When Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke in Warsaw and Moscow on Tuesday, the gulf between Russia and the west and its allies stretched a little further. Yet at the heart of two starkly different speeches lay a shared assumption: that this war will not end soon.
The Russian president assumed it would be over in days when he launched his brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago on Friday. He was hardly alone. The courage and resolve of Ukrainians, and the rush of support from the west and its allies, was remarkable. Each day that Ukraine fended off defeat counted as a victory. Yet the parameters have shifted. In a war of attrition, time is usually on the aggressor’s side. Millions have been forced to flee their country. More than 7,000 civilians have died, hundreds of them children, and the US estimates that there have been well over 100,000 Ukrainian military casualties. The economy and critical infrastructure are devastated and key resources lie under Russian control. Each Russian war crime has reinforced the Ukrainian understanding that this is an existential struggle, and the fear that a negotiated settlement at this stage would simply be an opportunity for Mr Putin to restock and prepare for a renewed assault.
But Russia failed in its lightning strike and then lost land it had grabbed to Ukrainian counteroffensives. Mr Putin has united Ukrainians, brought the US back to Europe, strengthened European unity, revivified and expanded Nato, and cost his country dearly in economic, military and human terms, with tens of thousands of Russian soldiers killed. Yet sanctions have not been as punishing as hoped, and an autocrat is not answerable as democratic leaders are. With propaganda and political repression to promote his alternative reality, support for the war and the president remains high within Russia. And while Ukraine battles the Russian military, Russia is targeting Ukraine in its entirety.
Mr Putin’s suspension of the New Start nuclear arms control treaty is a worrying step, though the US had already said Russia was not complying with its terms and the war economy is currently struggling to produce enough conventional weaponry. Though the treaty covers strategic rather than tactical nuclear capacity, the announcement served to underscore concerns about Moscow’s potential use of nuclear weapons. The danger of escalation is no less real than in the early days of this conflict. The extraordinary consumption of ammunition has led only to a scramble to increase production. The US has already highlighted its concerns that China will supply arms. The west hesitated before providing medium-range rocket systems and then tanks; now there is discussion of whether it should supply fighter jets. It is unquestionably essential that countries expedite the support they have already promised; half the financial aid pledged has yet to materialise. Better cooperation is also needed between allies to overcome logistical issues.
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Mr Putin’s assumption that western resolve will soon fade has yet to be realised – as Mr Biden’s trip to Kyiv and declaration of continued support demonstrated this week. Though there is growing discussion in the US of what the end might look like, and more concern about what the 2024 election could mean for support, the administration seeks a durable peace. Ukrainians, more than anyone, want this war to end. But the conflict’s vast costs have yet to reach the stage where they point towards swifter resolution of the war instead of its perpetuation.
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