The Danger of Losing Focus on Ukraine

By Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Tim Willasey-Wilsey served for over 27 years in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is now Visiting Professor of War Studies at King's College, London. His first overseas posting was in Angola during the Cold War followed by Central America during the instability of the late 1980s. He was also involved in the transition to majority rule in South Africa and in the Israel/Palestine issue. His late career was spent in Asia including a posting to Pakistan in the mid 1990s.

During 2023, the West will be confronted by sudden new challenges over Ukraine. Any loss of policy attention, in spite of pressing domestic priorities, could be disastrous.

OPINION — It was in the pages of The Scotsman on 7th January last year, that I recommended that we “get ready for trouble because Putin means business” over Ukraine.  The article was prompted by a slew of pieces in the UK press that Putin was bluffing by assembling a large army on Ukraine’s northern border.

Putin was not bluffing but he did miscalculate, badly.

The defeat of his armoured column north of Kyiv was a remarkable achievement by Ukraine using novel tactics which will be taught in Western military academies. Thereafter, Ukraine made a spectacular advance in the Kharkiv area before finally recapturing Kherson before Christmas.

2022 will go down in history as the year when Ukraine outfought the Russians. The provision of Western weapons proved crucial. The anti-tank missiles helped win the battle north of Kyiv and the HIMARS and similar artillery systems were a game-changer in the East.  The Russians have lost a vast amount of equipment, thousands of soldiers and a remarkable number of senior officers.

Yet in spite of these setbacks, the balance of advantage lies with Putin.

For Russia and Ukraine, this is an existential war which is number one, two and three on their priority list. Almost all of Russian effort and thinking is devoted to the war. For the West, the Ukraine war languishes somewhere around priority six; below managing inflation, energy security, health provision, immigration and national politics.

This single focus has allowed Russia to win the propaganda war. Although we in the UK are still solidly behind Ukraine, the same is not true everywhere. In China, India, the Middle East and most of Africa, people accept the narrative that the eastward expansion of NATO obliged Putin to make a stand. Russian information management has been more active and more effective than that by the West and the hikes in energy and food prices have made the task easier.

Remember, Europe is still financing much of Russia’s war. Yes the EU has made efforts to reduce the price which Russia earns for its oil and it has made some impressive progress in diversifying its sources of gas supplies. But still, Europe is paying more for Russian gas than it has provided to Ukraine in military assistance. 

The West has a short attention-span. As food and energy costs increase and take a political toll on the ruling parties in Europe, the solidarity with Ukraine may falter. At an early stage in the war, President Macron talked about compromise solutions and the importance of not humiliating Putin. Such calls will only increase this year.  

Putin must wonder if the US is as resolute as it seems. The comments by US General Mark Milley on 10th November, although part-retracted, doubtless represented the true feelings of many in Washington. Milley urged Ukraine to “Seize the moment” for peace.

This would almost certainly mean Ukraine giving up its aspirations to retake the whole of the Donbas and Crimea. It may also reflect a concern that the West cannot sustain current levels of weapons deliveries as national inventories deplete.

Meanwhile, US politics are in flux. Nobody knows the line the Republicans will take on Ukraine in the House of Representatives. By the end of 2023, the focus will shift to the next presidential elections. Putin will doubtless hope for a second term for Donald Trump and he will be watching carefully to see what position Florida Governor Ron DeSantis takes on Ukraine. President Biden is likely to want the Ukraine war resolved before the end of 2023, to give himself (or another Democratic candidate) a clearer run to the polls.

All this points to some form of interim ceasefire agreement towards the end of 2023. Hammering out terms of any deal would require the sort of diplomatic muscularity with which Moscow is familiar but which the West appears to lack. Doubtless, Russia would retain Crimea but what about Donbas, NATO membership for Ukraine, a War Crimes tribunal, reparations for damages, return of Russian dollar reserves etc? And what guarantees of Ukraine’s future security from Putin would carry any credibility?

And there are two other potential developments in 2023 which would be considerably more dramatic and would require expert handling.

The Russian army might mutiny. Russian armies can take huge amounts of punishment as they showed in the 1940s, but there are limits. In February 1917, the army mutinied and the government collapsed. A mutiny is the most likely way for Putin to fall. Either event would lead to frenetic diplomatic activity and extreme danger as Russia looks to its nuclear arsenal as a means to protect its territorial integrity. It is impossible to predict when a totalitarian regime will fall but it is always sudden.

Internationalisation of the war. Already, Iran has become involved in providing armed drones to Russia at a time when its own stability is under threat from mass protests. With the Iranian nuclear deal in stasis and with a new hawkish Netanyahu government in Israel, there is potential for the Middle East to be drawn into the conflict. The same goes for North Korea which has been increasingly belligerent in recent months and might be willing to cause trouble for Washington on Putin’s behalf. Meanwhile, China will continue to view Ukraine through the prism of Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping may come under domestic pressure during 2023, as his mishandling of the Covid epidemic in China becomes more apparent. Most analysts think China will not invade Taiwan in 2023, but they may be wrong; as they were over Ukraine.

This piece by Cipher Brief Expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey was first published in The Scotsman

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspectives and analysis in The Cipher Brief