Ukrainian leadership believes it cannot win the war without the most sophisticated weapons such as aircraft, tanks, missiles, or anti-missile systems.
Image: Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters
Putting an end to war can happen only if the objectives of war have been met. The problem in Ukraine is that there are several war objectives, and it is difficult to satisfy them all. Set aside the objectives of war from the Russian side which have never been clearly specified, Ukraine wants to get back all its territory (Crimea included) while its Western allies support Ukraine and its territorial sovereignty on one side while at the same time, they want Russia to be broken in such a way that it could not invade any other country in the future.
Ukrainian leadership believes it cannot win the war without the most sophisticated weapons such as aircraft, tanks, missiles, or anti-missile systems. All this has been accepted by Western countries so the concept of red lines (equipment and weapons Western countries do not want to deliver) has disappeared. Western countries continuously repeat that they will support Ukraine in getting back its territory ‘whatever it takes.’ If ‘whatever it takes and for as long as it takes’ means that Ukraine needs NATO troops and nuclear bombs to win, then be it. Western countries will provide troops and nuclear bombs to Ukraine because red lines do not exist anymore.
Another mantra has disappeared too. At the beginning of the conflict, the Western countries made it clear they do not want their weapons to be used in an offensive strike on the Russian territory. This is wishful thinking because the medium-range subsonic Storm Shadow missiles delivered by the UK and the Taurus missiles which Germany will deliver have a range of 560 km and 500 km respectively. With these missiles, Ukraine can reach any target in Crimea and Donbas from inside its territory, but it can also reach Moscow. If Russian troops bomb Kiev, who can tell Ukrainians not to bomb Moscow? If Ukraine is attacked from Belarus, will NATO refuse to bomb St Petersburg from Finland or Estonia if it is the only way to stop the war? These scenarios seem unrealistic, conspiracy theories, or science fiction, but history shows how it is easy to start a war and how easily wars spiral out of control. What is unimaginable today may unfortunately be the reality tomorrow.
As for the Western objectives, the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared one year ago ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine’. There are only two ways to accomplish that. An economic Russian debacle, or a military defeat.
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One year ago, Western countries put their faith in economic sanctions and believed that the Russian economy would collapse soon. This did not happen one year later, so we are left with two options. The first is a Western-led military campaign in Russia to make Russia capitulate and ensure its military capacity is reduced to such a level it will not threaten other countries. Conversely, the other option is to revise the objectives of the war, abandon the idea of full territorial sovereignty for Ukraine and of economic and/or military defeat of Russia, and bring the Russian and Ukrainian sides to the table of negotiation.
There are at least three objectives of war (Russian, Ukrainian, and Western) and it is impossible to satisfy them all unless the objectives of war are changed. It will not be the first time that the objectives of war change depending on circumstances. If it happens, the only question is the timing of the announcement and the crafting of a new narrative that can support the change of war objectives.
Cedomir Nestorovic is Professor of Geopolitics and Islamic Business at ESSEC Asia-Pacific