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22 May, 2024 14:43

Ukraine is losing, and direct intervention by the West risks a nuclear conflict – so what now?

As it seeks to minimize its own risks, the US-led bloc is about to hit a dead end
Ukraine is losing, and direct intervention by the West risks a nuclear conflict – so what now?

In our last article, we analyzed Kiev’s military prospects in light of its new mobilization law. Here we consider the West's options in the proxy war it's using the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) to fight. 

Western officials have been talking about sending troops to Ukraine since the beginning of the year. French President Emmanuel Macron said that he is ready to consider “any scenario,” including a ground operation. Government officials in Estonia and Lithuania (including Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte) were quick to support him. And the Leader of the House Democratic Caucus Hakeem Jeffries became the first US politician who didn’t exclude the possibility of sending troops.

Formally, Ukraine hasn’t requested Western troops – Kiev has only demanded more weapons. But now, the New York Times reports that Kiev has officially asked the US and NATO to send military instructors to train 150,000 recruits on its territory, closer to the front line. Though the US has refused to comply with the request, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown Jr, has said that a NATO deployment of trainers appears inevitable, and that “we’ll get there eventually, over time.”

The subject of sending troops to Ukraine comes up quite often but, so far, Western countries have steered clear. Why? Is a full-fledged NATO intervention in Ukraine possible and what would happen if it took place? And how else might the West turn the course of the conflict in its favor?

A larger-than-life bet

Western doctrine in regard to Russia was defined even before the start of the full-scale conflict: the idea was to fight Russia “with the hands of” Ukraine and on Ukrainian territory. The goal was to force Russia to play by Western rules (ideally, by defeating it on the battlefield) and reassert the US-led bloc's shaky global hegemony. But, at the same time, officials wanted to minimize their own risks and avoid being drawn into a direct military confrontation that could result in a nuclear war.

The second staple of this doctrine – a total trade war – has not yielded the desired results. In 2022, it became clear that the West overestimated the degree of its control not only over the international financial system, but even over its own financial flows. Despite certain losses and additional costs, Russia has been able to replace old trade ties with new ones and to do so with a minimal loss of revenue. The severe sanctions imposed by the West on its own companies turned out to be quite useless, since for the most part Russia continues to receive the latest Western products and technologies.

As for the idea of defeating Russia on the battlefield, the turning point occurred in the summer of 2023. After the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, it became clear that the AFU would not be able to impose peace on its own terms. The problem is that in the conflict with Russia, the West has gone ‘all in’ and any military outcome that could be regarded as beneficial for Moscow – even negotiations on an equal footing – would now be regarded as a defeat. The whole world would realize that they can stand up to the hegemon and not just avoid becoming an outcast, but even gain some benefits. The West cannot allow this, since it could cause a chain reaction on a global scale.

Two options

By the beginning of 2024, Western countries faced a dilemma: In the current proxy war it was clear that they were losing and Ukraine was getting weaker, while Russia was growing stronger. Western leaders realized that the situation will continue to get worse until the middle or end of 2025 – by which time their own military production should gain momentum and Moscow may begin to experience a shortage of volunteers at the front. In other words, the worst-case scenario meant that Russia would be able to conduct at least three more successful military campaigns (summer and winter ‘24, and summer ‘25) with superior military forces.

The logic of the conflict is pushing the West towards the choice that we wrote about back in May 2022 – either intervening directly and fighting Russia on its own, or starting serious negotiations with Russia on the topic of Ukraine’s NATO membership and, more broadly, security in Eastern Europe.

Paradoxically, though, the West has chosen a third option: doing nothing. And it’s not just because of inertia, but also down to the weakening position of globalist elites, who have many unsuccessful ‘crusades for democracy’ behind them, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

As of now, the AFU is growing weaker, the scale of the hostilities is growing, and the chances of the West directly entering the war, with potentially catastrophic consequences, are increasing every day. In the fall of 2022, before the limited mobilization in Russia, 10-15 NATO brigades could have turned Ukraine’s notable but rather meaningless victories near Kharkov and Kherson into a strategic success – for example, they could’ve ensured a breakthrough to the Azov Sea and a subsequent blockade of Crimea – but now it would take a lot more effort to simply support the front.

Fooling the system

The reason for the West’s indecisiveness is clear: it fears an escalation of the conflict. Russia is the world’s largest nuclear power and President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated that he will not tolerate a widespread NATO intervention, which will result in a nuclear war.

Moscow’s warnings have challenged Western countries, headed by the US, to find ways “to intervene without intervening” and to enable Ukraine to win (or at least save face) without directly defeating Russia. In short, Western countries are forced to walk the thin line between defeat and nuclear war, without a clear end goal in sight.

After the failure to cut open a land corridor to Crimea, the West has not been able to find an alternative military strategy. Moreover, it has no idea how to get out of the war of attrition which, even in the case of a positional deadlock and a ‘static’ front, will result in Ukraine’s defeat, since an opponent that is many times weaker (Ukraine’s current population is at least five times less than that of Russia) will inevitably lose. We see plenty of such examples in history.

