Monday, April 22, 2024

Will the West give Ukraine an opportunity to win this conflict?

As I write this text, Vladimir Putin is simply beginning to reply questions at an occasion known as Pryamaya Linea, or “Direct Line”.

Beneath Putin, it has develop into a practice that annually the Russian president solutions residents’ questions for a number of hours. In fact, each the residents and their questions are rigorously vetted upfront in order that nobody takes the great tsar abruptly.

In 2022, the custom of the presidential parley was interrupted. The aggression in Ukraine had gone fully flawed for Putin, and he had no real interest in answering questions on it. So Thursday’s Pryamaya Linea – this time mixed with a conventional press convention – is the primary of its form since Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

This yr the Q&A session was held shortly after Putin confirmed that he would [stand for a fifth term as president in the upcoming election.

As for Putin’s answers, here is a one-paragraph summary: Russia is strong; the economy is stable and unharmed by Western sanctions (which have in fact helped it); Russians’ standard of living is rising and prosperity is growing; there is money and there will continue to be money and it will be given to all who need it; Russia is a leader in innovation and is developing the latest technologies; there will be no new mobilisation because Russia is winning the war and everything on the front is going according to the brilliant plan devised in the Kremlin; Russia is not really fighting Ukraine, because Ukraine does not exist, but rather it is fighting the vile NATO and the West; the West is not the entire world, because the real world is on Russia’s side; international law must not be imposed by some countries upon other countries; Russia is in the vanguard of the anti-colonial struggle and will win, because it is fighting for a just cause; and the occupied territories of Ukraine – unilaterally and arbitrarily incorporated into Russia – are, of course, flourishing.

One obligatory component of this game is a single conspicuously sharp question that looks as if it might have been carefully scripted by a director. For example, this year’s supposedly awkward question was: “What’s the best way to get to this Russia that is shown on TV Channel 1?” Witty, but let’s return to the substance.

So-called ”war fatigue

Putin is a broken record. But the problem is not that he lies and that the whole apparatus of Kremlin propaganda is a lie. The problem is that some in the West have once again started to believe the lies.

It is happening against a background of so-called war fatigue, and the “disappointment” with the lack of success on the Ukrainian side. I use these phrases with a degree of mockery, but in their essence they are pernicious.

I would bet that recently you have been seeing headlines, articles and expert opinions to the effect that we underestimated Russia, that Russia’s economy proved immune to Western sanctions, that Putin did a good job of calculating and waiting – and, well, that Russia is winning the war.

I think this is a dangerous narrative, just as I thought last year that it was dangerous to repeat disinformation about Putin’s supposed illnesses and imminent demise, or to get into debates about Russia’s disintegration and the new maps that would follow.

Will the West still give Ukraine a chance to win this war?

The truth is that Ukraine’s situation is very difficult right now. President Zelensky has just made an in-person appearance in the US Senate to ask that a multi-billion-dollar support package be unblocked. Unfortunately, he got nowhere. Kyiv has become collateral in America’s internal disputes. Even if Zelensky had done a hand-stand during his visit to Capitol Hill, he would have got nowhere. Because this story is not about Ukraine at all.

The upcoming US presidential election and the potential (pessimists would say probable) Trump victory is creating anxieties and tensions everywhere. In Ukraine these are reflected in an inevitable transformation of mindsets.

Ukrainian women and men are coming to understand that the war may not end quickly, that it may not end with the outcome they desire, and that in a years-long war of attrition Russia has the advantage of superior resources – above all human resources.


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In reality, Ukraine’s problem is not that it is unable to win a war with Russia or maintain a high level of social mobilisation. Ukraine’s fundamental problem is its dependence on Western military support. This is not just Ukraine’s problem, it is also ours.

After all, one could hardly expect miracles when Ukraine’s counter-offensive was fought without combat aircraft. F-16 fighters have still not reached the Ukrainian Armed Forces. We must not expect spectacular successes on the ground when Western military support is dosed like a drip and has to be begged for constantly.

