We’re now five months into the war in Ukraine and the effects of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” are spreading their sinister tentacles far beyond eastern Europe in a manner that is affecting life for just about everyone.
Grain shortages are being caused by the blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Energy prices are spiralling thanks to Russia’s decision to limit gas supplies to western Europe. And, of course, millions of innocent families have been forced to flee their homeland to try to rebuild their lives in a new country.
All of which leads us inexorably to the nub: can either Russia or Ukraine be said to be winning this war? Both are, of course, claiming to have the upper hand. Russia has made significant gains in the east and has linked its two breakway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk with Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
If, as Putin now seems to be insisting, his military operation was always just about de-Nazifying Ukraine and protecting the pro-Russian minorities in the Donbas region, he could mount the argument that it is largely mission accomplished.
In that sense, writes Alexander Hill, a professor of military history at the University of Calgary in the US, claiming victory will be easier for Putin than for the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has always said nothing less than pushing Russian troops off Ukrainian soil will do.
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But as George W. Bush will tell you, those are dangerous words for a wartime leader to utter. Ukraine, for its part, has announced that its artillery, particularly the new long-range missile systems from the US and elsewhere, has successfully taken out multiple targets around Kherson in the country’s south, where a major Ukrainian offensive is now taking shape.
For Anicée Van Engeland, a military and security specialist who has advised the Ukraine government about defence matters, it’s the weapons supplied by the west that are making the difference. Their greater accuracy and longer range gives Ukraine’s defenders the opportunity to go on the offensive. Success in the Kherson region would be a major boost for Ukrainian morale, as well as being a key strategic victory.
There was at least one bit of good news this week, when Russia and Ukraine appeared to have agreed a deal to open up Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, an agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey. This was promptly undermined a few hours later when Russia launched airstrikes against Odesa, one of the main ports through which Ukraine’s grain and other exports would be expected to pass.
Maritime power expert Basil Germond of Lancaster University believes Russia has more invested in the deal as a public relations exercise than a burning desire to feed the world’s poorest countries. Any relaxation of sanctions in return for opening up the Black Sea ports would be a welcome development for Moscow. In any case, the local waters would need to be cleared of mines before the trade routes are fully operational, which could take some weeks. In the meantime, cautions Germond, Russia will need to be watched very carefully.
Speaking of sanctions, to what extent are they biting Russia after four months? And – given that sanctions are so often a double-edged sword – how has that affected the countries doing the sanctioning? Cecilia Bellora, Kevin Lefebvre and Malte Thie, economists at Centre d’Études Prospectives et d’Information in France, talk us through the escalation in sanctions since February and the effect they are having on both sides.
Another area of international cooperation that has been affected by the war in Ukraine and Russia’s estrangement from the west, has been international space exploration and research. Russia announced this week it would pull out of the International Space Station after 2024, bringing to an end 23 years of unprecedented cooperation, principally between Russia and the US, but also between partners in Europe, Canada and Japan.
Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor of strategy and security studies at Air University in the US, says Russia’s involvement in the ISS has been crucial to its operation and believes it is unclear whether the programme can continue without it.
And all for what? Five months in, Russia’s initial casus belli – that Nato’s expansion in former Soviet satellites would inevitably lead to bases in its neighbour Ukraine, which – by the way – is being run by a pack of Nazi thugs intent on doing harm to innocent pro-Russian civilians in eastern Ukraine, have looked increasingly threadbare as the conflict has continued.
Dariusz Gafijczuk, a specialist in the philosophy of history at the University of Newcastle, has probed another possible reason for Russian hostility towards Kyiv, reasons buried deep in the country’s history and its psyche. For Russians like Putin, Gafijczuk reasons, the failure of communism has left Russia without a unifying idea of itself. In a country prone to reinventing its own history – a people who dress their children up as tanks to celebrate victory in the “Great Patriotic War” (the second world war to you and I) – he says Russia is trying to rewrite its history on the battlefields of Ukraine.
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