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Ukraine War Approaches The Finish Line

Arindam Mukherjee
Updated: August 4, 2022 14:41
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It looks like the Ukraine graph is gradually approaching a plateau. Or already has. While it was impossible to guess the probable duration of the episode when the Russian special operations began in February, an assumption – that Europe wouldn’t be allowed to freeze in the winters – germinated among conflict observers around the world, once the sanctions began threatening the gas supply lines to the EU. It is quite tragic that the European leaders had to actually initiate gas cuts to ‘understand’ how the European winter of 2022 might affect the average European. Be that as it may, one hopes they have developed a fair idea now that autumn is about to set in a few weeks’ time.

So what are the recent developments that suggest the plateau?

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November is drawing close – 38% of Americans now think that President Joe Biden is doing a decent job. In terms of the all-time worst ratings in US history, this is lower than Donald Trump’s. Experts think this would be an impossible climb. Till date, only George HW Bush managed one – by invading Iraq in 1991. Unfortunately, the US of today doesn’t have the ingredients in place to invade countries like Iraq. The only activities on the card have been withdrawal from Afghanistan, or a halfhearted support to Ukraine, and they have not aged well with the US voters.

The US is shifting focus – The most important reinforcement to this is the one that is making the latest headlines: US and China power play over Taiwan. Senator Nancy Pelosi’s plane landing on Taiwan had the internet on edge for a few hours. The visit has proceeded as planned, and even though China appears visibly upset, an immediate escalation between the two is being ruled out for now. While one section believes that this is the result of internal squabble within the Democrats (Pelosi is in line after Kamala Harris for Presidency), another section of observers believes that this is optics, to shore up Biden’s domestic ratings after the Ukraine. If there is some truth in that, more such shows between now and November 2022 cannot be ruled out.

Regional players are gaining grounds – President Biden might not have many choices left to him in the Ukraine crisis. Take the case of the US trying to force itself in an ongoing negotiation table – which wasn’t much of an effort till about a decade back – that has begun looking difficult. In the recent grain deal at the UN between Ukraine and Russia, mediated by Turkey, Biden wanted to be a part of the meeting (looking at the ratings perhaps) but was decently sidelined. Add to that the fact that there is now this clear and present fear of Germany defecting due to the pains of gas cuts and other EU nations following suit, abandoning Ukraine completely. For the first time since February 2022, the regional stakeholders have managed to insert them into the Ukraine equation.

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Russia is not willing to comply even on trivialities – Biden also wanted a prisoner exchange program in what many think to be an attempt to initiate talks with Russia for the first time since the war began. The original demand was NBA player Brittney Griner and US Marine Paul Whelan – both in Russian prison, against the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. That has been rejected so far by Putin-Lavrov. The general opinion is that apart from suggesting ‘quiet’ diplomacy – which Lavrov prefers, as opposed to Secretary Blinken tweeting the proposal (probably for maximum publicity back home) – Russia also might suggest some other prisoner(s) for the swap. There have been no further updates from their end. This kind of indeterminacy could create more pressure on Biden’s electoral prospects. Russia however, is under no compulsions.

Summarizing Russian strategic gains

Why is Russia under no compulsions? Well for starters, the ‘sanctions from hell’ failed. The OPEC+ members are standing steady beside the Kremlin. And the global opinion is pretty much either carefully neutral or in Russia’s favour. There is one more picture that was put across by Ambassador Bhadrakumar in one of his analyses a few days ago: that of the geostrategic gains of Russia. When Russia liberated Mariupol – the largest trading port on Sea of Azov – and semi-crippled Ukrainian maritime trade, it also consolidated control of an integrated waterway towards its side (along west Russia) that connects Black Sea (and thus Mediterranean Sea) through Sea of Azov, and Caspian Sea, with Baltic and Northern Sea route. And when the mainstream media was busy on Zelenskyy’s valiance at Kiev, Russia quickly took over Kherson and thus “practically spelt doom for the NATO’s design to extend its military presence in the Black Sea basin”. With Kherson under Russian control now, it looks like Russia holds the mouth of the Dnieper River at Black Sea – one of Ukraine’s most vital commercial lifelines. Two Russian objectives – as I had stated even before the conflict began – were to a) cut-off Ukraine’s access to Black Sea, and b) reduce it to a non-functional swamp like Afghanistan. With both seem to be going as planned, it should be of little surprise why Russia is under no compulsions.

The picture now along the Western camp is of silent admission of the fact that Ukraine cannot be salvaged – territorially or economically, so it is perhaps time to cut losses and move on. Grain ships have resumed, Canada has patched up Russia’s Nord Stream turbine that was meant for ensuring smooth supply to EU, Lithuania crisis is sorted, and sanctions are being eased – one at a time, with Germany or UK displaying subtle signs of a climbdown.

Does this mean that the war is going to get over soon?

Realistically, it would taper down both in size and impact. The USA would keep supplying this or that weapon to Ukraine. There would be restricted flare-ups along pockets like Odessa – which Russia would probably try to take over next. But yes, the rabble-rousing and cheerleading would lose some steam over the next few weeks as the Western media focuses more on Biden’s reelection. The one thing that could bring all these to a fair ending is if Joe Biden manages to initiate and execute a Russo-Ukraine ceasefire. That could not only end the war, but do his ratings a world of good. However, considering the current crisis in the American diplomatic camp, that is easier said than done.

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