United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson was all smiles and swagger as the first G7 leader to be received by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev last weekend – and for good reason.
Not only has the Ukraine war rejuvenated Johnson’s political fortunes by diverting attention from a “Partygate” scandal that could have been his doom; more broadly it has provided the West with a stand-off, proxy war against arch-villain Russia.
The Washington-led Western alliance has won one of those before.
While the US has failed to win recent victories via direct wars in Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia, its proxy war against the then-USSR in Afghanistan ended with the retreat of Moscow’s forces in 1989.
But while Ukrainian troops battle against their destructive and brutal invaders with a courage and skill that has commanded the respect of the world, Western capitals are walking a very, very prudent tightrope.
On one hand, they have waded in. They have been providing Kiev with political, diplomatic, financial and information support, while assailing Moscow in the diplomatic, economic and media spaces.
On the other hand, risk aversion rules. Western leaders have ruled out military support, declined to establish a no-fly zone and largely restricted their arms supply to light infantry weapons.
Whether the diameter of the arms pipeline can be expanded is now the critical question as both sides gear up for what looks set to be a decisive “World War II-style” clash of heavy units in Ukraine’s east.
Ironically, that confrontation is sought by two very distinct parties. Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks a clear military victory, while his opponents in the West would like to see his armed forces crippled for years to come.
This may explain the warlike talk emanating from some European and North American capitals, combined with a standout lack of peace initiatives.
Big battle shapes up
Western defensive arms – notably anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets – proved critical in Phase 1 of this war, enabling the defenders to destroy road-bound columns of armor and their helicopter overflight in the north.
That was because, firstly for operational and secondly for climactic reasons, Russia’s armored battlegroups were canalized onto roads, unable to deploy for the kind of sweeping, broad-front attacks so beloved of generals. That posture left them vulnerable to Ukrainian infantry, who delivered a stern lesson.
Now, having withdrawn its battered forces from the north, Moscow is preparing to expand the battle in the east, in the long-disputed Donbas. This offensive could feasibly grant Putin two gifts: “demilitarization” and terrain.
The former aim would be met by the destruction of Ukraine’s main force, heavily deployed in the region since 2014. That is a very different operation from investing cities, the Kremlin’s failed strategy in the north.
If the former aim is achieved, the latter aim – the acquisition of a big chunk of terrain, in the form of the entire Donbas region – would likely fall into Putin’s lap.
For the expected fight, Ukraine will require offensive, heavy weaponry like artillery, armor and aircraft.
But however much some Western powers might like to see the Russian bear blooded, there is considerable reticence when it comes to supplying the big-ticket arms Zelensky’s soldiers now need. They have, however, shot back at Russia using hybrid, non-lethal tactics.
A non-kinetic counter-offensive
The West has offered unprecedented platform access to Zelensky, who on Monday addressed his 20th national legislature, this time in South Korea. That follows a range of speaking opportunities that have included – after addressing the UK’s parliament on March 8 – chambers in the US, Germany, Israel, France and Japan.
A narrative has emerged.
Via daily broadcasts, the khaki-clad Zelensky has marshaled his acting experience to win the media war. He is now seen by some as a cross between Churchill and Mandela – an inspirational leader who is resolutely and virtuously resisting a monstrous enemy.
Putin’s pre-war talking points, ruthlessly cynical though they were, rested on real politick foundations – such as NATO’s relentless eastern expansionism, Russia’s sphere of influence and western Russia’s defensibility.
Geopolitics, however, has been submerged under a storm of moral indignation. A tsunami of outrage has been raised by Putin’s invasionm that has not only trampled upon Ukraine’s sovereignty but did so with much of the destruction and carnage being captured on camera.
The above is, of course, the Western point of view.
Contrary to hopeful analyses in English-language broadcast media, Putin’s popularity at home appears to have increased. Noting that both political and media opposition has been largely suppressed, Euronews, quoting Russian polls, on Tuesday reported that Putin’s approval rates have soared from 63% to 83% since the war started.
Still, in multiple spheres, the West has manned up.
It has assaulted Russia in global fora, including the UN. It has offered salvation to millions of refugees, promised financial aid and vowed to fund international investigations into alleged Russian war crimes. It has enacted wide-ranging sanctions and vowed to wean itself off its addiction to Russian energy.
But major questions remain over that last promise. And on the military front, it has been less than forthcoming.
Well before he invaded, Putin was assured – in the form of public statements from Western leaders including most notably, Johnson and US President Joe Biden – that NATO troops would not defend Ukraine.
That clarification granted Putin’s war planners peace of mind to plot their invasion without strategic ambiguity. And once the war started, the West turned a deaf ear to agonized and repeated Ukrainian requests that it declare and enforce a no-fly zone.
The latter enterprise would have been heavily freighted with peril, as it would have required attacks on Russian anti-aircraft systems, not only in Ukraine, but also likely in Russia and Belarus.
Even so, there is little question that Western cold feet have granted Russia considerable military leeway.
