Friday, December 8, 2023

The Winter War

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Ten months into Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, it’s hard not to be astonished by the sheer bravery and national will of Ukrainians to defend their homeland from the genocidal campaign of imperial conquest and extermination that Vladimir Putin launched. 

The images of joy and relief on the faces of those in the newly liberated city of Kherson were those most often seen in black-and-white newsreels from the Second World War. They remind everyone around the world which side of history the Ukrainian people are on and further clarify just how Putin’s Russia will be judged for generations to come. 

With the successes that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had during key battles in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and now Kherson, the tide of the war is clearly on their side. By all accounts, Ukraine’s military will continue to add to those victories in the months to come, despite the freezing winter temperatures that will be the norm for the next several months. 

More sophisticated weapons from the US, UK and parts of Europe will continue to be delivered to operational combat areas, and as a winter lull sets in, battle-hardened and highly motivated Ukrainian units will become ever-more proficient in their ability to use precision Western-made weaponry that their enemy, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, simply cannot match.

Through the first phases of the war, Russia’s once-feared military has proven to be nothing more than a second-rate fighting force with poorly trained troops and an even worse officer corps that is commanded by criminally inept and cruel generals whose only compliments have been to kill and terrorize tens of thousands of Ukrainians in their own homes, and to turn Ukrainian cities to dust.

Ultimately, and thankfully, their outmoded Soviet tactical and logistical skills have been no match for NATO-trained Ukrainian troops and their platoon and brigade-level commanders, who have skillfully used their sky-high motivation and home-field advantage to devastating effect.

But with optimism comes harsh realities. Ukraine will have to fight its war of survival on many fronts this winter as conflict fatigue is rife in Western Europe, and the dozens of far-right conspiracy theorists that have been elected or re-elected to a now split US Congress that will first enter into session in January 2023, which Ukraine’s already heavily-burdened foreign and defense ministries will have to deal with as the war effort moves forward.

A local resident hugs a Ukrainian serviceman in the newly liberated Kherson.

Ominous clouds are on the horizon for Kyiv. Polling amongst Trumpists suggests that support for continued assistance to Ukraine has fallen off a cliff as their conspiracy-theory obsession with President Joe Biden’s son has now extended to Russia’s invasion.

In Europe, recent large-scale pro-Russian demonstrations in areas of the former German Democratic Republic, Rome and Prague have shed light on the EU’s Achilles’ Heel – the mostly half-hearted support for Ukraine is a temporary facade until relations with Russia can be restored to their antebellum norm.

Europe is a geopolitical non-factor

The unvarnished truth is the war has exposed the European Union for what it truly is – a geopolitically impotent foppish culture club, made up mostly of second-rate politicians and bureaucrats, many of whom are high-ranking members of the EU Commission and who qualify as some of the most ill-suited individuals to deal with a significant crisis; i.e., the most devastating war in Europe since 1945. 

Western Europeans continue to fundamentally misunderstand the war after convincing themselves that the blood and destruction of the 19th and 20th centuries that occurred on the continent would never be experienced again as the two halves of Europe – the free West that emerged after World War II, and the former Eastern Bloc that had been prisoners of Soviet occupation for nearly 50 years – came together in a delusional utopian fantasy of an ‘end of history’ era that was supposed to define the European Union as being free of conflict, ambition, vindictiveness and war.

That was a naïve fantasy. 

Almost from the start, the worldview of the EU’s founding true believers – whose core belief in supranational decision-making by legislative bodies in Brussels and Strasbourg, both of which have little or no legally binding authority – was utterly discredited throughout the 1990s as genocidal post-Cold War conflicts in the Caucasus and Balkans demonstratively contradicted Brussels’ notion that a war, just like the one the world is currently witnessing in Ukraine, would never again occur on European soil.

This misguided way of thinking has trickled down to many average citizens across Europe, as well as their lawmakers. Very few of them – from Madrid to Rome to Amsterdam – now have the psychological and intellectual capability to comprehend just how Ukraine, an East European country of 45 million people, finds itself in the terrible situation that it is in and how crucial its fate is to that of the West.

What is chiefly lost to those in the western half of the Continent is the simple fact that Great Power politics is alive and well; that the way of doing political business in the world did not change after the Cold War ended in 1991, despite their imaginings.

European lawmakers deluded themselves into thinking that a major world leader, like Putin, does not exist, or that a former KGB colonel from a historically totalitarian nation – whose closest allies are Iran, North Korea, Syria and Cuba – has both real and tangible imperial ambitions that would not have been out of place in a pre-World War I world where empire-building through force and the destruction of nations was an accepted form of statecraft. 

Putin’s entire raison d’être – the reconstitution of the Soviet Union through force – is antithetical to the world that the European Union thought it functioned in. While enslaving the many diverse nations of Europe with cheap Russian energy supplies, Brussels spent two decades buying into its own propaganda – that in the 21st-century globalized world, leaders from countries with no history of democracy, nor with functioning constitutions or the rule of law, could be trusted as honest partners. 

