Europe’s ‘Afghanistan complex’ on Ukraine

Manal Lotfy in London , Sunday 3 Mar 2024

While Washington may be seeking an extended war with Russia over Ukraine, this remains an ongoing nightmare for the EU.

Europe s  Afghanistan complex  on Ukraine

 

The second anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian war took place in a gloomy mood in Europe this week, without much to celebrate and without a high-level US presence.

Unlike last year, US President Joe Biden did not travel to Kyiv this week to show his solidarity with Ukraine, and neither did any of his top officials.

The only Western leaders to join Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv were Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose country currently chairs the G7 Group, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo.

It was hardly the united front that Western leaders wanted to project on the international stage. Yet, it did reflect a pivotal moment in the war.

On Monday, Ukrainian troops pulled out of Lastochkyne, a village in the east of the country, as Russian forces advanced. Last week, Moscow captured Avdiivka, a city in eastern Ukraine, after four months of heavy fighting, marking its biggest victory since Ukraine’s failed counter-offensive last year.

Facing a shortage of weapons, ammunition, and fighters, Ukraine blames a deficit in shells for its recent failures, which further increases the doubt regarding Kyiv’s ability to gain ground against Russia.

Stalemate, let alone more potential Russian advances in 2024, presents a difficult and complex challenge for Europe.

On the one hand, the European countries need to strengthen their military and defence capabilities, support Kyiv to withstand more Russian military advances, prepare the country to regain the initiative on the battlefront, and push Russia to accept a political solution that is acceptable to both Europe and Ukraine.

On the other hand, European leaders need to develop a “Plan B” to deal with a possible “Afghanistan scenario” in Ukraine – in other words, if the US decides, without much consultation with its European allies, that it no longer has a strategic interest in continuing to support Ukraine, as happened with Afghanistan.

This scenario seems unlikely at present, but it may become likelier after the US presidential elections in November if Republican Party candidate Donald Trump is re-elected.

Calculations of a US retreat from continued support for Ukraine may be necessitated not only by Trump’s promises to end the war within weeks if he is re-elected, but also by the conviction of many within the Republican Party that focusing on the war between Ukraine and Russia draws Washington’s attention away from the real threat to its international hegemony, which is China’s rise militarily, economically and politically, especially in the Global South.

The possibility of the US abandoning Ukraine was in the mind of Zelensky at a press conference to mark the second anniversary of the war, where he underlined the stakes over the next year.

“The first year was just survival, utter survival... The second year was resilience, resistance... The third year will be decisive. It’s a year of challenges from inside and outside,” he said.

He acknowledged that much of Ukraine’s future depends on such external factors, particularly the political will in Washington to continue supporting Kyiv.

“The US elections will be a decisive moment for us to understand what lies ahead,” he added, in the clearest public admission yet that a new Trump presidency could be disastrous for Ukraine with serious political, financial, and military repercussions.

Zelensky also addressed the West’s failure to meet its promises to supply ammunition in the required quantities. “Out of a million shells that the European Union promised us, it was not 50 per cent but unfortunately 30 per cent that were delivered,” he said.

Last year, the EU countries pledged to send Ukraine one million artillery shells before the end of March 2024, but then acknowledged they could only deliver just over 50 per cent of that amount.

“We are convinced that Russia’s defeat is indispensable to security and stability in Europe,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday in Paris, where he warned that the war is at a “critical juncture.”

Macron announced that European leaders had agreed to set up a coalition to give Ukraine medium and long-range missiles and bombs to carry out deeper strikes. However, he did not say when such weapons would be delivered.

He also did not rule out sending Western ground troops into Ukraine, but he acknowledged that differences remained about this among the European allies.

“Nothing should be excluded. We will do everything so that Russia cannot win this war. We should not exclude that there might be a need for security that then justifies some elements of deployment,” he added.

Russia has warned that any Western troop deployment in Ukraine would trigger a direct conflict between Moscow and the NATO military alliance.

In his closing remarks at the end of the meeting, Macron warned that “there is a change in Russia’s stance. It is striving to take on further territory, and it has its eyes not just on Ukraine but on many other countries as well, so Russia is presenting a greater danger.”

Macron was speaking at a hastily organised crisis meeting in Paris in support of Ukraine that was attended by European politicians including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

Low-level delegations from the US and Canada were also present.

The hasty manner of organising the meeting in Paris reflects a moment of real concern in Europe about a possible US abandonment of its European allies.

Europe fears that the balance of power currently favours Russia and may tilt further to it in the coming months, posing a major challenge to Ukraine and its European allies.

While there is little evidence that Russia seeks to control all of Ukraine, evidence and statements by Russian officials suggest their intention to capture strategic cities like Odessa and Kharkiv in the east.

The more Russia has control over vital Ukrainian cities, especially Odessa, the more it weakens Ukrainian forces, potentially influencing future negotiations.

In Europe, some blame Washington for this situation. Partisanship in the US Congress hinders military and economic aid packages to Ukraine, impeding their ability to counter Russian attacks.

The delay has allowed Moscow to re-mobilise its forces and adjust its strategy, potentially shifting the balance of power in its favour.

Some European observers believe that a long war may be Washington’s strategy, hoping to exhaust Russia militarily and economically and weakening it structurally in a repeat of a similar US strategy towards the former Soviet Union before its collapse in the early 1990s.

This is a nightmare scenario for Europe.

A long war on European soil would deplete the continent’s military capabilities, erode public support, worsen economic conditions, and heighten security risks.

Therefore, the anniversary of the war has been accompanied by the widening of the fault lines between Washington and its European allies. Many European leaders are unable to trust Washington and do not communicate regularly with US President Joe Biden, who is busy with his re-election campaign.

Yet, attempts to form a unified front to confront Russia’s ambitions have been hampered by European differences over financing and armaments to Ukraine.

It is a real challenge to Europe’s ability to think strategically away from the US security and military umbrella, especially if the next administration decides to focus on the Chinese threat and leaves Europe facing an “Afghanistan scenario” in Ukraine.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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