Viewpoint: Robert Beck – Two years and counting

Robert Beck

Robert Beck

Published: 02-24-2024 9:01 AM

Two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the largest military conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. 

Unleashing the Red Army from three directions -- the north (Belarus), south (Crimea) and east (Russia proper), Russia sought to quickly occupy Ukraine and incorporate it into a Soviet Union 2.0. The initial reactions in the West were horror and shock, despite the fact that the Biden administration, in the weeks leading up to the invasion, released a steady stream of intelligence predicting almost exactly what the Kremlin intended to do. 

The early weeks of the war were particularly tense, with growing concerns that Moscow would rapidly envelop the country and possibly push on to Poland, precipitating a wider war with NATO.  The worst fears in Washington and European capitals did not materialize, as Ukraine, fighting on home turf, held fast around Kiev and Kharkiv, eventually pushing the Russians back from these major population centers. 

Meanwhile, by the summer of 2022, NATO countries and other allies began to supply Kiev with substantial military hardware, contributing to sweeping Ukrainian successes in the second half of the year on the battlefields in the northeast around Kharkiv, and in the south near Kherson. Accordingly, one year ago confidence was high among Ukraine and its Western allies that 2023 would see further territorial advances by the blue and gold forces, in the process driving the Russians out of previously occupied Ukrainian lands. 

Russia seemed to be on its heels, facing crippling Western sanctions, NATO’s expansion to Finland and Sweden, morale problems within the Red Army and a growing dependence on a semi-autonomous militia, the Wagner Group.  The nadir for Moscow’s war effort came in June of 2023 with a short-lived, violent rebellion by Wagner Group forces led by its charismatic chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a man who clearly posed a threat to Putin’s rule. 

However, once the revolt quickly flamed out, followed by Prigozhin’s subsequent ignominious demise (read: assassination), the tide in the war started to turn. The long-awaited, major Ukrainian counteroffensive to build on the successes of 2022, launched in June of last year, never gained much traction due to poor operational security, lack of requisite air superiority and most importantly, an improved Russian defense in depth strategy. 

Additionally, by the second half of 2023 both Iran (offensive drones) and North Korea (artillery shells and missiles) were supplying the Red Army, tipping the logistics balance in Moscow’s favor. As the war now enters its third year, the prospects for either side claiming a decisive victory in the coming year are slim at best. 

The conflict, despite brave statements by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, has reached a stalemate. It is likely that each side will attempt some offensive operations in the coming months and may make some headway. It is doubtful, though, that any gains on the ground by either side in the imminent battle period will convince the other side to sue for peace. Nevertheless, time is not on Kiev’s side, as recent political shenanigans in Washington related to continued U.S. support for Ukraine have shown. 

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Absent continued economic, military and political support from Washington, Ukraine will almost certainly be forced to eventually negotiate a disadvantageous ceasefire with the Kremlin. Given Russia’s historic penchant for territorial aggrandizement at the expense of its neighbors, any cease fire would merely signal a temporary respite for Kiev before Moscow attacks anew. Thus, Putin will bide his time, anticipating America’s isolationist tendencies will deliver to him in the November elections a more-pliable political leadership in Washington with which to seal Ukraine’s fate. 

Consequently, whether we want the responsibility or not, the future of an independent Ukraine will be on the ballot in November. May we choose wisely. 

Robert Beck of Peterborough served for 30 years overseas with the United States government in embassies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He now teaches foreign policy classes at Keene State College’s Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning.