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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Is It the Right Time for Putin to Retreat?

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia, fueled by NATO expansion concerns, has led to exhaustion on both sides, with negotiations potentially resulting in a neutral Ukraine.

It has been more than two years, and Ukraine has lost thousands of its soldiers along with civilians, as did Russia; millions have fled the country, and defense is consuming all of its budgets at the moment. Soldiers on both sides are slowly but gradually becoming exhausted. Ukraine is running short of personnel who can sustain itself at the forefront. Russia has the advantage of having more personnel than Ukraine, so it can still bear this war for at least three to four years. NATO is determined to make Ukraine a member, while Russia is keen to make Ukraine neutral, non-aligned, and non-nuclear.

Whether it was in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, in 2014, when Crimea was annexed, or in 2022, when Russia rammed into Ukraine, the common account that triggered the war all the time was the mutual distrust embroiled in the conception of NATO expansion. Russia perceives NATO enlargement as an existential threat to its sovereignty. It gets Ukrainian entry into NATO as America’s “wild dream” of turning Ukraine into a “Western bulwark” at Russian doorsteps. “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all the red lines for the Russian elite, not just Putin, “the then-American ambassador to Russia and now CIA chief William John wrote in his memo to the US Secretary of State in 2008.

NATO’s annual summit in Brussels in 2021 explicitly stated in Point 9 of the Communique, “We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan.” Now, it’s 2024, and NATO is still hopeful and determined to incorporate Ukraine. NATO chief Stoltenberg reasserted, “We will support Ukraine with the systems and the weapons and ammunition they need to prevail as a sovereign, independent country because we cannot allow President Putin to win in Ukraine. That would be a tragedy for the Ukrainians and dangerous for all of us.”

NATO has somehow convinced the West that if Ukraine is annexed or left neutral, Russia will not stop there, and the whole of Europe will be at the mercy of Russia. But Putin sees the dynamics quite the opposite way. The rationale behind Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and he is still sticking to that, appeared to be envisaged in the assumption that this would ring alarm bells in NATO and that its further enlargement would be halted. In one of his interviews with Tucker, when Putin was asked whether Russia would invade Poland, he replied, “Only in one case, if Poland attacks Russia. Why? Because we have no interest in Poland, Latvia, or anywhere else. Why would we do that? We don’t have any interest.”

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NATO’s obsession with Ukraine, which is often portrayed as containment of Russia in moving westward, is not that simple. The point that NATO wants to achieve here is to preserve its existence, and that’s the point Putin failed to understand. Since NATO was formed in 1949, its objective was to detain Russia. In this day and age, Russia would never risk stepping into a war with NATO by expanding Westwards. Rather, Russia is severely trapped here; most of the countries around Russia, except Belarus and Ukraine, have become part of NATO.

What Putin was aiming to achieve at the Eva of the war to stop NATO from sitting next to Russia has failed. NATO has gained more than Russia seems to have achieved. In 2023, Finland and Norway joined NATO, while Sweden recently became its official member. NATO is enhancing its deployment in the region as it has just begun its Operation Defender, consisting of about 90000 NATO troops, taking part in military exercises across Europe, signaling to Russia that NATO is here. Its first demonstration was in a joint military exercise among Norway, Sweden, and Finland, where about 20000 troops participated.

What we are witnessing here is that NATO and Russia are aware that a win-win situation is impossible for any side. Neither Russia can take full control of Ukraine nor does Ukraine, with all the help of NATO, can defeat Russia. The real problem is that a great deal has modified the war objectives. NATO, hopeful of Ukrainian entry at that time, is looking to nail more punches by surrounding Russia as it has been quite successful in doing so. Putin seems to be stunned by the aforementioned developments. His strategy was Ukraine-oriented, negating the effects of his invasion on the other neighborhood states. Now, at this moment, Putin and his team would be pondering over the next possible options, entangled in the spectrum where they cannot let Ukraine go unfettered, nor can they take full control.

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“I will tell you what we are saying on this matter and what we convey to the US leadership. If you want to stop fighting, you need to stop supplying weapons,” said Putin. He is true somehow while saying this as since the start of this war, the West has provided Ukraine with an abundance of ammunition and aid, tells the hard truth of the Ukrainian position in the war, that it will linger as long as fueled by West, and will collapse in the very second the aid button is turned off.

With NATO achieving all of its major goals, letting Ukraine neutral might not be a bad deal. With Trump likely to become the President of the US for the second time, his intentions about NATO and its budget distribution are not very welcoming for NATO. So, in the upcoming days, what we will witness is a peace deal where Ukraine will be left Neutral, and Russia will also have to withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory.

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At the end of the war, Russia might get a neutral Ukraine, and Putin will be brave enough to celebrate this, as he did while flexing over the minor captures of Ukrainian territory at the start of the war. But as a President, he will surely be questioning the strategic error he made when he invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Fahad Ameer Shah is an assistant editor with GVS. His articles have appeared in The Express Tribune and The Friday Times.