The United States indirectly confronts Russia in Ukraine and, meanwhile, China manages to establish itself as a "reliable" and "non-belligerent" power

Ukraine: another chessboard in global geopolitics

photo_camera REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO - Chess pieces in front of the Russian and Ukrainian flags

Ukraine is just another pawn being fought over by several kings. It is risky to predict which side of the scales the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will tilt towards and under which umbrella Ukraine will be sheltered. In recent months, the sides have been conceding, but Russian dominance has generally held in the face of an increasingly weary Ukraine. Although Putin's initial offensives on Kiev did not produce the results he would have liked, his change of strategy to focus on eastern Ukraine has by no means meant a defeat in his stratagem, as was widely assumed at the outset.

In eastern Ukraine, there are several areas that are openly pro-Russian. Those that have tried to resist, such as Kherson and Mariupol, have fallen to Russian forces within months and now the Lugansk region, after the fall of the city of Lisichansk, is under full Russian control. In this new scenario, Russian rule over these territories has brought with it a new scenario along with a new reconfiguration of the map that makes us wonder whether these territories will ever fly a blue and yellow flag again.

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Military aid with US and European imprimaturs soon poured into Ukraine, as did economic aid and sanctions against Moscow. Faced with a systematic invasion, Ukraine asked EU countries and the US for support, and the EU responded directly and indirectly. Moreover, aware of the Russian threat on European soil, the EU has strengthened itself and in record time has approved new arms measures that are intended to serve as a deterrent to Moscow, but for the moment they are not enough.

In this scenario, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky has been very clear. "The war will only end with the full restitution of territorial integrity and sovereignty", a decision that clashes head-on with other negotiation possibilities that countries such as France and the UK have tried to put on the table, given that it is highly unlikely that these territories will return to Ukrainian sovereignty. 

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If so, Russia could already claim a certain degree of victory, or at least that is what it is trying to portray.  Its means have been neither the most ethical nor the most moral, but Putin's invasion of these regions has achieved one of his goals, namely to draw part of Ukraine's territory into Russia's orbit. The conquest of Donetsk and Luhansk is in itself a victory which, although it is considered a Pyrrhic victory, is a hard blow for Ukraine. For analysts, the current scenario presents us with "a return to the beginning of the problem", as they claim that a conflict in the east had already been planned for years.

The historian and coordinator of the Masters in Peace, Security and International Conflicts at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Luis Velasco, told Atalayar that this situation was foreseen, however, "Russia's aggressive action came as a surprise", as well as the way in which it was carried out. To try to understand how Russia's military offensives have developed, Velasco states that one has to go back to the country's history, since Russia has an important "Soviet and Tsarist military tradition".

He points out that Russia "grows in the face of an enemy and has an enormous capacity for military mobilisation. They have a very nationalistic culture, as well as the idea of sacrifice and defence of the homeland". Therefore, "the element of militarisation, coupled with the great misinformation that exists within Russian society, together with the strong, warmongering Russian nationalism, explains their aggressiveness. Russians believe the Kremlin's propaganda and this makes for an enormous mobilisation mechanism".

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In Russia, although there is dissent, the values of unity and sacrifice unite the whole of society, regardless of political ideas. "The Russians have traditionally opted for saturation offensives, as happened in World War II," he explains. "These offensives ended up overwhelming the Germans because they ran out of bullets faster than the Russians ran out of men".

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For Mario G. Cosme, PhD in international security. Cosme, "Russia can claim anything as a victory. They are going slowly in the Donbas but they are already reaping the rewards. The question is to see if they can withstand the attrition and, once that gain has been consolidated, see if they can afford other objectives. Even with support, I don't see Ukraine taking the initiative. They are defending themselves well but it seems unlikely that they will be able to reverse the territorial losses they have suffered".

