The Pendulum Has Started To Swing Moscow’s Way

As the Russian army is starting to gain a foothold in the war after an early setback, the time is ripe for the United States and Europe to broker a peace deal rather than add fuel to the fire by sending more military equipment. Though not in the way it would have liked, Moscow is inching close to consolidating its territorial gains in the eastern part of Ukraine. Putin would have anticipated his men to make significant ground soon after calling for a ‘special military operation’; nevertheless, it’s a victory he will take, if not embrace.

Unsustainable casualties

After Putin ordered the special military operation on February 23rd, he unequivocally would have expected his men to take control at the earliest and was hoping to achieve all his maximalist objectives within a maximum of a week; Donbas would be made uncontrollable from Kyiv, Crimea would be returned to Russia, and Ukraine would be neutralized. The conventional wisdom was that Moscow would be in a position to influence the war’s political conclusion. Surprisingly, the Ukrainian army was able to put up a valiant resistance, partly due to western support and the inefficiency of the Russian military.

In the early days of the war, there were reports of severe casualties on the Russian side, especially the deaths of many top generals. The loss of generals on the battlefield is to do with the structure of the Russian military, which has remained unchanged from Soviet times. If anything, despite the shortcomings, it is essential to remember that the Soviet military triumphed over Nazi Germany in the 2nd World War.

As the war got deeper into the fourth month, the Russians seemed to have gained the upper hand, making significant ground in critical areas. Now the tables have turned, and there are reports of roughly 600-700 Ukrainian combatants out of action every day. It is crucial since the number of combatants taken out of action is disproportionately composed of Kyiv’s best-trained, best-equipped, and most experienced soldiers. These are unsustainable losses of well-trained and motivated troops needed to counter Russian advances.

Asymmetry on the battlefield

As Ukraine expends its arsenal of Soviet and Russian-designed weapons, military equipment from the United States and its NATO allies has proved critical to Ukraine’s resistance. To be fair, the United States and its NATO allies have shown unprecedented support, including supplying Warsaw Pact-style equipment to replenish Ukraine’s stock of Soviet-designed weapons. But the sad truth is that it is just not enough for Ukraine to ward off the current reinvigorated Russian offensive. Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said, “This is an artillery war now.” The Russians are firing close to 20,000 artillery shells a day in comparison to Ukraine’s 6000, changing the balance of the war drastically.

More importantly, very few soldiers in Ukraine’s armed forces are qualified enough to utilize sophisticated, cutting-edge weapons from the west. As a result, several western weapons are losing efficacy and frequently falling into the hands of the Russian army. A junior sergeant, Dmytro Pysanka, exasperated on the frontline in southern Ukraine, said, “I have been trying to learn how to use it by reading the manual in English and using Google Translate to understand it.” Meanwhile, on the other hand, the Russian army seems to have gained momentum. They are using their combined arms tactics to good effect, primarily their long-range artillery supported by drones, along with other effective combined arms tactics. The asymmetry is daunting for the Ukrainian army and is reflected in the battlefield losses.  

A negotiated settlement that appears dubious

As the war looms with every passing day, the price being paid for it is getting costlier for all parties. Obviously, a negotiated settlement will now hugely favour the Russians, resulting in Ukraine losing large chunks of territory and getting neutralized. However, it is the most pressing need for Kyiv to save itself from death, displacement, and destruction. The Ukrainian army is in no position to defeat the Russians at this point, and a negotiated settlement is the only thing that will prevent Ukraine from becoming a failed state and the rest of the world from experiencing inflation that is going through the roof and a food crisis that is affecting parts of the globe. Yet neither the war’s protagonists nor the United States seem to have the appetite to call for a negotiated settlement.

Washington continues to refuse any diplomatic engagement with Moscow, but its allies in Western Europe like France, Germany, and Italy have kept a channel open for diplomacy and dialogue even as they have approved continuous arms deliveries to Ukraine. On the contrary, a few other countries in Europe, like Poland, have preferred Washington’s path of refusing diplomatic engagement with Moscow. A negotiated settlement will ultimately need the Europeans to speak with one voice, and it looks like a far cry at this moment. Apart from that, the dilemma with Europe’s economic war against Russia is that it cannot afford to sanction all energy, owing to its decades-long inextricable reliance on Russian energy. It is impossible for Europe to change its trajectory and extricate itself overnight without going into recession. If the war continues, it will also be interesting to see how the sanctions will hold on when Europe enters winter and the demand for gas increases. Putin’s plan is to inflict costs on the west and then expect the fissures in the coalition against him to fray as economic hardship grows. To help Putin’s strategy, the domestic political situation in countries like the United States, Britain, France, and Italy is becoming more complex with every passing day against the backdrop of a weak global economy, besieged institutions, a polarised political landscape, and rising inflation rates driven by the war.

President Biden’s plan to isolate Putin from the world more than ever has been largely unsuccessful. Let alone the autocracies, even democracies and a few treaty allies refused to rally behind the United States to isolate Moscow economically, politically, and diplomatically, except for its NATO allies and a handful of countries. Meanwhile, Putin has cashed in on the moment to renew friendships and partnerships with the countries around the globe that share an antipathy towards the United States.

However, if the United States is committed to enabling negotiations, it must better establish the political and diplomatic groundwork and construct a narrative that emphasizes reaching a diplomatic conclusion. Apparently, the United States and its people in the foreign policy establishment are more focused on teaching Putin a lesson than seeking a diplomatic solution that will end all the miseries, especially for Ukraine and the world at large. And the Ukrainian leadership, carried away by nationalist fervour and euphoria of seeing the Russian army suffer in the initial phase, is refusing to give up. President Zelenskyy is failing to come to terms with the reality that his country, at this point, lacks the combat power to expel Russia from the territories it has captured. And the United States, despite mentioning the importance of diplomacy on multiple occasions, has so far refrained from cautioning Kyiv against those goals. John Kirby, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council, recently reiterated what President has said “President Zelenskyy gets to determine how victory is decided and when and on what terms. And what we ‘re going to going to do is to continue to make sure that can succeed on the battlefield so that he can succeed at the table.”

For its part, The United States administration is not ready to accept the fact that the Unipolar moment coined by Charles Krauthammer is over and the world is increasingly multipolar. The idea of bringing Ukraine into the geopolitical orbit of NATO should be jettisoned, and to put it in John Mearsheimer’s words, these are “Liberal delusions that provoke Putin.”

Sending arms and leaving the Ukrainians to decide will only exacerbate the conflict. Because of the stakes in the war, the United States must get directly involved in choosing when and how this war will end. It’s high time Washington initiates a dialogue with allies, Kyiv, and ultimately Moscow, to bring an end to this bloody war. Also, from Ukraine’s point of view, negotiating a ceasefire is its best bid to avoid a protracted confrontation and save the lives of many.

V. Srivatsal Subramaniam
V. Srivatsal Subramaniam
I have focused my academic pursuits on graduating with English Literature, following it with a PG Diploma in Journalism and a Masters in International Relations and Area Studies from the School of International and Area Studies, Goa University. During my Master's, I was privileged to partake in an exchange program at Sciences Po, Lyon, where I was awarded a Diploma in French and European Studies. As a student, I was also a campus contributor to the online newspaper ThePrint.