Andrew Potter: After a hundred days of war, the West is losing interest in Ukraine
For a brief moment, Ukraine was beacon of freedom. Now, it is clear that for all our talk, no one in the West really thought they could beat Russia. Worse, it is clear that many never wanted them to.
We are now just past the one hundred day mark of Vladimir Putin’s insane invasion of Ukraine. But even as the Ukrainian forces are fighting ferociously for Severodonetsk, with president Volodymyr Zelensky making an amazing visit to troops right on the edge of the front lines of the eastern salient, a few Western leaders marked the occasion by suggesting that it’s getting on time for them to think about giving up.
According to Zelensky, Russian forces currently control around one fifth of Ukrainian territory, mostly in the east and the south. As he pointed out last Thursday in an address to the Luxembourg parliament, this is an area that is much larger than the entire Benelux region.
For Russia, this has come at a considerable cost. Reliable open source intelligence estimates put Russian losses at over 31,000 soldiers killed, 3,300 armoured vehicles and another 2,500 trucks destroyed, 200 lost aircraft, 175 helicopters, and 13 ships or boats. All of this for a “special operation” that was supposed to take no more than a long weekend including the victory parade, with the invaders welcomed as liberators.
Dear as this has been for Russia, for Ukrainians the price has been much, much higher. Reliable estimates of Ukrainian military losses are hard to come by, but something around half of the Russian figures is probably in the ballpark, though they could easily be much higher. Zelensky has not been totally shy in talking about losses; the other day he said the Ukrainian forces were losing 60-100 fighters a day, with another 500+ wounded, in fighting in the east.
These are staggering losses (recall that Canada lost 158 soldiers over the course of more than a decade in Afghanistan), but they don’t even begin to compare with what has happened to Ukraine’s civilians and to its cities. This war has been going on for so long, reports of Russian outrages and war crimes now so numerous, that history-making acts of outright barbarism have come and gone from the news pages in a matter of days: Bucha, Kramatorsk, Mariupol … the list goes on and grows. When all this is done, how many dead, deported and disappeared Ukrainians will there be? If it is 50,000 dead in Mariupol alone, a million or more is not out of the question.
For a few days and even weeks, the narrative was that Putin had gravely miscalculated. He clearly expected the Ukrainians to roll over and for the neighbours to just shrug and look the other way. Instead, the Ukrainians fought back and NATO and the West were galvanized into support and action. If Putin was worried about Ukraine bringing NATO and the EU to his doorstep, well, his worst nightmare had come true, with Sweden and Finland applying for expedited admission to the alliance.
But as degraded his army, as inept his generals, as degenerate his kleptocracy might be, Putin has always had a couple of aces up his sleeve: The abiding and reliable perfidy of the Germans and the French, and the increasing inability of the American-led anglosphere to maintain its focus. As Putin sees it, as this war stretches on the Americans and the Brits will lose interest, and the burning desire of Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz to help Putin “save face” — i.e. give Russia some Ukrainian territory — will grow increasingly appealing.
In fact, that seems to be where we are already. The solidarity that NATO showed in the early days of the invasion has long evaporated. A clear schism has emerged between the countries of the east who have skin in the game — Poland and the Baltics in particular, but some plucky Balkan countries as well — and the old central European powers led by France and Germany. As usual, it has fallen to the Americans, supported by the Brits, to hold things together. Except the leaders of both of those countries have serious problems at home. Boris Johnson is facing a growing rebellion in parliament over the fallout from Sue Gray’s “Partygate” report, and he may yet be pushed from office. Across the pond, poor, elderly Joe Biden has to try to govern an America that is barely holding itself together.
All of which spells bad news for Ukraine. Zelensky has always been clear that if NATO gives him the weapons, the Ukrainians will do the fighting and the dying. But the weaponry has been slow to come, held up by domestic politics (in the case of America) or sheer laziness (in the case of Canada), while the Israelis, the Swiss, the Germans, and other countries block weapons transfers out of an eagerness to stay on Putin’s good side. Meanwhile the Americans increasingly put limits on what weapons they will give to Ukraine and how it can be used, while Biden publishes incoherent public statements about what the U.S. will and will not do for Ukraine. The result is that while Putin wages near-unlimited warfare inside Ukraine, targeting innocent citizens with outlawed weapons while single-handedly engineering a global food crisis, NATO openly frets about “escalation.”
And so a hundred days into the war, after initially pledging America’s full support for Ukraine’s legitimate sovereignty and calling for regime change in the Kremlin, Biden has, predictably, gone all wobbly. In the face of increasingly erratic and obscene Russian threats, the American president is now talking about Ukraine maybe negotiating some sort of land-for-peace deal with Russia, while Putin’s Man in Paris Emmanuel Macron pleads for Putin to not be “humiliated.”
Let’s be entirely clear about something: Russia is already humiliated, and it is something that it has brought entirely upon itself. Russia’s humiliation is complete, and it is unalterable. With this murderous invasion based on preposterous premises, Putin has elevated himself into the highest stratum of history’s monsters. What Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were to the 20th century, Vladimir Putin is to this one.
But it is also clear that the West is now terrified that Ukraine could actually win this thing. Maybe NATO thought it could strike a moral victory against Russia, give Putin a little punch in the nose, at the price of nothing more than a few billion dollars in armaments and a few thousand Ukrainian lives. But no one really thought the Ukrainians had what it would take to win. And more to the point, no one really wanted them to.
And that’s the fundamental problem here. A great many people in the West, especially those with influence in the capitals of the countries that matter, actually accept Putin’s framing of the issue. They won’t come out and say so, and they may not officially approve of the destroyed cities, the massacred populations, the raping and the looting. But deep down none of them really believe that Ukraine is a real country. Deep down, many of them think the Ukrainians kinda had it coming.
That is why we can see now how this is going to end. The pressure on Zelensky to sue for peace, both in private and in public, will ramp up; the flow of arms will slow or stop altogether; Henry Kissinger will have his way. Putin will declare victory over the drug-addled nazis on his border, take effective control of a big chunk of the country and its ports, and Germany and France and the rest of the betrayers of the West will sigh with relief as they return to doing business with the war criminal in Moscow.
As for the Ukrainians they will count the bodies and mourn their dead, there will be reports and investigations, maybe the UN will promise “never again”, but the hoped-for memberships in NATO and to the EU — that is, admission to the protective cloak of the civilized world — will never come.
Once again: Glory to Ukraine. For the rest of us, there is only shame.
Andrew Potter is the author of On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever. He will be talking about Ukraine, decline and related issues on CBC Ideas on Tuesday, June 7. To support Ukraine, please consider donating to Mryia Aid, a non-profit that delivers non-lethal aid to the edges of the frontlines.
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