US and Ukraninan troops training, July 2016. US and Ukraninan troops training, July 2016. Source: NATO - Fllickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The West’s strategy in Ukraine is prolonging this unnecessary war, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Even though we’ve seen very little movement on the military front since early November, when Russia retreated from Kherson, there’s little indication of peace negotiations to end the Ukraine war.

As a recent Rand Corporation paper put it, both Russia and Ukraine currently believe that they can win, so there is a little movement towards negotiations. The Rand Corporation said it was becoming less obvious what the US gains from a continued war, but the hawks still have the upper hand in Washington.

Spurning peace

That must be obvious from events in the last few days. Just before Chinese president Xi visited Moscow, the International Criminal Court indicted Putin for war crimes. Besides the obvious double standards involved, where Western officials who have presided over illegal wars and various war crimes are never indicted, the move to indict Putin was also meant to make peace negotiations with him more difficult and to send a signal to China that its efforts would be in vain. Since then, Western officials have dismissed China’s peace plan and attempts at mediating between Russia and Ukraine. China’s plan is, of course, ambiguous, but it starts off by talking about the need to respect sovereignty (presumably Ukrainian), and discusses the need to end the expansion of military pacts (presumably Nato).

Rather than seizing on the opportunity to see if there is a serious will in Moscow to discuss such peace terms, given Putin’s stated support for the Chinese plan, Western officials have preferred to cast doubt on China’s impartiality. Obviously, Western officials mistrust a Russo-Chinese bloc in international politics as a counterweight to their own bloc.

At the same time as Xi was visiting Russia, the IMF declared it was going to give Ukraine a further 15.6 billion-dollar loan, the EU gave Ukraine two billion Euros for artillery shells, and the Japanese PM was visiting Kyiv in a symbolic gesture that was meant to cast Japan as a potential victim of Chinese aggression, just as Ukraine is a victim of Russian aggression. If the West’s message was not clear, the Nato General Secretary re-enforced it, declaring that the West has to be prepared for the long haul.


All this was happening against the immediate backdrop of Russia downing a US spy drone in international waters, a nuclear-capable B-52 flying near Russian airspace, and British and German fighters intercepting a Russian plane in international waters over the Baltic Sea. The proxy war continues to teeter on the brink.

To make matters worse, the West is intensifying its proxy war in Ukraine against a backdrop of significant economic problems. How significant remains to be seen, but on top of a gathering recession, we are witnessing the beginnings of a new banking crisis. Just how serious it is may not yet be clear, though it is certainly likely to be more than merely a ‘market correction’.

So, on what is the West’s confidence in Ukraine based, and why is it prepared to risk further war against a backdrop of deep problems on its own side? There is a lot of talk of Ukraine being able to mount a decisive military operation backed by Western arms at some point this spring or summer. While the Ukrainians appeared to want to start earlier and mount an offensive sooner, Western officials appear to have been arguing for a more cautious, later start, a counteroffensive, after the culmination of a Russian offensive effort.

Ukrainian strategy

The expectation that such a decisive effort could work is partly based on last year’s events. A protracted war of attrition over the summer saw Russian capabilities degraded and Russian troops exhausted by the time they had taken Mariupol in May and Lysychansk in June to July 2022. Russian offensive operations then effectively ceased, as the manpower initially earmarked for the capture of Kyiv and other cities in February 2022 appeared stretched to the maximum.

It was in these conditions that a Ukrainian offensive – war-gamed with the US and UK, sharing intelligence, equipment, etc – took back much of Kharkiv oblast in September 2022. Ukrainian pressure also pushed the Russians out of Kherson by early November.

Are there grounds for a similar feat this spring and summer? There certainly may be, in that Ukraine will have spent the last six months training fresh troops in the background (in the West, to be precise), it is awaiting significant numbers of Western tanks and armoured vehicles, and benefits from continued, massive Western aid in the form of wargaming various scenarios, sharing intelligence, receiving equipment, ammunition, etc. Building up sufficient force for a push in the south, inevitably, to break Russia’s land link to Crimea is not beyond theoretical possibility.

Russia digging in

But the question remains whether it will indeed be doable. The evidence here is patchy. On the Russian side, there are some significant differences compared with last summer. The Russian army is reputed to have conscripted up to 300,000 men and maybe more after Ukraine’s September offensive. Its retreat from Kherson allowed for a more effective defensive posture on the eastern side of the Dnieper River. Many of those newly conscripted troops have arrived over time, taking Russian troop numbers to over 300,000 in Ukraine, while Western officials estimate that Russia has another 150,000-250,000 more in training or prepared for deployment.

The Russian army’s tactics have evolved in a variety of ways, with attacks across the 1,500 km front, albeit with no decisive offensive effort visible yet. Seemingly, Russian troops are trying to keep Ukrainian troops busy and stretched in an effort to prevent them being able to concentrate forces. Will that be enough?

There is a further element to the story. Russia’s main effort has been in Bakhmut, and Ukraine’s main effort has been defending it. Both have had exceptionally high casualties. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Russian casualties have been as much as seven times higher.

But there’s a catch. The Wagner Group has been using mercenaries – and not just any mercenaries. It’s been launching human waves of prisoners – often very sick, with Aids, or Hepatitis C – against Ukraine’s defenders. The latter have often been elite troops defending the city, bolstered by raw, untrained, and poorly equipped troops, lagging in Russian artillery cover.

Morale on the Ukrainian side has suffered, with reports of many soldiers asking what the point of defending Bakhmut has been. Ukraine has reportedly suffered problems in its own conscription efforts. How far it can assemble enough force for a major offensive remains questionable, which also explains Western talk of the long haul.

From stalemate to negotiations

With casualties on both sides now in the hundreds of thousands, what’s to be gained by further bloodshed? From the Western standpoint, even if it’s not Western soldiers dying, there are mounting costs to keep Ukraine going, which will have to be paid by the Western and global public.

And any hope of defeating Russia outright will probably require further escalation including jets and other heavy weaponry. The risks, of course, would be Russian escalation, plausibly leading to nuclear Armageddon. Talk of Britain sending depleted uranium shells to Ukraine can only increase such risks further.

There is also the considerable strain on Russia. While its economy has weathered sanctions better than many in the West predicted, the longer the war lasts, and the more the casualties mount on the front, the greater the political risks could be for Putin.

So, while hawks still prevail in the imperialist capitals, anti-war activists in East and West can point to the mounting human suffering that accompanies the war and therefore mount pressure for a negotiated peace.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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