Lindsey German: A growing number of people are seeing the futility of a war with high casualties and the ever-present threat of escalation

Only last week Stian Jenssen, the chief of staff to NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, caused a furore when he said in relation to achieving peace in the current war ‘I think that a solution could be for Ukraine to give up territory and get NATO membership in return.’ He was immediately attacked by various representatives of the Ukrainian government, demanding that he withdraw the remark and insisting that it would fight until it had regained all its territory, not just as result of last year’s Russian invasion but going back to the annexation of Crimea a decade ago.

One of Ukrainian President Zelensky’s advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, argued that ‘If Putin does not suffer a crushing defeat, the political regime in Russia does not change and war criminals are not punished, the war will definitely return with Russia’s appetite for more.’

While Jenssen retreated on his original statement, he still made clear that in any peace talks control of territory will of necessity play a role. He is right about that. It also seems unlikely that someone so close to Stoltenberg wasn’t aware of the consequences of his original intervention.

And despite the insistence by Ukraine’s politicians that Russia must be heavily defeated, there is a growing sense among the NATO powers that this is not happening and that the war is now a drawn out one of attrition. The much-heralded spring offensive has taken very little territory back from Russia, and indeed has lost some. Despite record amounts of arms shipments being sent from NATO powers the progress against Russian defences has been minimal.

The biggest NATO power, and by far the biggest supplier of weapons, the US, is starting to get cold feet. An article in last weekend’s Washington Post demonstrated exactly the fear that is beginning to surface publicly:

‘Rather than crumble…Russian forces are putting up fierce resistance, and even making offensive advances. In northeastern Ukraine, authorities in Kupyansk ordered a mass evacuation of civilians. The city was part of a large swath of occupied territory that Ukraine recaptured in September and October of last year.’

It seems that many of the NATO powers appeared to believe that Ukraine could reproduce its autumn offensive last year, when it retook significant amounts of territory captured by Russia, not imagining that Russia could learn from its defeats, or factoring in that it had months in which to build up defensive positions.

There are fears, in the US particularly, that there is growing weariness regarding funding of the Ukraine war and that this too will spread to other NATO powers. A recent poll showed a majority against sending further aid to Ukraine and the Republican party is increasingly coming out against it. As a presidential election year approaches, the issue is likely to polarise further, as Donald Trump has already said he will end the war. Biden’s promise of further aid this autumn is likely to trigger a major political row.

A Financial Times article also published this week points to the problem:

‘US officials are increasingly critical of Ukraine’s counteroffensive strategy and gloomy about its prospect of success, deepening tensions between Kyiv and Washington at the most critical point in the war since Russia’s full-scale invasion.’

According to this, the US disagrees with Kyiv’s military strategy, seeing it as not sufficiently focused on the south of the country and cutting off Crimea, but also about mounting attacks such as drone or sabotage attacks rather than risking high casualties in engaging more with the Russian army.

We are likely therefore to see more of the kind of arguments put by Jenssen in the coming months. That isn’t to say that there is going to be any quick resolution to this war: the stalemate means that both sides will want to stay engaged in the hope of further advances. And both Putin and the NATO powers have a great deal invested in this war, financially as well as politically. Only this week, the US also gave permission for Dutch and Danish owned F-16 fighters to be sent to Ukraine.

But it does mean that a growing number are seeing the futility of a war which is causing very high casualties, with billions being spent on weaponry, and with the ever-present threat of escalation. In Ukraine itself, there are signs of growing discontent and of increasing numbers not wanting to fight.

The argument of the anti-war movement, that a ceasefire and peace talks are absolutely essential to stop this war, is likely to gain much more traction in the weeks to come.

21 Aug 2023 by Lindsey German

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