He says that, in his opinion, "the intensity of the conflict is decreasing" although "it is particularly in Russia's interest for autumn and winter to arrive, for obvious reasons"

The arrival of winter is one of the key factors in this confrontation, as Russia continues to be one of the main suppliers of gas to Europe. In this sector, Russia, the United States and Qatar have managed to establish themselves as the three main suppliers of liquefied natural gas to Europe by 2021

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The Russian Federation, aware of its privileged gas situation, knows that it is very difficult for the EU to find other suppliers or cheaper gas in the short term. The new package of sanctions adopted by the EU reflects this, as the sanctions against Moscow have not been extended to gas, especially with only months to go until autumn.

This situation complicates the way for the EU to become independent from Moscow in this area. On the other hand, the United States is taking advantage of this situation by tripling its gas supply to Europe, with higher prices, and is expected to increase its exports. According to Gasindustrial data, the price of natural gas arriving in Spain from the United States is 40% higher than that received from Russia.

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The West knows that declaring war on Russia means declaring war on its assets and resources, something that Europe cannot yet afford to do beyond sanctioning its economy, but that does not mean that support for Ukraine will waver. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who addressed MEPs in no uncertain terms, said: "Supporting Ukraine has a price, but the price of not supporting them is much higher. For me this is a moral duty. Not acting and letting the brutality continue violates my understanding of what is decent behaviour as neighbours and friends of Ukraine (...) we should stop complaining and provide help".

Despite these strong statements, what is clear is that wars cannot go on forever, not only because of the lives lost, but also because of the impossibility of sustaining a situation that will have economic consequences that will be very difficult to bear. 

The war in Ukraine and its development

From the outset, Russia's objectives, although it has not confirmed them as such, have been to try to make Ukraine dependent on Russia for energy. Thus, in its first moves it has tried to take over nuclear and energy plants to make Ukraine more vulnerable. The second has been to try to deny the export of Ukrainian products across the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, and to make Ukraine see that it is not viable to end the conflict without an agreement with Russia.

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Thus, at the start of the invasion, more than 150,000 Russian troops were deployed on the Ukrainian border, opening three fronts. The first effort was to attack Kiev and Kharkov, while the second and third concentrated on Donetsk, Lugansk and Zaporiyia.

To begin what is known as "their operational art", Russia began by suppressing enemy air defences, thereby denying Ukraine airspace. They then turned their attention to attacking the country's nerve centres and finally focused on attacking the command posts of large units.

Seeing that the efforts in Kiev were not enough, Russian troops retreated to the Ukrainian border to focus their objectives in the east. Russia did not expect fierce Ukrainian resistance and swift support from European countries and NATO.

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Now, with the dominance of Crimea and the Lungansk oblast, Russia now wants to occupy and hold its positions until Ukraine is exhausted and can finally annex these territories to the Federation.

Lieutenant General Francisco Gan Pampols tells Atalayar that Putin will try to "rig a referendum in both Donetsk and Lugansk as well as in parts of Zaporiyia and Kherson where their annexation to Russia will be decided".

"At that point, if that area is attacked, Putin will make use of the Russian constitution which says he can activate nuclear weapons if the interests of the area are attacked or there is a direct attack on his territory" so a nuclear attack "cannot be ruled out. It is an option that exists" because Putin "cannot afford to lose this war because his entire personal and power status will revolve around the outcome of this war".
 

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For this reason, Gan believes that "this war must necessarily end in a ceasefire agreement, where the first thing to be stipulated is that the killing stops". As long as this agreement is not reached, the question is how long Europe will be able to withstand a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, given that Ukraine needs 5.5 billion dollars in aid every month. This aid is so high because Ukraine neither produces nor sells, making it almost totally dependent on foreign aid, which in the eyes of the lieutenant general makes it "a failed state".

On the other hand, US arms money has already amounted to around $25.5 billion, a figure that Europe will have to pay. If Europe is already suffering from severe inflation, these budgets further stifle an economy that is already in recession. 

