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29 February 2024

On second-best outcomes

When Russia suffered its first setbacks in the war against Ukraine in the spring of 2022, hubris ruled in the salons of western foreign policy discourse. Western governments pledged unconditional support for Ukraine for however long it would take. Some hotheads even called for the west to declare regime change in Russia as our official goal. Two years later, the hubris turned into depression. Russia has gained the upper hand in the war. Last weekend, Russia captured the town of Avdiivka to the north-west of Donetsk. Western military supplies for Ukraine have dried out. The Biden administration's military aid package is stuck in Congress. But the drought in US supplies already started last autumn. 

European ammunition supplies are also running below target. For the year to March, the EU had promised 1m shells, but will only be delivering half of that. Rheinmetall, the German defence contractor,  said it will increase its current production by 10% this year. The big boost to production will not come until 2025 when a new factory goes online. In the short-run the situation on the battlefront will probably get worse for Ukraine.

The EU could buy ammunition on world markets, but Emmanuel Macron is blocking this, on the grounds that this would damage its own defence contractors. Germany could send Taurus cruise missiles that could reach deep into Russia, but Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, fears that these missiles could trigger an escalation. Everybody has a reason to stall. To Vladimir Putin, it looks as though the West is backing off.

It takes a large and sustained effort to help up an ally fight a long war against a military superpower. It looks as though the west, including the countless military and geopolitical experts, did not think this through. They underestimated Russia. 

The long sequence of misjudgements started right at the beginning of the war with the western sanctions package. The idea was to deprive Putin of the means to fight the war. On that count, it was a complete failure. Iran is sending him drones. North Korea is sending him missiles. China is sending him dual-use goods and high-tech components. Western goods get re-routed through Kazakhstan into Russia. 

Unlike the west, Russia has switched to a war economy. The result is that Russia grew faster than any of the large western economies last year despite the sanctions. The IMF is predicting the same again this year. 

One almost banal reason for the west's collective misjudgement is a common statistical delusion. We have been telling each other that the Russian economy is tiny - about the size of Spain's. This is true in dollar terms. But it is meaningless since we cut Russia off the dollar markets. If we measure the Russian economy in terms of purchasing power parity - bang for buck - we find a completely different picture. On PPP terms, Russia is larger than Germany, and China is larger than the US.

So what are the options now? The first and most important step for the west to take right now is to ditch the idea of total victory, and start thinking about non-binary war goals. Western leaders cannot deliver unconditional commitments beyond their term in office. We see this in the US right now. Joe Biden over-promised.

A realistic first goal should be to help Ukraine stop the advance of the Russian army. Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, is potentially vulnerable to a Russian insurgence - or at least the eastern parts of the Kharkiv oblast. In other words, the west should switch its support to help Ukraine fight a defensive war, and shift supplies accordingly. The ultimate long-term goal should be to get to a point in which both sides realise they have more to gain by cutting a deal. We are not at that point now. 

When this war ends, the military front-line will become the new frontier between Ukraine and Russia. I would expect it to be within half the width of a Ukrainian oblast to the left or the right of the current battle line. Western Ukraine would become part of Nato and, eventually, the EU. The new frontline would become part of Nato's operational frontier for the purposes of Article 5, its collective defence clause. If Russia crossed that line, it would be at war with Nato. 

This would still be an ambitious goal. It would require more military and financial support than what the west is currently delivering - but focused on defence. In that scenario, the Taurus cruise missiles would probably not make the top three list.

The political reality in the west is that political support for Ukraine aid is falling. In Germany barely half of the population supports weapon deliveries according to a recent poll. In Italy, support is even lower. With the return of fiscal austerity, support for Ukraine is starting to compete with domestic policies. You might call the Congressional Republicans irresponsible. But they would not be doing this if a large majority of the US electorate supported Ukraine. 

Ideally, we would not start from here. When total victory is no longer a realistic option, the second-best outcome is to avoid  defeat. It would be a worthwhile goal, but unfortunately less suited to the politics of virtue-signalling and photo-ops with Volodymyr Zelenski that our own special military operation has degenerated into.

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