This was an almost laughably pretentious way of understanding the world, and a complete misunderstanding of the cycles of history, particularly among the countries of Europe. 

An ineffective response from Western Europe’s main players

The EU’s most powerful nation, Germany, has vigorously conditioned itself for the last 30 years to believe that it no longer needed an army after reunification in 1990. Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Berlin has dithered on whether to allow the Bundeswehr – the neutered 21st-century version of a German army – to send large stockpiles of mostly mothballed East German surplus hardware to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Some weapons systems have arrived, including heavy artillery and anti-aircraft batteries, but at the same time, the German government has prevented other European countries that own German-made equipment, principally the country’s highly effective main battle tanks and surface-to-air weapons systems – to be sent to Ukraine. This is largely due to Berlin’s post-World War II doctrine that, as a penance for the atrocities it committed from 1939-45, Germany must do everything in its power to prevent a wider European or global war by refusing to be directly or indirectly involved, regardless of the circumstances or whether it is morally right to do so.

For Ukraine, this means Europe’s most influential country will actually contribute to Kyiv’s struggles with other Western European capitals that have similar passivist or neutral tendencies as it seeks the sort of wartime support that the Ukrainian military needs.

One possible solution, using the model that France used to supply the Americans in the latter’s war of independence, would be the creation of an arms consortium to ship weapons to the Ukrainians, one that will give full plausible deniability for the German or Austrian or even Swiss governments. 

The French and Spanish did exactly this in 1775 when France’s Pierre Beaumarchais and Spain’s Luis de Unzaga created the private Roderigue Hortalez and Company. The consortium sent massive shipments of arms, munitions and uniforms that the Americans needed to defeat the British Empire – an endeavor that was ultimately successful.

It has to be said, that France has followed through with some arms and munitions shipments, including the high-caliber artillery pieces that have played such a prominent role on the battlefields of eastern and southern Ukraine. But the actual size of France’s contribution to Ukraine’s war effort has been microscopic. This is largely due to the fact Paris’ attitude towards Kyiv reflects the character of its feeble president, Emmanuel Macron, a man whose ability to do an about-face is matched only by Olaf Scholz, his counterpart in Berlin.

Nearly a year into his genocidal campaign to eradicate the Ukrainian state, Macron is miraculously still under the belief that it’s possible for Ukraine and the West to deal rationally with Putin

The sad truth is that in this day and age, Western Europe does not have a single leader or foreign minister equal to Beaumarchais or de Unzaga with the diplomatic acumen to think and execute a policy that would be as effective as the one mentioned above.

Fatigue and defeatism are being pushed on Kyiv from certain quarters

Further compounding the problem for Ukraine is the growing number of Leftist-led governments, both at the local and national level, who are pushing for Zelensky to negotiate “peace at any cost”. What this translates to is “give up and stop fighting now”.

Most of these Leftist lawmakers are unabashedly pro-Russian and have grown irritated by the fact that Ukraine is winning the war and can not accept the fact that the Russian Federation’s military would have difficulty qualifying as a banana republic fighting force.

The defeatist trend in Western Europe, and Germany’s continued inaction, could, however, be negated by the recently formed conservative government in Italy, led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who despite her alliance with two political parties that traditionally have had close ties to Russia – former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Lega, led by Matteo Salvini – has vociferously backed her country’s status as a core member of NATO and has sent new shipments of Italian-made, precision howitzer batteries to the Ukrainian military.

Eastern Europe’s vital role

Unlike those in Western Europe, the vast majority of the countries of Eastern Europe, who suffered under both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for centuries, and who have long warned of the danger Putin’s Russia posed to the whole of Europe, have been steadfast in their support for Ukraine’s people and the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Their contributions to Ukraine’s survival have been the great nullifier of Western Europe’s inexcusable inaction.

With the expectation of Putin’s close ally, Viktor Orban in Hungary, nations like Poland, the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia will continue to play a vital role this winter as essential NATO allies and key cogs in the alliance’s supply routes to Ukraine.

Across the Atlantic, the picture is far more positive, but trouble could be on the horizon

Bipartisan support amongst Democrats and Republicans remains strong. The contributions of aid, both military and humanitarian, given by the US since February 24 is more than admirable, it is the only option for a nation that prides itself on being the defender of the free and democratic world.

It has never been lost on American foreign policy experts, State Department officials and members of the American intelligence community that one of Putin’s motivations for launching his invasion of Ukraine was because of the Ukrainian people’s aspirations to become a full member of the democratic world – the collection of rule of law nations in which the United States is the gatekeeper of its moral principles.

Putin has wanted to destroy that concept since the Cold War ended, and he has not been subtle in mapping out his aim to purge any part of Russia’s former empire where the desire for democratic institutions exists. This has, in many ways, been the great facilitator of the bipartisan support that Ukraine has received since the invasion began.

