizens of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions.”
“You determined your future. You made your choice despite the threats of terror from the Nazis. Next to you, there were military actions taking place, and you chose to be together with Russia. To be together with your motherland.”
Putin accused the West of being either “cynical or stupid” in its approach to arms control and Russia, arguing that the relationship between Russia and the US has deteriorated at “the initiative of the US.”
“Step by step, they started to destroy the system of world security and arms control,” he said, before announcing that Russia would pull out of the New Start Treaty with the US.
“I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the strategic arms treaty,” Putin said, adding that Russia would carry out new nuclear tests if the US did so.
In his speech in Kyiv, Biden announced $500 million in new military aid for Ukraine. “I’m here to show our unwavering support for the nation’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” he said, vowing to stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
“One year later, Kyiv stands, and Ukraine stands, democracy stands… The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you,” Biden said.
In Poland, Biden spoke to the larger contest at stake between “those aggressors who are trying to destroy fundamental principles and those democracies we’re pulling together to try to uphold [them].”
Although the West and Russia say they are ready for a long war and that the conditions for peace are not yet ripe, the reality of the situation is that the continuation of the war is costly and that there is no unified vision in Russia or the Western camp regarding the end game of the war.
Those differences were largely demonstrated during the Munich Security Conference this week. The dominant sense in Munich was that the world is very much divided into two blocs: the West and the rest.
The Western leaders came to the conference with a unified position, which was that the Russian-Ukrainian war is an “international priority,” that there is no international challenge more important than it is, and that Ukraine must be supported militarily until it achieves a clear victory over Russia.
European and US officials competed in making promises to arm Ukraine with the latest weapons, ruling out any political solutions in the near future.
However, these promises of arms were not accompanied by a Western “shared vision” of how to end the war. There are rifts in the Western camp itself regarding the conditions for ending the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who opened the conference with a speech from Kyiv, urged the Western allies to send more aid and quickly ruled out talks with Russia, insisting that there was a “lack of trust” between the two parties and “there is no alternative to Ukraine’s victory.”
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen called for increased military support to Ukraine. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged a “doubling” of military support to Ukraine, reiterating London’s commitment to providing battle tanks, advanced air-defence systems, and long-range missiles.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stressed that German support for Kyiv is “designed to continue” and urged the allies to speed up the delivery of promised heavy tanks to Ukraine. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the current phase of the war as a crucial stage in the conflict, arguing that it is necessary “to give Ukraine what it needs to prevail and survive as an independent, sovereign state in Europe.”
Only the speech of French President Emmanuel Macron was different in tone in an apparent rift within the Western alliance. Macron made it clear that he supported increasing military aid for Kyiv and that he was ready for a long-term war to defeat Russia, but “without crushing” it.
He criticised those whom he said “want to extend the war into Russia itself,” dismissing the prospect of regime change in Russia and calling similar efforts around the world “a complete failure.”
“I do not think, as some people do, that we must aim for a total defeat of Russia, attacking Russia on its soil,” Macron told the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. “Those observers want, above all else, to crush Russia. That has never been the position of France, and it will never be our position.”
Insisting that now is not the right time for dialogue with Moscow, Macron stressed that peace talks are the “ultimate goal.”
The French president may have felt isolated in his position in Munich as not many officials from the Global South were at the conference, while Russia was not invited under pressure from the US and Ukraine.
The absence of the voices of the majority of the world’s countries reinforces fears that the conference, once more representative of differences and disparities on the international stage, has become a “new Davos,” in other words, a closed gathering of a small number of countries.
Even some of the participants did not lose sight of the fact that they were talking in “closed chat rooms.”
EU Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell called in his speech for more to be done to convince the Global South that “Russia is an imperial power.”
But Western differences over the ultimate goal of the war and the extent of military support that could be provided to Ukraine without a war against Russia itself were clear.
Ukraine wants to continue the war until all the territories controlled by Russia, including Crimea, are liberated, but this is not realistic in the opinion of many Western countries because it means supplying Ukraine with advanced weapons at a very fast pace and Russia’s possible response of using nuclear weapons as a last resort to prevent a resounding defeat in the war.
It is too early to predict the full impact of the war on the structure of European and global security. But the post-Cold War arrangements are over, NATO has regained its raison d’être, and Europe’s efforts at strategic autonomy from the US have receded.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly