The Sun sets on the American empire: Dead-end in Ukraine

Jun 26, 2024
State flag of Ukraine. A hole in yellow against a blue background from a military shell. Conflict between the US, NATO and Russia in Ukraine. A piece of the American flag on the background.

Like Gaza, Ukraine is one of the great tragedies of the post-Cold War period. Like Gaza, it is the result of a deadly game pursued by great powers intent on inflicting maximum damage on each other, seemingly oblivious of the costs.

The war is now well into its third year and with no end in sight. The two-day meeting in Switzerland, billed as a peace summit, has just concluded with little to show for its efforts.

The outcome is hardly surprising given that its primary mover, Ukraine, saw this as an opportunity to strengthen its position vis-à-vis Russia. For its principal backers, the United States and its allies, it served as an instrument to demonstrate Russia’s diplomatic isolation.

Both objectives were predicated on Russia’s absence from the meeting. As it turned out, neither objective was met. Highly revealing in this regard is the communique issued at the end of the summit.

The list of signatories included the United States and all its European and Asia-Pacific allies. Absent were China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Iran and all other BRICS members. Absent too were Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam. With few exceptions, the Global South was conspicuous by its absence.

It was therefore important for the US-led coalition to secure at least a few signatories outside of the Western fold, which explains why the communique avoided the usual denunciations of Russian aggression and confined itself to four propositions:

  • The use or threatened use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible
  • Nuclear power stations located in Ukraine must be kept secure and free from attack
  • Global food security and safe passage of commercial shipping in the Black and Azov Seas must be assured
  • All prisoners of war must be released, and all unlawfully detained children must be returned to Ukraine.

The problems alluded to here are no doubt worthy of consideration, but they do not go to the core of the conflict, let alone to its possible resolution. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they were framed with a view to creating an impression of reasonableness, while carefully avoiding any acknowledgement of Russian grievances or concerns.

To get a clearer sense of US strategic thinking, we need to review US and NATO initiatives these last few months.

First a brief word about the support the US and its allies made available to Ukraine between February 2022 and early June 2024. US military aid, which totalled some $51 billion, included one Patriot air defence battery and munitions, Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), HAWK air defence systems, more than 2,000 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 31 Abrams tanks, a large number of aircraft and unmanned aerial systems. To this must be added the UK and German contributions which included Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks respectively. US allies and partners also provided long-range artillery systems, nearly 250,000 anti-tank munitions, short-range air defence missiles and armoured personnel carriers.

These military packages were supplemented by various form of economic assistance, including large disbursements in grant financing designed to maintain a series of healthcare, education and emergency services. For 2023, the G7, acting in concert with the IMF and the World Bank, increased its commitment of budget and economic support to $39 billion.

The carrot strategy reserved for Ukraine was mirrored by a stick strategy aimed at Russia. Sweeping sanctions were imposed on Russia’s key revenue generating sectors with a view to degrading Russia’s economy and restricting its capacity to wage war. Sanctions were applied to 200 individuals and entities in Russia and in third countries that were assisting its war effort.

But all this was clearly not enough. Ukraine’s much heralded counteroffensive was eventually launched in early June 2023. Five months later, a string of negative assessments by Ukrainian officials and Western analysts made it clear that the counteroffensive had failed.

And then came a new Russian offensive. Grudgingly at first but with increasing frankness as time went on, Ukraine’s military leaders admitted that the battlefield situation, especially on the eastern front, had markedly deteriorated.

After two years of war, Ukraine’s military effort was experiencing a serious shortage of troops and ammunition, and a visible loss of morale. Kiev was forced to abandon several frontline positions. In early June, Putin told an economic forum Russia had seized 47 town and villages so far this year.

According to Russia’s defence ministry, it was advancing “into the depths of the enemy’s defence”. With fierce fighting continuing in Pokrovsk and Chasiv Yar, their capture could pave the way for further Russian advances.

With alarm bells ringing, the Biden administration sought to tighten the screws on the Russian adversary. After months of political infighting, a new $61 billion aid package for Ukraine finally gained congressional approval in late April.

On 13 June, the US signed a 10-year agreement extending long-term security guarantees to Ukraine, and so did Japan.

