US push for Ukraine ‘victory’ raises the stakes for Russia

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President Biden’s request for an additional $20 billion in military aid is intended to equip Ukraine for the next five months of war. It’s part of a larger mission to make sure “they have what they need to win this war,” an administration official told reporters.

The other side: As Western aid and ambitions grow, the Kremlin and its state media mouthpieces are increasingly presenting the ‘special operation’ in the Donbass as an existential battle against NATO – and pointing out that they would rather escalate dramatically than lose it.

State of play: With peace talks stalled and a wider array of weapons arriving in Ukraine, some Western officials are now openly pinning their hopes on a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield.

  • British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss vowed on Wednesday to “keep going further and faster to drive Russia out of all of Ukraine”.
  • This would require kyiv not only to block the current Russian advance, but to push Russia out of Donbass and even Crimea (the latter does not currently appear to be in kyiv’s crosshairs).
  • His remarks followed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s statement that the United States “wants to see Russia weakened to such a degree that it cannot do the kinds of things it did by invading the Ukraine”. Austin also said Ukraine could win the war “with the right equipment”.

Yes, but: Some European allies are much more cautious. (Notwithstanding Germany’s belated promise of heavy weapons for Ukraine.)

  • A European official told Axios that while more aid to Ukraine is imperative, everything must also be done to preserve the possibility of a diplomatic solution.

While Putin showed no interest in the ways out, it is currently difficult to imagine that this war ends either with the outright victory of Moscow, or with its surrender.

  • Even if Russia continues to make territorial gains, the war will not necessarily end if and when Moscow declares victory in Donbass, Remarks Michael Kofman, one of the top Russian military experts at the NAC.
  • “The correlation of forces will gradually shift into Ukraine’s favour” as Western weapons continue to flow and the Russian military exhausts its own offensive capabilities, he says.

If Putin starts to think he’s losing war to “peacetime force”, says Kofman, “he may have to declare a real state of war and decree a national mobilization”.

  • Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, argue in a new report that Putin is likely to do just that, possibly during VE Day commemorations on May 9.
  • This could provide hundreds of thousands of fresh soldiers who will need training but could certainly prolong the war.

Russian officials stressed that they are fighting not only Ukraine, but all of NATO.

  • Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that in such a “proxy” conflict, the risk of nuclear war “should not be underestimated”.
  • Putin himself warned on Wednesday that outside actors who “create strategic threats to Russia” will face “lightning-fast” retaliation.
  • One of the Pentagon’s concerns is that Russia could hit Western arms supplies to Ukraine, potentially on NATO soil.

The change was particularly noticeable on state television.

  • Margarita Simonyan, Head of RT mentioned that if it was a choice between losing in Ukraine or starting World War III, “I think World War III is more realistic, knowing us, knowing our leader Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”
  • Even a nuclear war is more likely than a defeat in Ukraine, she added, to which host Vladimir Solovyov replied: “But we’ll go to heaven, and they’ll just croak.”

The bottom line: Like RAND’s Mike Mazarr Remarksit will become increasingly difficult for the United States and NATO to maintain the “balance” of giving Ukraine the tools to win “without courting a larger war”.

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