If Ukraine is weaker than Russia, it means that the West is weaker than Russia

In believing that Ukraine is weak and Russia is strong, we are making the same mistake as before. Meanwhile, everything we see in the mediated Russian reality remains the same façade it has always been. We do not really know what’s behind it.

We are not in any strong position to assess the real condition of the Russian economy, the public mood there, or the stability of Russia’s political system. We do, however, have clues that things are not as good as Putin says.

One of these clues is the rise in food prices. Most recently there has been a particular surge in the price of eggs, which is causing an outcry among Russian consumers. Most experts believe the inflation is simply the result of Western sanctions. Internationally-sourced equipment and raw materials are not reaching Russian farms, or if they are, then by circuitous routes.

A second clue is the more frequent round-ups of men for conscription into the army, and the increasingly bold protests by the families of conscripts who have been at the front for more than a year.

It may well be that Putin doesn’t even make it to his election in March, or else to the autumn – i.e. the US election. In that scenario the Trump problem will look radically different.

Instead of getting discouraged and resigning ourselves to the belief that Ukraine is weaker than we believed and will not win, let us concentrate on providing it with the support it needs and convincing our societies in the West that this support is indispensable. Let us push for a tightening of the sanctions regime.

In a lengthy interview with the Suspilne news site, acclaimed Ukrainian columnist Vitaly Portnikov says that the initiative in the Ukraine war lies with the West. He also points to the potential consequences of Western inaction for security around the world.

At the same time, he urges us to say goodbye to the past. There is no chance of turning back the clock. Ukraine may have to focus on defending its territory and preserving its statehood, with no prospect of retaking the territories occupied by Russia, at least in the near future. But in order to put a dam on Russian aggression and the spillover of the war into more countries, what is needed is a decisive attitude from the West, a willingness to accept Ukraine into the EU and NATO, and real security guarantees for territory controlled by Kyiv.

Orbán makes the EU weaker, but Tusk makes Poland stronger

On the European question, Ukrainians see much promise in the new Polish government headed by Donald Tusk. During his address to the Polish parliament, he denounced the rhetoric of “war fatigue” and pledged support and commitment to Ukraine in the international arena.

Commentators stress the particular international status of Prime Minister Tusk. He is often called the most influential Polish politician of recent decades. There is a hope that these qualities – his internationalism and familiarity with institutions, including a good personal rapport with a number of Western leaders – will give Ukraine’s prospects a boost.

For my part, I could not help but notice Tusk’s fixation on the subject of border defence. In Podlasie, where I live, we have some hopes that the new government will change the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border. But we hold Tusk to his word that any changes will be humane. That would already be progress.

On this subject, a piece by Kaja Puto on migrants on the Russian-Finnish border is perceptive. The Polish right will present the situation in the far north of Europe as confirmation that border fences and razor wire are necessary and that Poland’s “defence” strategy is right. But the events on the Russian-Finnish border, while related to the Polish-Belarusian situation, are a fundamentally different story.

Bonus: correct pronunciation of foreign names as a test of hospitality

And finally, a small but big request. When you meet a person from another country, try to learn the correct pronunciation of their name, and try not to show that this challenge causes you great difficulty even if it does.

On the Belarusian portal Nasha Niva is a piece about Belarusians who change their names when doing paperwork abroad, e.g. in Poland. For example, Andrei may change his name to Andrzej, in the hope that this will make things easier for him in Poland.

Phonetic comfort should not come before respect for other people. If we can pronounce the most difficult words in our own language, then we can also recognise that Aleksandra is not Alex, Ivan is not the same as Ian, and Dzmitry is certainly not Dereck.

There will probably always be people from Belarus and other countries who prefer to change their name to one that sounds more natural to the locals. But it would be nice to know that they are not doing it simply because we are too lazy to learn how to pronounce their real name properly. Right?

In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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