Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 produced a number of major surprises:
a) In spite of American intelligence predicting it, most people did not believe Putin would actually launch a full-blown land war in Europe,
b) Once it was launched, very few imagined the remarkable resistance of Ukraine’s military,
c) Nor the ineffectiveness of Russia’s military to carry out the invasion, and
d) Similarly, many were surprised, and we can certainly include Putin in this category, by the degree of Biden’s success in mobilizing America’s closest allies in an enormous effort to support Ukraine, by providing massive weapons, logistics and intelligence assistance, allowing Ukraine’s military to fight on equal terms against what had been viewed as the formidable military capabilities of Russia.
In hindsight, we can see that Putin’s aggression of Ukraine gave Biden the opportunity to reassert American leadership in bringing together its allies in a common effort to support Ukraine, in vivid contrast to Trump’s poor treatment of US allies, with the important corollary benefit of renewing the importance of NATO for all its members as well providing the immediate impetus to expand NATO to include Finland and possibly Sweden. The war has also led a number of European nations to substantially increase military spending. It is ironic that the US has tried for decades without success to get Europeans, particularly a reluctant Germany, to take on a greater share of NATO’s military budget, it is Putin who succeeded in getting the Europeans to spend more on defense.
Although there has been much talk that the Western effort would not last, 15 months into the war, the resolve of the allies to continue to support Ukraine appears firm. However, the recent leaked confidential US military documents on the war indicate American assessment that the predicted Ukraine counteroffensive will yield little, leading to the likelihood of a long, draw-out war. In such a long conflict, will the US and its allies continue to support Ukraine with the intensity required?
Despite some positive effect on the US of the Ukraine war, reinforcing American leadership and promoting the export of US LNG to replace European dependence on Russian gas, I believe the Biden administration recognizes that it is very much against American interest that the Ukraine war turn into a protracted military stalemate, for several reasons. One obvious concern is that continued US and allied support is likely to wane over time, but also the war in Ukraine contributes to worldwide and US inflation, a major concern of the US Administration, particularly in anticipation of the 2024 presidential election. So the US would like the Ukraine war to end quickly, also to allow the US Administration to focus on its principal foreign concern, the rivalry with China.
The position of China on Ukraine is complex, on the one hand, in spite of a history of conflictual relations between the two powers, China benefits from the close relationship with its current junior partner, Russia, but although it is giving Russia diplomatic and financial support, China has avoided providing Russia with arms, no doubt partly in reaction to the US position that it would react very strongly against China’s active involvement in Ukraine. However, China’s president has invested heavily in the relationship with Putin, and I personally believe Xi will not let Putin fall over Ukraine. If Ukraine with NATO help pushes Russia to the brink of defeat in Ukraine and if this threatened Putin’s leadership, it could well make China decide to back its ally militarily.
But is it in China’s interest to see an end to the war? The more the US is involved in Ukraine, the less resources it has for Southeast Asia, so China benefits from a prolonged war in Ukraine, also permitting it to continue to buy Russian oil and gas at discount prices. But the Chinese do not like the uncertainty created by the war in Ukraine and if China could play a major role in resolving the conflct, it would both enhance its position as a world leader and no doubt solidify its long-term position with Russia.
President Xi in his recent conversation with President Zelensky set forth China’s credentials as possible peacemaker and the US Administration, somewhat surprisingly, reacted quite positively to the initiative. Some European commentators expressed the hope that if Ukraine were at least partially successful in regaining Russian-held territory in the announced spring offensive, China could influence Russia to enter into serious negotiations to end the war, with China playing a major intermediary role.
Such a scenario seems highly unlikely. In addition to the enormous distance in eventual negotiating position between Ukraine and Russia, there is another important variable, the US election in November 2024, with Donald Trump, who considers Putin his friend, as the likely Republican candidate with a plausible probability of winning the election. It is clearly in Putin’s interest to wait for the results of that election, I see the virtual certainty that Russia will do whatever is necessary for the war in Ukraine to continue at least until that date. We are in for a long, painful conflict.