Putin is close to victory. Europe should be terrified

Russian President Vladimir Putin

With the Ukraine conflict languishing in stalemate, the possibility that Russian president Vladimir Putin might yet emerge victorious from his ill-judged invasion cannot be ignored, with all the implications such an outcome would have for Europe’s security.

Ukraine’s failure to make a decisive breakthrough in its counter-offensive during the summer has all but silenced the optimistic predictions made by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his senior commanders that victory was within Kyiv’s grasp. Instead, the Ukrainian narrative is in danger of descending into recriminations over the refusal of its Western allies to provide Kyiv with the weaponry required to break the impasse on the battlefield. As the Ukrainian leader remarked in a recent interview, “We didn’t get all the weapons we wanted, I can’t be satisfied.”

The lack of military progress, together with the eruption of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, has certainly deepened the sense of scepticism among some Western leaders over Ukraine’s ability to prevail. There is a growing sentiment within the Biden administration, for example, that its interests would be better served by pressuring Zelensky to sue for peace, rather than persisting with a military campaign he stands little chance of winning.

Meanwhile, Putin is intensifying his efforts to reclaim the military advantage, using the country’s strong oil revenues to militarise the Russian economy, which has led to a significant increase in weapons production. Putin has also authorised a 170,000 increase in the size of the Russian military. He hopes this will aid its efforts to seize key strategic targets, such as the eastern town of Avdiivka in the Donbas region, the scene of recent heavy fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

The notion that, 21 months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian military would still be capable of mounting an offensive seemed inconceivable only a few months ago, after Moscow had suffered a series of devastating setbacks. And while it still remains highly unlikely that Putin will be able to fulfil his goal of conquering all of Ukraine and establishing a puppet regime in Kyiv, any conclusion that results in the Kremlin retaining significant areas of Ukrainian territory will be hailed as a victory.

Such an outcome would present a significant challenge for the Western alliance, as its ability to withstand Russian aggression would be open to question after all the military support it has given Ukraine. It would also encourage Putin in the belief that he could undertake further acts of aggression on Nato’s eastern flank, safe in the knowledge that the West had neither the resources nor resolve to resist the Kremlin’s expansionist aims.

The prospect of Russia intensifying the threat it poses to European security in the event of Putin achieving only modest gains in Ukraine has prompted a number of prominent European military experts to question openly Nato’s preparedness for meeting such a challenge. A recent defence conference in Berlin was treated to a doomsday scenario whereby Europe risked suffering the same fate as the Holy Roman Empire under Napoleon, and being “washed away” in a future conflict with Russia because of Nato’s inability to defend Europe’s eastern flank.

Sönke Neitzel, one of Germany’s leading military historians, claimed that it could take 15 years before his country was capable of defending itself against Russia. His sentiments were reinforced by Jacek Siewiera, the chief of Poland’s National Security Bureau, who warned that Nato had as little as three years to prepare itself for a Russian attack on its eastern flank.

And yet, despite the obvious threat Moscow poses, Western leaders appear disinclined to credit it with the seriousness it merits. The argument made during the early stages of the Ukraine conflict – that ensuring Russia suffered a heavy defeat would dissuade Putin from further acts of aggression – has been replaced by war fatigue, and a desire to end hostilities at all costs, even if it leads to an emboldened Russia.

Nor has the West’s response to the conflict engendered better co-operation in the defence sphere. Commenting on the stalemate in the Ukraine conflict, the secretary general of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg, recently lamented the fragmented nature of Europe’s defence industry. “We are not able to work as closely together as we should,” he said, warning that the inability of European nations to pool resources could undermine efforts to maintain ammunition supplies to Ukraine.

The failure to afford the Russian threat the seriousness it deserves is evident in Britain, too, where analysis of Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement last month suggests the Government is unlikely to fulfil its pledge to raise defence spending from 2 per cent to 2.5 per cent of GDP, a key requirement for making our Armed Forces better-equipped to counter the Russian threat. Not only, it appears, is Europe preparing to let Ukraine lose the war: it has little appetite for defending itself against future acts of Russian aggression.

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