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Ukraine: Two years in the web of trust and mistrust amid war

Rayhan Ahmed Tapader

Rayhan Ahmed Tapader

Tue, 27 Feb 24

Two years ago, Russia began a full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine. This war is still ongoing. Russian President Vladimir Putin still believes he can win the Ukraine war. Western analysts have been discussing this in a new assessment of the conflict. In the two years of the Ukraine war, more than five million people have been displaced. Western analysts say that Putin's efforts to defeat Ukraine and expand dominance in Ukraine are still ongoing. Rather, compared to a year ago, Putin is now significantly more optimistic about this war victory. Behind Putin's optimism lies the failure of the United States' $60 billion military aid bill for Ukraine, limited success on the battlefield, and recent incursions into Ukraine's strategically important eastern city of Avdiivka. After taking control of Avdiivka, Putin directed his defense minister to launch further attacks.

Western analysts believe that Putin has not abandoned his ultimate goal of subjugating Ukraine. However, Western analysts do not believe that Putin has any clear tactics in the Ukraine war. Following Putin's directive, on February 24, 2022, Russia began a full-scale military campaign in Ukraine. The initial attempt to capture the capital, Kyiv, was Russia's; however, they failed. In subsequent times, Russia managed to capture several regions of Ukraine. However, since 2023, the situation in the war zone has remained relatively stable. During the war, Russia's image has undergone significant changes. Even the country's president, Vladimir Putin, has changed. However, the trend of this change had started long ago.

Russia's war in Ukraine has brought death and destruction. The losses suffered by the Russian military have also been minimal. There have been missile strikes and drone attacks on cities in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of people in the country have been mobilized into the military. One significant event during the war was the mutiny of mercenaries supplied by the Wagner Group. This was followed by the death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash. Additionally, there have been arrests warrants issued against Putin by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. In the two years of the war, Putin's most prominent critic, Navalny, died. February 24, 2022, marked a turning point in history. The trajectory leading to this moment is clear. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

That same year, Moscow launched its first military campaign in eastern Ukraine. In 2020, chemical weapons were used against Navalny. He was later arrested in 2021. Even before the start of the military campaign in Ukraine, the Russian government had been cracking down on dissent both at home and abroad. Now it's escalating. Vladimir Putin has become increasingly confident and resolute in suppressing enemies both domestically and internationally over the two years of the war. He has stood against the United States, the Western military alliance NATO, and the European Union. And he has portrayed the Ukraine war as a battle against the entire West. Putin's destiny is to maintain Russia's existence. The end of it all, however, only time will tell. As Lord Robertson put it, once the Soviet Union was considered the world's second superpower.

However, today Russia cannot claim to align itself with the position of the former Soviet Union. Former NATO Secretary-General said that Putin's arrogance is somewhat responsible for this situation. Over time, Western vulnerabilities, various provocations by Putin, and his escalating arrogance have contributed to this situation. Therefore, Putin now sees this alliance as a threat rather than seeking cooperation with NATO. Russian officials claim that the expansion of NATO towards Eastern Europe is the reason for the start of the war in Ukraine.

They have raised allegations against the Kremlin for breaking a promise made by NATO not to include countries under Soviet influence. Lord Robertson stated that there is no paper trail on this matter. There is no consensus on the issue. There is no agreement. However, Putin himself signed the Rome Declaration on May 28, 2002. The declaration emphasized the importance of regional integrity and refrained from interfering in other countries. Putin cannot blame anyone else. Former US President George W. Bush believed that his "sixth sense" was very active. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair believed he had the qualifications to be a significant guest at any event. And that's why French President Emmanuel Macron invited him to his government's retreat center for hours of discussion. For decades, Western leaders believed they understood the tactics of Russian President Vladimir Putin well.

They argue that Russia maintains an important position as an international stakeholder; however, two years ago, on February 24, 2022, when Putin launched an attack on Ukraine, Western attention towards him drastically changed. A humorous image of Putin, taken from his wife Brigitte's hand as she struggled to pick flowers at the Mediterranean Fort de Brégançon in August 2019, is now a distant memory for them. Despite Putin's initial failure to fulfill his primary objective of seizing major Ukrainian cities by launching a sudden invasion, he is increasingly contented now. In the summer of 2023, the much-anticipated offensive in Ukraine and Russia’s control over the southern and eastern regions has left him quite satisfied. Moscow sees it as a symbolic victory, as last week the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdeevka came under Russian military control after several months of warfare. Simultaneously, there has been a significant blow to Putin's opponents in Russia.

Alexei Navalny, a harsh critic of Putin, has been killed in an Arctic prison. His team claims he was murdered. Under the condition of anonymity, a senior Western official stated, "This is true, President Putin now feels confident that he can outmaneuver the Western world." Therefore, it is our responsibility to show him some evidence of error. Putin is increasingly assertive. In a recent statement in December, he said, "There is no future for Ukraine." In a recent controversial interview with right-wing American TV journalist Tucker Carlson, he said, "Russia's strategic defeat is virtually impossible."

Western leaders have attempted to respond forcefully to Putin's statement. They have argued that defeating Russia in a war against Ukraine is their only option. Last month, French President Macron declared that Europe must not allow Russia to win the upper hand. Analysts claim there is no alternative to Western support for Ukraine, as the country's military collapse could change the course of the war. However, ensuring this support has become increasingly complicated. American lawmakers are divided over a new aid package. Putin is awaiting the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November. Europe, meanwhile, appears divided. Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Center for New American Security (CNAS) Andrea Kendall-Taylor says it's a competition for aggressive restructuring of power on both sides.

Taylor argues that if the West fails to make progress and Russia gains some advantages, Moscow will likely seek further gains. She believes that momentum has shifted. If Ukraine can hold its ground in 2024 and receive new equipment assistance, by 2025 they could increase pressure on Russia. Therefore, it's clear that 2024 is crucial from Putin's perspective. The prospect of Trump returning to the White House in 2023 has caused alarming concerns. He explicitly announced in 2023 that if re-elected, he would end the war within a day, 24 hours. Analysts fear that far-right factions may soften their stance against Russia.

In France and Germany, support for right-wing parties has already been on the rise. Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of research institute Political Consultancy, has stated that Putin sees 2024 as a significant opportunity to turn the tide in Russia's favor by exploiting Western weakness to redirect the course of the war. Experts suggest that Putin hopes for a temporary ceasefire in Western military aid to Ukraine. It's expected that missile production will increase in 2025. The upcoming American election adds another layer of uncertainty. In this scenario, the United States may pay less attention to diplomatic maneuvers. On the other hand, there is internal division within the European Union. Consequently, the possibility of their support mitigating losses for Ukraine is slim. Meanwhile, Russia's economy is suffering due to the conflict. Signs of fatigue among the general population are evident. Russia has already suffered significant losses, with Western sources claiming that over 350,000 soldiers have been injured. Thus, Russia's internal vulnerability may offer some hope for the West.

Western officials suggest that there are indeed some factors that could genuinely worry Putin. Extensive spending on defense and security has created long-term economic problems for Russia. Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dara Massicot, says that maintaining internal stability requires Putin to invest a lot of time. However, significant Western support aside, Ukraine's position in negotiations and compromises remains uncertain—a matter yet to be seen.

Author: Researcher and Columnist.

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