Apr 28, 2022 - World

U.S. push for Ukraine "win" raises the stakes for Russia

A Ukrainian soldier on the front lines near Kharkiv. Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden's request for an additional $20 billion in military assistance is intended to equip Ukraine for the next five months of war. It's part of a broader mission to ensure "they have what they need to win this war," an administration official told reporters.

The other side: As Western assistance and ambitions grow, the Kremlin and its state media mouthpieces are increasingly framing the “special operation” in the Donbas as an existential battle against NATO — and signaling that they'd prefer to dramatically escalate, rather than lose it.

State of play: With peace talks stalled, and a broader array of weaponry flowing into Ukraine, some Western officials are now openly pinning their hopes on a Ukrainian battlefield victory.

  • U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss promised Wednesday to "keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine."
  • That would require Kyiv not only to block the current Russian advance but to push Russia out of the Donbas and even Crimea (the latter doesn't currently appear to be in Kyiv's sights).
  • Her remarks followed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's pronouncement that the U.S. wants "to see Russia weakened to a degree that it can't do the kinds of things it has done in invading Ukraine." Austin too said Ukraine could win the war "with the right equipment."

Yes, but: Some European allies are being far more cautious. (Germany's belated promise of heavy weaponry for Ukraine notwithstanding.)

  • One European official told Axios that while more help for Ukraine is imperative, everything must also be done to preserve the possibility of a diplomatic solution.

While Putin has shown no interest in off-ramps, it's currently difficult to envision this war ending either in Moscow's outright victory or surrender.

  • Even if Russia continues to make territorial gains, the war won’t necessarily end if and when Moscow declares victory in Donbas, notes Michael Kofman, a top expert on the Russian military at CNA.
  • "The correlation of forces is going to steadily shift toward Ukraine’s favor” as Western arms continue to flow in and Russia’s military exhausts its own offensive capabilities, he says.

If Putin begins to believe he's losing the war at "peacetime strength," Kofman says, "he may have to declare a real state of war and enact national mobilization.”

  • Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds from the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, argue in a new report that Putin is likely to do just that, perhaps during Victory Day commemorations on May 9.
  • That could provide hundreds of thousands of fresh troops who will need training but could certainly prolong the war.

Russian officials have been emphasizing that they are not only fighting Ukraine, but all of NATO.

  • Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that in such a "proxy" conflict, the risk of nuclear war "should not be underestimated.”
  • Putin himself warned Wednesday that outside actors who “create strategic threats for Russia” will face “lightning-fast” retaliation.
  • One Pentagon concern is that Russia could strike Western arms shipments to Ukraine, potentially on NATO soil.

The shift has been particularly notable on state TV.

  • RT chief Margarita Simonyan said that if it were a choice between losing in Ukraine or starting World War III, “I think World War III is more realistic, knowing us, knowing our leader Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”
  • Even nuclear war is more likely than defeat in Ukraine, she added, to which host Vladimir Solovyov replied, “But we will go to heaven, and they will simply croak.”

The bottom line: As Mike Mazarr of RAND notes, it's going to become increasingly difficult for the U.S. and NATO to maintain the “balancing act” of giving Ukraine the tools to win “without courting a larger war."

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