Not since the Cold War has there been such firm foreign policy unity amongst US lawmakers – most of whom understand that they are unambiguously on the right side of history, just as they were when they were locked in a confrontation with the Evil Empire that was the Soviet Union.

Following the midterm elections earlier in November, that unquestioned support for Ukraine may, however, come into question.

In recent months, supporters of former President Donald Trump have spread ludicrous conspiracy theories that the war in Ukraine is nothing but a giant hoax and a large money laundering scam orchestrated by the Biden administration to enrich his family and to cover up his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine, which pre-dated Zelensky’s presidency.

Trump supporters, and their allies in the online conspiracy peddling QAnon movement, have fully endorsed a cult of personality around the former president, one that wouldn’t be out of place in a Third World dictatorship, while utterly trampling on the Enlightenment values that the Founding Fathers of the United States used as their template for the creation of the country.

This is entirely lost on many of the newly elected or re-elected Trumpist lawmakers who will enter the new Congress in January.

Led by parochial rubes like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebart – two firebrand conspiracy theorists who, along with popular Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, have been regularly quoted by Kremlin-led state media – have vowed to push for a “Not a penny more for Ukraine!” policy.

Anti-Ukrainian conspiracy theories are gaining traction

What’s worrying for Ukraine is that this ludicrous wag-the-dog rhetoric, that the invasion of Ukraine is in fact fake, has found an audience, one that grows by the day. The vast majority are part of Trump’s personality cult followers, but also those who fully and unquestionably backed the US’ failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lacking adequate levels of education about government, or any true foreign policy expertise, they mistakenly equate what went wrong in those two attempts to nation-build in countries, regions and with a religion that had little interest in Western Democracy with the war in Ukraine.

Sadly, those individuals have not invested the time or energy to inform themselves about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Rather than turning to conspiracy theorists and uneducated blowhard circus leaders like Taylor Greene – someone with no foreign policy, intelligence or military experience – they would quickly understand that Ukraine’s fight is not analogous to Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan. Ukraine’s fight is a struggle to live as a member of the family of free nations.

This should be a simple proposition for most Americans to understand.

Furthermore, Americans need to understand that Ukrainians are determined to live and build their lives in Ukraine; to reconstruct, rebuild and hopefully thrive once the war has come to its end.

Ukrainians have zero interest in illegally fleeing to the EU in droves and expecting to be given handouts and special treatment by Brussels or in the countries they find themselves in. That is a notion that is insulting to Ukrainians.

It will be a very difficult task for Ukraine’s diplomats, and Zelensky himself, to push back against the Right-wing conspiracy theorists. They are a powerful voice with the backing of a far more dangerous threat to the American concept of representative democracy – Trump.

Kyiv will also have the daunting task of re-establishing a satellite communications system after Elon Musk, who suddenly began to parrot pro-Russian talking points in September and October, cut his Starlink system’s signal in Ukraine, which the Ukrainian military was using to remarkable effect to target Russian positions.

It is highly unlikely that US support for Ukraine will dry up or that the American government will suddenly begin to resemble its paralyzingly incompetent European counterparts.

The United States knows, understands and operates as the world’s most powerful nation; it is not subject to Russia’s blatant attempts to employ energy blackmail tactics in the winter months. The US plays Great Power politics and is fully aware that the world – enthusiastically or begrudgingly – comes to Washington to get anything accomplished.

World leaders do not go to Brussels for anything of substance unless one of the EU’s endless self-congratulatory aid handout love fests is on the European Commission’s schedule.

At present, the main danger for Ukraine, which must be avoided without exception,  is to prevent the isolationists and conspiracy theorists from being in a position to set or influence policy in the new Congress.

As Ukraine edges closer to victory in 2023, it would not be surprising to see the split Congress develop the architecture for a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine, one which will help Ukrainians rebuild their country while also benefitting American contractors and workers vis-à-vis the investment and employment opportunities that will inevitably arise once the massive rebuilding process moves forward.

Ukrainians are well-aware that a project of this scale can only be effectively executed by the Americans as they are not hindered by the byzantine politics and overblown rhetoric from the Commission that regularly derails the EU’s attempts to match their deeds with their words.

Pushing on towards the spring

With winter setting in, and as he continues to plead for more assistance to guarantee a Ukrainian victory, Zelensky needs to further pressure the Europeans to act in a way that would fully solidify their own security interests, while also securing continued military and financial support from the Americans.

This will not only be the deciding factor for a Ukrainian victory in 2023, but will also be a guarantor of Ukrainian independence, marking its final and fundamental break from ever again being subjugated by Russia.

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CEO, co-founder and editor-in-chief of NE Global. Mr. Waller is a veteran journalist, analyst and political advisor, having spent 25 years covering the former Soviet Union, Europe and the Middle East.


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