While US President Joe Biden was on his way to Kyiv on February 20, Russia test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile called Sarmat, nicknamed Satan by the west. The launch appears to have failed, but it made life hell for Biden’s security planners. A day later, Russia announced that it was withdrawing from the New Start, the last remaining nuclear arms control pact with the US. As the Ukraine crisis enters its second year, it has become clear that Russia and the west are gearing up for a war of attrition, with the end nowhere in sight.
By choosing to visit Kyiv days before the first anniversary of the war, Biden has made his involvement personal, and raised the political stakes. The joint appearance with President Zelensky looked like the informal launch of his reelection campaign. For a president saddled with poor approval ratings and a foreign policy nightmare like the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was a bold political manoeuvre. And it means that the war is not likely to end soon.
Western aid is flowing into Ukraine, although Zelensky complains that it is woefully inadequate. Of $40 billion Ukraine received last year, the US alone contributed $30 billion. In a departure from the past policy, Biden also agreed to supply Abrams tanks, nudging German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to send his Leopard tanks as well. Yet, given the calibrated nature of the assistance, the move is unlikely to aid a Ukrainian surge, but will prolong the war.
Moreover, the west is clearly not on the same page regarding the endgame. While the US, the UK, the Baltic states and Poland are keen on dealing Russia a fatal blow, traditional continental powers like Germany, France and Italy have their reservations. French President Emmanuel Macron recently said he was against humiliating Putin and that he did not see an alternative to him. The continental powers favour a more nuanced way to end the war, offering Putin an honourable exit. Their economies are comparatively more integrated with Russia’s and they still wish to factor in Moscow’s vast energy resources. They are also concerned about the war spreading beyond the borders of Ukraine.
A similar divide is visible globally as well. Major non-western powers such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa have refused to criticise Russia and have helped Putin beat the sanctions. The rerouting of Russian hydrocarbons from Europe to Asia has kept energy prices high, helping Putin run his war machine.
Finally, a war of attrition suits Putin as well. Russia will hold presidential elections next year and anything short of a complete withdrawal from Ukrainian territories can be sold to the public as an achievement. With the west supporting Ukraine with money and arms, Putin is unlikely to go for a large scale war. Instead, he might focus on fierce, limited campaigns, causing maximum devastation to Ukrainian infrastructure.
Zelensky has already announced that he will not stop until Ukraine takes back all its territory, including Crimea. Last November, he told a Czech television channel that he would vacation in Crimea after the war. Any sort of climbdown, including a negotiated settlement, would be political suicide for him. After all, the Ukrainians had voted out six presidents in their 30 years of independence.
With Ukraine turning into a pawn in the geopolitical proxy war between Russia and the west, more deaths and devastation can be expected. As the war remains limited within the borders of Ukraine, a negotiated settlement does not seem to be on the mind of anyone, including the United Nations.