Certainly, a plethora of man-portable weapons have poured into Ukraine – NLAW, LAW, Javelin and Panzerfaust anti-tank rockets and Stinger, Sky Streak and Strela anti-aircraft missiles. But a different class of weaponry is now needed for the battle ahead.
In the breathing space between Russia’s retreat from the north and its anticipated onslaught on the Donbas, Ukrainian officials have made clear the urgency of weapon deliveries.
On April 7, Ukrainian Foreign Secretary Dymtry Kuleba told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that his country needed “weapons, weapons, weapons.” Kuleba claimed Ukraine is fighting ahead of NATO’s own front lines.
“You provide us with everything that we need, and we will fight for our security but also for your security,” he said.
He told NATO ministers that Ukraine needs fighter jets, missiles, armored fighting vehicles and heavier air-defense weapons.
The response so far has been underwhelming.
This week, the Czech Republic became the first NATO member state country to send heavy armor to Ukraine. It is reportedly providing a dozen T-72 tanks – an old model, but one that Russian troops have used in Ukraine – as well as armored troop carriers and howitzers.
Likewise, Slovakia is shipping in an S-300 heavy anti-aircraft system.
Ex-Warsaw Pact nations, such as those in NATO’s east and north, are customarily more Russo-phobic than those in Western Europe or North America. Nations to the west are more reticent, apparently fearing that the dispatch of heavier weapons would be an escalation.
The UK has pledged to send anti-ship missiles – which could prove efficacious against Russian warships prowling the Black Sea off Odessa – as well as more anti-armor missiles.
Right idea, wrong vehicles
But though London has also announced it will send Mastiff armored vehicles, they were designed for counter-insurgency warfare, not the kind of full-scale armored combat that will soon come. Australia is sending similarly lightweight Bushmaster armored vehicles that will offer minimal survivability in armored warfare.
Vehicles that could operate in an intense battle environment, though, are still being withheld. German Chancellor Olaf Schulz is reportedly holding up a plan to send in German Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
Still, the plan may not be dead yet. The Ukrainian government notes on its website that German defense companies are offering Marders, Leopard tanks and even self-propelled artillery to Ukraine. However, any such transaction will almost certainly require a political green light.
The contradiction between supporting Ukraine, but not offering it heavy weapons, is most clearly visible in the leader of the Western world.
Speaking in Warsaw on March 26, US President Biden said: “In this battle, we need to be clear-eyed … we need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.” He closed with a comment on Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!”
Tough talk. But the arsenal of democracy has been parsimonious, with no heavy weapons set to be transferred to Ukraine. It has been faint-hearted when it comes to other countries’ weapons, too.
In an atmosphere of some confusion, Washington shot down Warsaw’s offer to send Russian-made MIG fighter jets to Kiev in March. There is considerable opacity hanging over why that transfer – which frontline state Poland sought to channel via the US-operated Ramstein Air Base in Germany, in NATO’s heart – did not go ahead.
According to the Pentagon, the plan “raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance … we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one.”
This stance has raised the ire of Washington hawks.
“We need to be thinking about providing [Ukraine] with tanks, with artillery, with armored vehicles,” Republican Congresswomen Liz Cheney, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said on April 10. “We need to be doing much more, more quickly.”
Meanwhile, Zelensky’s frustrations are creeping into plain view.
Whether Ukraine can beat back the anticipated Russian assault “… depends on how fast we will be helped by the United States,” Zelensky said last week, according to Reuters. “I have 100% confidence in our people and in our armed forces, but unfortunately I don’t have the confidence that we will be receiving everything we need.”
‘War war,’ not ‘jaw jaw’
While the West fiddles over what classes of weapons it can supply, it is not promoting any peace process. With the only significant player in that space being French President Emanuel Macron, whose attention has been diverted as he fights a domestic election, peace initiatives have been largely left to the nation that holds NATO’s southern flank, Turkey.
This dichotomy has not escaped attention. Greek politician and thinker Yanis Varoufakis, speaking to online media Unherd, was scathing.
“While the Ukrainian army is resisting, we have a moral duty to support them militarily. I am not going to criticize the West for sending weapons to the Ukrainian resistance army,” he said. “But the whole point of resisting is to come to the point where we sue for peace.”
Zelensky, whose country is being pulverized day by day, has stated on multiple occasions that he is ready to discuss peace with Putin. Hence, the big boys need to step in, Varoufakis insisted. “This is where you need leadership from the USA,” he said.
Yet even if Washington goes down the peace-making route, there is another player whose agreement is required. And he may not be ready to deal.
Karl Nehammer, chancellor of non-NATO member Austria, traveled to Moscow to meet Putin over the weekend. He left Moscow empty-handed.
“There is no optimism I can take from Putin,” he said in a televised address. “The military offensive in the east is well prepared for.”
Putin’s unyielding stance, ironically, may set up a confrontation some of his harshest critics might very much like to see play out.
“There should be no question that this is about, you know, getting to a negotiation or pressuring Zelensky to negotiate,” Cheney said, in connection with her comments about arming Kiev with heavy weapons. “This is about defeating Russian forces in Ukraine.”
Follow Andrew Salmon on Twitter: @andrewcsalmon