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  • Writer's pictureWill Grice

How Putin’s War in Ukraine is a Test of the West’s Resolve

Putin’s war in Ukraine, which began on February 24th 2022, was a decision that shocked many analysts - Putin had taken the step of beginning the first war in Europe for over half a century. On February 22nd Anthony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, contacted Josep Borrell - the European Union’s chief of foreign policy - to inform him that Putin was going to invade Ukraine, despite the expectations of many analysts at the time believing that the Russian leader was bluffing. As much of Europe slept, Russia’s tanks and troops rolled into Ukraine and began their push towards Kyiv. This would be the largest test of the West’s resolve since the Second World War - how it has responded thus far, and how it will continue to respond, is crucial to the stability of Europe’s borders. Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, warned: “If there is no Ukrainian strong army, there will be no Ukraine, and that will be the case when everyone will understand…it’s not the war in Ukraine, it’s the war in Europe.”

Since the war began in Ukraine, over a year ago, the support of the West has largely been successful. The amount of military support and public backing given to Ukraine from NATO and its allies is a significant improvement, when compared to the West’s muted response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the invasion of Georgia in 2008. These are all locations of strategic importance for Putin, who feels increasingly threatened and isolated by an ever-expanding NATO towards Russia’s borders. However, Zelensky has stood firm in his belief that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine and has reiterated many times that this would be the basis for any kind of negotiations in the future – giving away territory is not an option for Ukraine. In August 2022, Zelensky asserted: “Crimea is Ukrainian, and we will never give it up.”

However, some Western allies are quietly against the idea of Ukraine attempting to recapture Crimea, relating to the fear of causing an escalation in an already-fragile conflict. Some experts are concerned that an isolated Putin, who is cornered and in danger of losing Crimea; the land he called “sacred and civilisational”, could turn to using tactical nuclear weapons. More recently, Elon Musk controversially admitted that he refused to allow Starlink services to be used over Crimea, after Ukraine had asked to use the technology to assist with an attack on Sevastopol - a Crimean port. However, there are a growing number of experts who believe that a weakened Putin provides a crucial opportunity for Ukraine to attempt to retake Crimea. Casey Michel of Politico Magazine discusses this shift of narrative in her analysis, highlighting statistics that show how Russia has had more casualties than those of the US in the Vietnam War - in the space of just over a year. However, policymakers are not yet committed to the idea of a Ukrainian offensive on Crimea, with Anthony Blinken warning that this would likely be a ‘red line’ for Putin.

A few days ago, the BBC reported that a rogue Russian pilot attempted to shoot down an RAF plane in 2022, which is believed to have been caused by unclear communication from the ground to the Russian pilot. Thankfully, the first shot missed, and the second malfunctioned - this information was kept quiet by the UK’s Ministry of Defence, presumably to avoid panic from the public. This shows just how fragile the situation in Ukraine is, and how important it is for all sides to maintain calm and diplomacy to avoid an unintended escalation. Similar fears are shared by those who are sceptical of Ukraine’s categorical aim to retake Crimea, fearing that it could turn into a nuclear conflict if Ukraine is successful.

It is clear that there are risks involved in all stages of this conflict. I believe it is more important now than ever that the West retains its resolve, and continues to support Ukraine. Otherwise, the dangers of an unstable Europe, and an emboldened Putin, is far more dangerous than the alternative. Russia has engaged in nuclear sabre-rattling at every stage of this conflict, such as when the West has provided new types of weapons or tanks to Ukraine. On February 28th 2022, Putin changed the status of Russia’s nuclear forces to be placed on high alert, citing increased Western aggression. Despite these threats, NATO reiterated on many occasions in the following months that it had seen no change in Russia’s nuclear posture - though, in June 2023 Putin confirmed that tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed to Belarus in another veiled threat to the West.

The problem for Putin is that the more he reiterates these threats, the less credible they become. Instead, it looks like the desperation of an isolated leader from the world stage who is running out of cards to play, thinking that by repeating the nuclear threat he may be able to keep the West at bay in Ukraine. We have also seen how, as the conflict has gone on, these threats have had the opposite effect that Putin intended – in May 2023, the U.K. became the first country to supply Ukraine with long-range missiles, with then-Defence Secretary Ben Wallace stating that the Storm Shadow missiles would allow Ukraine’s forces to make significant gains in the conflict. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. is close to providing Ukraine with ATACMS long-range missiles - which will be crucial for allowing Ukraine to strike occupied territory. Before this, the West was reluctant to supply long-range missiles due to the fear of Russian escalation. As we can see since the U.K. supplied these missiles to Ukraine, there has been no retaliation from Russia - despite the many threats issued. Moreover, in August 2023, the U.S. approved sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. Sweden is also considering supplying fighter jets, while Denmark and the Netherlands have already pledged 61 fighter jets to Ukraine - once training has been completed.

Ukraine’s huge success militarily is a testament to the training of their forces, as well as the resilience of their people – when the war began many analysts were predicting that Kyiv would be taken in days, and that President Zelensky would likely be assassinated thereafter. Despite these fears, Ukraine’s steadfast resolve has shown Russia that they will not allow Ukrainian territory to be walked over without consequences. Zelensky even refused an offer from the United States government to evacuate, stating: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” Many have compared the words and actions of President Zelensky to Winston Churchill, with Zelensky echoing Churchill’s battle cry: “We will fight until the end at sea, in the air.” Without the confidence of Ukraine’s President in the darkest hours of the war, it is hard to see how Ukraine’s counter-offensive would be as successful as it has been so far. This does not mean that now is the time for the West to put the breaks on, or wind down military support for Ukraine. The West needs to show Russia that it is prepared for a long war, even if it means a war of attrition and the risk to global food supplies that this could bring. The coming together of Europe in its support for Ukraine has shown that, despite concerns over the relationship between Western allies, the West will not threaten global stability. And this is the most important message we should be sending to Russia – there is nothing more dangerous than to allow Russia to carry out its aims in Ukraine. If the West shows that it eventually tires of the conflict, Russia will go even further.


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