West plays with fire to push Russia back

Tuesday 17 January 2023 by https://socialistworker.co.uk/

Nato’s shift in strategy could provoke a nuclear reaction from Russia

president of Russia Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin of Russia

The war in Ukraine grinds brutally on, as the killing of civilians in Dnipro by a Russian missile shows. It’s not the worst war in the world. That is the forgotten war in Tigray in northern Ethiopia, where 600,000 people are estimated to have been killed—three times the number in Ukraine. 

But Ukraine is the most dangerous war because it is dominated by a conflict between two nuclear-armed imperialist powers, the United States and Russia. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin’s initial plan to rapidly seize control of Ukraine has failed completely. The US and its allies in Nato and beyond rushed massive quantities of weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces, which they had been training since 2015.

This has allowed the Ukrainians to halt and push back the Russian advance. Amid boggy winter conditions, the fighting has stalled into a bloody war of attrition. The Russians pour in artillery fire and troops to hold or capture ground.

They took the town of Severodonetsk this way last summer and may win control of Soledar now using the same tactics. This type of warfare comes at a high price. The fact that Russia seems committed to waging it reflects the fact that, as the academic Paul Poast puts it, “under current conditions, Russia can’t win, but won’t lose.”

Putin can’t afford politically to abandon this disastrous war. He hopes eventually to wear the West down. Meanwhile, its military successes have encouraged the Ukrainian government to pursue total victory. This means recapturing all the territory that Russia has seized since 2014, including the Crimean peninsula, where its Black Sea fleet is based.

But Nato has concentrated on supplying the Ukrainians with weapons systems that allow them to hold the Russians off. The most effective of these is probably the US-made High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars).

It was a Himars volley that killed hundreds of Russian conscripts celebrating the New Year at Makiivka in eastern Ukraine. Himars have been used to hit Russia arms dumps, supply lines, and troop concentrations well behind the front line.

It’s always hard to distinguish between defensive and offensive weapons. But to mount an offensive that captured substantial amounts of ground would require armour. It is highly significant that Western powers have started to supply this. Since Christmas, France has announced it will send armoured reconnaissance vehicles to Ukraine, and Germany and the US will send armoured personnel carriers.

But tanks would also be needed in an offensive, to provide advancing troops with the mobile firepower to break through. Britain has now announced it will supply Ukraine with Challenger 2 tanks. Germany, however, is the swing state here as the producer of the Leopard 2 tanks. They are not just used by the national army, but by other Western armies.

Poland and Finland want to send Leopard 2s to Ukraine, but they need Germany’s permission. In a speech soon after the Russian invasion, German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a Zeitenwende—turning point. Germany would stop relying on Russian energy and US military protection. 

But in practice the promised upgrade of the decrepit Bundeswehr—Germany’s federal army—is taking a snail’s pace, probably forcing Scholz’s defence minister to resign. The military historian Lawrence Freedman writes that “the consensus now among leading western states is that the only way to persuade Russia that it cannot succeed in its war of conquest is for Ukraine’s armed forces to liberate much more territory.”

This is reflected in the decisions to start supplying Ukraine with armour. But the two continental European powers, France and Germany, remain wary about pushing Russia too far. They are also resisting being brigaded by the US against China. The US and its closest allies such as Britain hope to win their proxy war with Russia by helping Ukraine gain more territory.

They probably would draw the line at reconquering Crimea. The threat of losing such a strategic area might provoke Russia to retaliate with nuclear weapons. But Putin’s failures show how hard it is to control and calibrate war. The West is playing a high risk game.