A long-lasting war

Khaled Okasha
Thursday 7 Jul 2022

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned last week of a war lasting years in Ukraine.


Last week opened on a pessimistic note because it is now clearer than ever that the Russian-Ukrainian war is going to drag on for years. 

The prognosis came from the Western camp. In an interview with the German publication Bild am Sonntag, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that “we must prepare for the fact that it could take years. We must not let up in supporting Ukraine. Even if the costs are high, not only for military support, also because of rising energy and food prices.”  

Similarly, and in more detail, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote an article for the UK Sunday Times called “We will Never be Secure if we Turn our Backs on Valiant Ukraine.” Beneath this headline he laid out a plan to “recruit time to Ukraine’s side.” This entailed supplying Ukraine with the arms and wherewithal to strengthen the Ukrainian people’s ability to end the war on their terms, he said. He cautioned that none of the steps would yield immediate results. “All will require a determined effort… lasting for months and years,” he added.

Johnson’s and Stoltenberg’s political status and the fact that they were at the forefront of shaping NATO’s strategic approach to this crisis lend weight to their remarks. Therefore, the British prime minister’s opinion piece merits closer attention as it could be said to define the contours of the prevailing strategic vision in NATO and with a degree of detail that facilitates understanding. 

The vision places a “valiant” Ukraine and its political system under President Volodymyr Zelensky at the forefront of the defence of European security and identifies the country as the western arena of operations against Russian ambitions. This is the first overt acknowledgement from a leading state in NATO that the Western effort exceeds furnishing aid. 

It establishes the Western view that holds that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop at dismantling Ukraine, which would cross a European red line. The argument goes that if Putin, who recently likened himself to Russian tsar Peter the Great, is allowed to prevail in Ukraine, Russia will feel emboldened to take back any territory inhabited by Slavs, a “doctrine that would permit the conquest of vast expanses of Europe, including NATO allies.”

From this standpoint, Johnson extolled what he described as the “most important fact of this tragedy,” namely the “Ukrainian heroism and sacrifice,” which for four months has “derailed” Russian ambitions and designs with the support of the “iron resolve” of the UK and its allies. 

He tells readers not to fall for the notion that heavier Russian firepower will translate into Russian gains on the ground. At the same time, he predicts that Putin will resort to a campaign of attrition and, accordingly, that the UK and its allies will “need to steel ourselves for a long war” because Russia does not have the option to retreat, even if it fails to attain the results it seeks.

Russian officials have also voiced the same idea on many occasions. Perhaps the best known and most explicit on this point is from the Russian political thinker and strategist Aleksandr Dugin, who has said that the Russian strategic equation is stark and absolute. Russia is facing an existential threat, he said, and victory is its only choice. Otherwise, there will no longer be a world as we know it. 

Dugin, who has been referred to as “Putin’s brain” after he was made chief geopolitical adviser to the Russian National Security Council, has reiterated this notion in various permutations. 

Judging by statements from both sides of the conflict, there are definitely grounds for the pessimistic view that the war will be a protracted one. Military developments and anticipatable scenarios reinforce this outlook. In the four months since it started, the war has already engendered various complications and problems. For example, despite its heavy firepower, Russia has been unable to achieve its anticipated victory. It has therefore turned to seizing destroyed and depopulated land, for which it is paying heavily in terms of personnel and materiel, which is what the West had envisioned from the outset. 

Now, the NATO secretary-general and the British prime minister have unveiled plans to strengthen Ukraine’s capacities beyond the ability to make Russia pay an exorbitant price. They hope to enable Ukraine to retake strategic areas, driving Russian forces to withdraw to former positions in order to try again. Their idea is to keep Russia spinning in futile circles of the use of excessive force, with all the costs that this entails. 

Perhaps the Mykolaiv front best exemplifies this new tactic. The city, which lies on the road to Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port, is also close to Kherson, which has been fully occupied by the Russians. Armed with sophisticated weapons from the West, Ukrainian fighters have succeeded in protecting the strategically located city and recapturing the roads leading to it from Russian forces.

This type of development is what Johnson was referring to when he said that ultimately time would not work in favour of the Russians. Rather, he said, it would work in the favour of the West if it can turn time to the realisation of a military victory, regardless of how long this will take. 

As a result, the Western camp and the Russians are banking on the same factor. Each side thinks that time will wear out everyone but itself. Meanwhile, the war continues without a glimmer of hope for a solution.

*The writer is the general director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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