Washington also announced a new tranche of sanctions targeting the Moscow Exchange, other significant Russian financial institutions and Russian defence manufacturers.

In recent days NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has spoken of ‘initiatives to bring Ukraine ever closer to NATO membership’. NATO defence ministers meeting in June agreed that NATO would assume the role of coordinating security assistance and training as well as facilitate equipment logistics for Ukraine’s armed forces.

At the Ukraine ‘peace summit’ Vice-President Kamala Harris announced a $1.4 billion aid package focussed primarily on the energy sector and humanitarian assistance.

Would this flurry of US-led activity lead to Russia’s defeat on the battlefield? Not likely. Would it compel Russia to accept Kyiv’s demand for the complete withdrawal of its troops? Unlikely, to say the least.

None of the US or NATO initiatives could significantly alter the favourable balance Russia enjoys vis-à-vis Ukraine either in terms of troop numbers or the military hardware at its disposal.

Nor is there much evidence that the US strategy of bleeding Russia dry politically, economically and militarily has worked, or is likely to do so in the foreseeable future.

Over the last two and more years, both the US and its allies have pledged large economic and military aid packages, but actual delivery has often been slow in coming.

Nor can the process of attrition be underestimated. No sooner are weapon systems introduced into the battlefield than they are destroyed.

According to the latest assessment by the Russian Defence Ministry, Ukraine’s armed forces have incurred the following losses since February 2022: 613 warplanes, 276 helicopters, 26,236 unmanned aerial vehicles, 531 surface-to-air missile systems, 16,399 tanks and other armoured combat vehicles, 1,346 multiple rocket launchers, 10,745 field artillery guns and mortars, and 22,779 special military motor vehicles.

Even if these are inflated figures, the question remains: are the US and its allies willing and able to keep replenishing Ukraine’s arsenal at such speed and on such a scale? The question is all the more telling given increasing signs of fatigue and the rise of political currents in the United States and much of Europe, which view support for the Ukraine war effort with growing scepticism.

As for sanctions, they have proved to be less effective than anticipated. Well before they were imposed, Russia had taken steps to insulate its economy from hostile winds. Iran and North Korea are supplying an abundance of drones and artillery shells, while China is providing components – from microchips to machines – that have greatly strengthened Russia’s military industrial base.

In 2023, bilateral trade with China rose to $240 billion, up 26 per cent from the previous year. China is exporting a wide range of goods, from cars and industrial machinery to smartphones, and importing billions of dollars of Russian energy exports. Since December 2022, China has accounted for 38% of Russia’s coal exports, 49% of its crude oil exports, and 26% its pipeline gas. Significantly, India, Brazil and other emerging economies have become important trading partners.

Russia has also benefited from a large global network of shipping, insurance and energy companies that do not adhere to Western legal frameworks. In 2023, Russian GDP grew by 3.6%. A similar growth rate is expected for 2024.

By contrast the Ukrainian economy has been ravaged by war. In the first year of the conflict, GDP fell by close to 30 per cent, though it recovered slightly the following year. As of end-2023, the direct damage to the economy is estimated at $152 billion, with the housing, transport, commerce and industry, agriculture, and energy sectors most affected. Apart from all those mobilised, injured or killed as a result of the war, some 6.4 million became refugees in other countries and 3.7 million were internally displaced.

The US strategy of pouring money and arms into Ukraine will cause Russia economic discomfort and substantial military casualties, but is unlikely to deliver Ukraine victory on the battlefield or bring Russia to its knees. It will on the other hand prolong within Ukraine the untold suffering, death and destruction of the last two and more years. Whether by misperception or miscalculation, it risks bringing Europe closer to a full scale war.

In more ways than one, the war in Ukraine has come to a dead end. It is time for all stakeholders to rethink their strategic objectives. No great power, the United States included, can impose its will on another. US visions of global supremacy are delusional. The only sane option is to shift from strategic confrontation to cooperative coexistence.

 

The final of this three-part series will continue in P&I in:

The Sun sets on the American empire: The perils of containment

 

For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

The sun sets on the American empire: the Gaza debacle

 

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