24 February 2023 was one year of the War in Ukraine, at least since Europe started counting. I was sitting at the Clubhouse, drinking a beer, writing the first page of my MA thesis, and watching the news thinking “this is bad, this is so bad, this is very bad”. I still think that but thankfully my thoughts are more articulate now. That is why with this occasion I decided to take a look at the new NATO strategy and at Biden and Putin's public speeches.
A year after the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, NATO wants to adopt a different strategy along its borders. The change regards a deterrence mechanism based on the advanced defence of Eastern Europe, with battalions of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, vehicles and logistical support, stationed along the entire Europe-Russia border. NATO wants to discourage any Russian coup de main, and stop it with weapons if Moscow decides to take the risk. For this purpose, the allied forces have been deeply restructured. Armies will not be limited to border surveillance, there will be an increase of 300,000 soldiers always on the alert, ready to engage in a long, large-scale, high-intensity conflict against an enemy of Russian dimensions and characteristics. They will invest in heavier vehicles, more powerful weapons, more effective defences, and a general upgrading of strategies after three decades of operations against terrorists and guerrillas.
These changes are intended to deter Russia from such a conflict, and to win it if it is started. To date, in the conflict in Ukraine, the numbers of casualties, vehicles and ammunition used have already reached levels unprecedented in Europe since 1945. It is therefore necessary to invest in spare equipment, spare parts, ammunition and stocks. Although defence budgets are increasing in Europe, resources are still limited compared to the needs and a new balance will have to be found between advanced and expensive equipment, and abundant and cheap ones, in order to be able to face a long and devastating conflict with Russia.
Why should we be sceptical about all these investments? Because history teaches us that when there is a massive investment in weaponry there is actually a move towards armed conflict. The larger the investment, the more devastating the conflict will be.
In recent days, both Putin and Biden have given public speeches, which I would like to briefly compare. For better or for worse, neither of them added anything significant. Putin kept talking about a special military operation, avoiding admitting that Russia and Ukraine are actually at war, as if massive new mobilisations were not on the agenda. He also did not announce any new offensive. However, he implicitly admitted that the conflict will still be long. He recalled the power of Russia's nuclear arsenal and threatened new nuclear tests. But he also confirmed that he would continue the practice of No First Use. The only 'news', he announced, was the suspension of Russia's participation in the New Start Treaty on the limitation of nuclear warheads. An announcement that was later scaled down by the clarification that Russia would nevertheless continue to comply with the limits on the number of warheads permitted by that Treaty, with the difference that it will now no longer allow inspections (which have in fact already been suspended for two years) at its sites.
On the other hand, Biden, first in Kyiv and then in Warsaw, wanted above all to confirm his absolute support for Ukraine, on behalf of the US but also implicitly on behalf of the entire front of like-minded countries, NATO and otherwise, aligned on this line. This support is aimed firstly at defending Ukraine, and secondly at regaining the formally former Ukrainian territories occupied by Russian forces. Biden has made it clear that support will continue as long as necessary, because what is at stake, the defence of the values of freedom and democracy, is too important for hesitation or second thoughts. Unfortunately, on the diplomatic front, there has been no openness about starting a dialogue, perhaps because circumstances do not allow it.
I would like to conclude by throwing my eye over the border to look, as I usually do, at the Russian internal situation. During his speech Putin devoted a lot of space to Russian successes, for the economy has resisted sanctions, and spoke of new welfare promises, with an increase in the minimum wage and the establishment of a social fund for the military. It is unclear with what money the Kremlin will be able to finance all this, given that in February Russian government spending exceeded revenues by 600%, with an unprecedented deficit. On the other hand, Putin also sent messages of détente: he promised not to take measures against Russians who escaped from his regime, surprising Duma members who were competing to suggest punishments ranging from confiscation of goods at home to imprisonment for treason. And he assured that the elections, both of government and presidential, will be held on schedule, respectively in 2023 and 2024. This might mean that their winner is probably already decided (I am open to betting with anyone who thinks it will not be the case).
Putin's speech was as long-winded as it was contradictory, alternating between threats and proclamations, seeming to convince all Duma members that Putin has no plan A, much less a plan B, and is trying to come out of this with as little damage as possible - between the physical impossibility of winning in Ukraine and that of retracing his steps, which could effectively mark the end of his authority (which paradoxically may not be true: the Russians, meant as the nomenclature as well as the people, are so frightened and overwhelmed by a war that is moving towards disaster, that they are probably ready to cheer whoever takes them back to at least 23rd February of the last year).
On the contrary, it is the war that is accelerating the regime's disintegration (remember that Putin had timidly begun to speak of peace after the conquest of the Donbass in September), and the now explicit clash between Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenaries, and the Ministry of Defence is clearly demonstrating this. A retreat could postpone the outcome of this internal fight, losing the repressive resources that Putin could use against his critics, and losing the economic ones that would serve to buy back the population's consensus. In the hope of an end to the conflict, China is playing an increasingly important role. It is hoped that the Russian president has discussed with Wang Yi, the head of diplomacy of the Chinese Communist Party, about a possible backtrack. While waiting to find out what the Chinese peace plan consists of, the doubt arises that Xi Jinping is responding in this way to Washington's exhortations to take a stand against Moscow.