In this situation, the only thing that Western strategists have managed to come up with is to continue supporting the AFU and “increase costs” for Russia in the hope that Putin will get tired of fighting. Of course, no one in the West takes Ukraine’s suffering into account. It takes for granted the fact that Ukrainians will continue to die en masse just so that the West can save face. Neither do they care about Ukraine’s demographic and social collapse (unprecedented in post-WWII Europe) or the destruction of its infrastructure, which will prevent not only a normal economy but even normal life in these territories for many decades. Such issues are simply ignored or considered collateral damage.

The West may not explicitly state its strategy in regard to Russia, but it is clearly expressed in various publications and statements: the goal is to support the AFU at the front and at the same time move the conflict deeper into Russian territory in the hope that Putin will beg for mercy before Ukraine collapses.

It is unlikely that Western leaders still hope to see a victory for Kiev on the battlefield. The more likely goal now is either the “Korean scenario” where no one wins and Ukraine is kept as Russia’s opponent, or the “Palestinian scenario,” ie, eternal war on Ukraine’s former territory. What is clear is that the West will do anything it can to avoid holding serious negotiations with Russia.

War of the cities

Despite the growing escalation and the West’s increasing involvement in the conflict, one red line still exists: Ukraine is not allowed to hit Russia’s”old” territories – ie, those territories which the West recognizes as part of Russia – with Western missiles.

However, the ways in which Ukraine (with the West’s approval) circumvents this ban resemble the methods of an ingenious lawyer who finds the most unexpected loopholes in laws. For example, if “territory” is interpreted as “land” then air targets are not considered “territory” and Ukraine may hit air targets in internationally recognized Russian airspace; if a long-range drone has Western components and Western targeting, but was assembled in Ukraine, this also doesn’t count; and if Western weapons are used under a false flag (for example, by the Ukraine-based paramilitary group Russian Volunteer Corps) – this is fine, too. Of course, there are many such examples.

Why so? It is unknown whether any clear agreements regarding this issue exist but, in any case, Moscow has clearly stated that any obvious attacks on its “old” territories will allow Russia to retaliate and hit Western cities directly – not through proxies.

In military terms, the AFU will hardly benefit from such an escalation. Firstly, by resorting to such strikes, the Ukrainian army won't change the strategic situation at the front, just as bombing Russia’s “new territories” and Crimea with all sorts of weapons hasn't helped.

Secondly, the supply of Western missiles is not enough to overload Russian missile defense systems and achieve real military goals. Even though occasional missiles hit its territory, Moscow has adapted to the situation, takes measures to prevent future attacks, and carries out retaliatory strikes.

In other words, by striking Russian cities, (an unheard-of idea even in the most intense years of the Cold War), the West will not achieve anything but will only face increased risks and an escalation which it wishes to avoid.

However, it is possible that the desperate situation at the front and the need for some kind of propaganda success will sooner or later force the West to take such a step – and perhaps this may happen very soon. So far, this seems to be the most likely scenario that may lead to an escalation of the conflict beyond the zone of the Ukrainian “sandbox.”

Boots on the ground

And what about sending troops to Ukraine – will the West actually do it? This is unlikely. As pointed out already, in the past two years the scale of the conflict has changed and, in order to achieve success, NATO would now need to send dozens of brigades to Ukraine (at least 100,000-150,000 people), several hundred aircraft, and launch huge cruise missile attacks (hundreds of volleys per day).

Finally, even though such efforts might stabilize the situation at the front and save the AFU (supposing that the Kremlin does not declare a greater or even full mobilization in response), it would not guarantee Russia’s defeat but would only bring nuclear war closer.

In a direct intervention, NATO ground forces (just like Ukrainian ones today) will eventually face a shortage of ammunition and, in the air, NATO forces will suffer damage from Russian missile defense systems and will be exposed to attacks (currently, NATO reconnaissance operates over the Black Sea without any obstacles). Moreover, conflict with China also looms on the horizon and, if NATO empties its arsenals in Ukraine, China may either watch the situation unfold or offer Russia direct assistance.

As a result, NATO countries would find themselves in a positional conflict with heavy losses and unclear goals. Eventually, though, this may help to resolve the contradictions between Russia and the West, since, like a stubborn child, the US-led bloc may feel it has to try all means of resistance before giving in.

Another option for the West would be to move troops to Ukraine “symbolically”– for example, to send one or two brigades that would serve as instructors for AFU recruits (though it must be said that, two years into the war, the veterans on both sides of the front line are the ones who should teach the rest of the world, including NATO, how to fight), or just maintain aircraft.

Of course, it goes without saying that any third-country troops stationed in Ukraine will become a military target for Russia.

***

In conclusion, we may say that the Western doctrine – ie, the combination of a total trade war and a proxy war – has failed to bring about victory and has put its “client” (Ukraine) at risk of a major defeat. The West is still afraid to get directly involved in the conflict, even when it comes to striking “old” Russian territories or operating missile defense systems under its own flag, not to mention directly sending troops.

At the same time, the West avoids serious negotiations with Russia and prefers to go with the flow, consoling itself with the idea that Russia will eventually get burned by growing costs and retreat.

Meanwhile, Moscow is adapting to the situation, rebuilding its economy, trade relations, and society in order to live and successfully develop in the reality of a long conflict. The West’s strategy (or rather, the absence of such) has been clearly unsuccessful – especially considering the current level of involvement in the conflict, Ukraine may exhaust its forces long before Russia experiences any major inconvenience at the front.

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