With Russia cornered, next steps in Ukraine’s war are anyone’s guess

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Russia’s war in Ukraine proved nearly all assumptions about the conflict wrong. Now, Europe is wondering what can still happen.

The invasion, which began in February 2022, managed to scare in every way.

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It scared off anyone who thought the Russian government wasn’t crazy enough to attempt such a massive and mindless undertaking; and it scared off anyone who felt that the Russian military would walk easy on a land of 40 million people and switch to “clearing operations” within ten days.

It also astounded anyone who thought they had the intelligence and technical ability to do more than just randomly bombard civilian areas with aging artillery; that the Kremlin military had evolved after Grozny, Chechnya, in the 1990s.

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And, finally, it astonished those who felt that the nuclear saber strike would be a paradox in the middle of 2022 – that is, that it would not be possible to threaten others with nuclear weapons, as the destruction would be complete for everyone on the planet. That’s not what happened.

Still, as 2022 falls behind, Europe has to deal with a set of unknowns that are now familiar, but unimaginable just a year ago.

To recap: a military force once considered the third most powerful in the world has invaded the neighboring (and much smaller) country, which a year ago excelled mainly in information technology and agriculture.

Russia apparently spent billions of dollars modernizing its war apparatus, but it was later learned that, in large part, it was all a farce.

It turned out that their supply chains do not work within a few dozen kilometers of their own borders and that their assessment of Ukraine as desperate to be freed from its own “Nazism” is a distorted idea of ​​​​the minions who fed a president (Vladimir Putin ), with what he wanted to hear in the isolation of the pandemic.

Russia also found a West that, far from divided and reticent, was happy to ship some of its munitions to the eastern frontier.

Western officials may also have been surprised that Russia’s lines seem to shift constantly as Moscow realizes how limited its non-nuclear options are. None of this should be happening.

So, what has Europe been doing and how has it been preparing for this scenario?

The key is the unexpected level of unity the West has shown.

Though divided over Iraq, undecided on Syria, and only partially willing to spend the 2% of GDP on security that the United States has long demanded of NATO members, Europe and the US have been singing in unison about the Ukraine. On occasions, the US government has been tough.

Also some autocratic countries, like Hungary, differed from the others, but the change is due to unity, not disparity. It’s a surprise.

But claims that Russia has already lost the war remain premature.

There are variables that could still lead to an impasse in your favor, or even to a change of course.

NATO may lose patience or courage over arms transfers and seek long-term economic convenience, pushing for an unfavorable peace for Ukraine. But that, at this point, seems unlikely.

Russia is strongest on the east side of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine and has the advantage that the front lines in Donetsk and Luhansk in the east are closer to its border.

However, its challenges are immense: poorly trained and forcibly recruited people make up 77,000 of its frontline men – and that’s in line with Putin’s positive assessment.

The country has been struggling for ammunition and suffering from constant domestic and open criticism over its winter supply chain.

Ukraine is in the homeland, morale is still high, and Western weapons keep coming.

Since the collapse of Moscow forces around the northeastern city of Kharkiv in September (where their supply lines were cut off by a smarter Ukrainian force), the momentum has been against Moscow.

The prospect of a Russian defeat is in the bigger picture: the country that did not win quickly against an inferior opponent.

Russian state TV commentators talked about the need to “take off the gloves”, ie get your hands dirty, after Kharkiv – as if they weren’t already doing that.

After being revealed as a paper tiger, the Russian military will struggle for decades to regain the appearance of status on an equal footing with NATO.

This is perhaps the biggest damage to the Kremlin: the years of effort spent rebuilding Russia’s reputation as a smart, asymmetrical enemy with conventional forces to back it up evaporated in about six months of mismanagement.

The issue of nuclear force still remains, especially since Putin regularly likes to invoke it. But even that Russian threat has been diminished.

First, NATO has been sending unequivocal signals of the conventional devastation that Russian forces would suffer if any form of nuclear device were used.

Second, Russia’s peacetime allies India and China quickly assessed their losing streak and publicly urged Moscow’s nuclear rhetoric — and their private messages were probably more ferocious.

Finally, the government is left with a question that nobody wants to know the answer to: if their supply chains from diesel to tanks 40 kilometers from the border don’t work, how can they be sure the nuke button will work, if Putin is crazy enough to push it?

There is no greater danger to nuclear power than to reveal that its strategic missiles and retaliatory capabilities do not work.

Despite Russia’s palpable decline, Europe may not remain welcoming in an era of heightened security.

Calls for higher defense spending are more frequent and also more heeded, even if they come at a time when Russia (for decades the “defining issue” of European security) is proving less of a threat.

Europe is realizing that it cannot depend on the United States – and its crazy swings between political poles – just for its security.

Meanwhile, thousands of innocent Ukrainians die in Putin’s selfish and misguided attempt to revive a Tsarist empire. More broadly, authoritarianism has been exposed as a disastrous system for waging wars of choice.

However, something good came out of the disaster.

Europe knows that it must immediately abandon its dependence on Russian gas, and on hydrocarbons in general in the long term, since economic dependence on fossil fuels from dictators cannot bring long-term stability.

So how does the West deal with a Russia that has suffered this colossal humiliation in Ukraine and is slowly shrinking economically because of sanctions?

Is a weak Russia something to be feared, or is it just weak? It is a dilemma the West must grapple with. But it is no longer such a terrible question.

For over 70 years, the Russians and the West have kept the world in suspense for the sake of controlling mutually assured destruction. It was a peace based on fear.

But the fear of the Russians is beginning to fade, and with it comes the risk of miscalculations.

The situation also reveals a less chilling prospect: that Russia – like many autocracies before it – may be fading away, undermined by its own clumsy dependence on fear stoked within the country.

Europe’s challenge now is to deal with Russia in a state of chaotic denial, while it is expected to evolve into a state of controlled decline.

Lasting comfort can come if, after underestimating Moscow’s potential for evil, Europe exaggerates its potential as a threat.

Source: CNN Brasil

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