The US role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict

In this conflict, Washington has much to lose and much to gain. First, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has given both NATO and EU security policy a wake-up call. In this sense, Europe wants to gain some distance from the United States in order to bet on its own autonomy in terms of defence, an objective that, although ambitious, if achieved would mark an initial distance from the United States. 

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Last March, the Council formally approved the Strategic Compass, which aims to implement an action plan to strengthen the European Union's security and defence policy between now and 2030. The goal of the Compass, therefore, is to make the EU "a stronger and more capable security provider" through military build-up, among other measures. However, this strategy defines neither the enemy, nor the risks, challenges and threats, nor does it determine the elements for confronting it, so that rather than a strategy it is a declaration of intent and makes it militarily insignificant on a global level.

On the other hand, the integration of two new countries - Finland and Sweden - into NATO is also a success for the United States, which would also have brought the rest of the member countries up to 2 per cent of their GDP, a measure that would not even have been on the table in the absence of the Russian invasion. In addition, the European countries that are also NATO members thus make the Alliance less autonomous vis-à-vis the United States. Thus, Europe's security and defence would paradoxically continue to depend on two countries that are not part of the Union, namely the United States and the United Kingdom. 

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And in this sector it is the United States as the main supplier that allows it to set the rules through diplomatic agreements and international relations. Moreover, US interests are different from those of the EU, as Biden's foreign policy is now focusing on the Asia-Pacific region, an area in which Europe would not be particularly interested. Therefore, the United States might be interested in prolonging this war until it sees Russia as sufficiently worn down that it is no longer a "reliable" ally of China.

In this conflict, the United States has managed to gain international presence and posture, putting Biden's "America is Back" on the ground, which until now had remained only a speech. 

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Although experts in the field do not believe that the United States is playing a direct instigating role, they do believe that it is making the most of the situation, "like any other country". Others believe that "the politics of reality is what it is. The United States has its permanent interests first, and then it has interests that coincide with those of Europe, but it has its own interests".

In this situation, and despite the fact that the US is experiencing inflation similar to Europe's, the US would be assured of exports, gas and oil, something that Europe is not

Rethinking European security

Against this backdrop, Europe is suffering and will suffer the most direct consequences of the war in all sectors. On the one hand, Europe is under the umbrella of the United States, which means that it is losing almost all of its autonomy in terms of defence and security. In addition, the Union will end up bearing the costs of restructuring and sustaining itself, not to mention its dependence on Russia in the energy sector, as well as in the mineral and precious metals sector.

All of these reasons may influence Europe to lose further competitiveness in near-record time. Meanwhile, the United States has managed to gain both domestic cohesion and international prestige and has succeeded in redirecting NATO's focus to the Asia-Pacific region, which is outside NATO's interests. In addition to these strategic gains, Washington continues to make money from arms, oil and gas sales.

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On the other hand, within this conflict, China could emerge as the strongest country, as it would be giving the whole of its surroundings an image of a "reliable partner", non-belligerent and continuous. This image makes it extremely attractive to countries such as Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, as well as India. In this sense, it would have managed to give a different image to that of the United States, and even more so after its recent withdrawal in Afghanistan, which has been seen as an "abandonment".

For Europe, the solutions are complex. First, it is trying to gain internal cohesion and counterbalance the growing assertiveness of the US, but so far this has not been achieved. Moreover, experts believe that once the US is going through a serious internal crisis, US society will not be interested in what happens beyond the Atlantic, and the conflict in Ukraine will become a minor issue. 

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What is being put forward as an urgent solution is the exploration of possibilities to bring about a ceasefire and start building a halfway viable future. For Gan, "it doesn't matter what weapons you give Ukraine. All you are going to achieve is to get Russia to unilaterally escalate and unleash a nuclear weapon".

"When Russia is finally pushed into a corner, we will realise what is going to happen" and if anything is becoming clear on the ground, it is that the Russian Federation is not going to lose, whatever the cost
 

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