In this fourth week of the war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin still insists on calling a limited military operation, hope for a ceasefire is rising slightly.
As of Thursday morning, the contacts between the sides had apparently yet to produce a genuine breakthrough. In the meantime, the daily intelligence update of the British Defense Ministry, one of the more reliable sources about the status of the war, asserts,
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has largely stalled on all fronts. Russian forces have made minimal progress on land, sea or air in recent days and they continue to suffer heavy losses. Ukrainian resistance remains staunch and well-coordinated. The vast majority of Ukrainian territory, including all major cities, remains in Ukrainian hands.”
The invasion of Ukraine, and in particular its consequences – the staying power of the nation that is under attack, the relatively determined posture being displayed by the West against the Russians – is emerging as a crucial global turning point, the second within two years (following the coronavirus pandemic). The developments on the ground took most of the experts by surprise and will undoubtedly be studied in military schools. But there is also a potential for strategic shifts in the relations between the powers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin took a large gamble which in the meantime has not paid off.
Despite the clear-cut military advantage of his forces, he might find himself in a new Afghanistan, on European soil.
Getting mired in the Ukrainian mud will create a damper on Russia’s relations with the West for years to come.
Whereas the United States, and from the other side, China, are treating the war in Ukraine as a trial front in which the global balance of forces is being reexamined, ahead of a possible head-on confrontation between the two countries in the coming decade.
This is not Putin’s first gamble. In the past, risk-taking proved beneficial to him, even when he held a poor hand. The West responded with condemnations and a shrug of the shoulders to Russian military aggression in Georgia (2008) and in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (2014), without being able to induce Putin to change course.
The Russian president upped the ante in the fall of 2015 when he decided to place two squadrons of warplanes at the disposal of the Assad regime, an intervention which ultimately decided the outcome of the civil war in favor of the Syrian dictator.
With these moves, Putin once more placed his country on the world stage as a power to be reckoned with, despite its obvious economic weakness. Still, the Ukrainian foray could turn out to be a bridge too far for Putin.
On Wednesday, Neri Zilber, an estimable journalist based in Israel, published a surprising report in the British newspaper Financial Times.
According to Zilber, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is the main international mediator in the contacts between Russia and Ukraine.
On the agenda is a 15-point plan for ending the war, which entails major concessions by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but which could spare his country further destruction by Russian artillery and aircraft.
In the background, senior figures in Washington remain extremely suspicious about the Israeli moves, which in addition to trying to spotlight novice statesman Bennett in the international arena, is also apparently an effort to ease the pressure on Jerusalem to fully join the world sanctions being spearheaded by Washington against Moscow.
Victoria Nuland, the U.S. State Department’s under-secretary for public affairs, didn’t mince words in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 this week. “You don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money that’s fueling Putin’s wars,” she said, meaning Israel.
In the background, beyond the sanctions, is the lenient approach Israel has shown toward Jewish oligarchs from Russia over the years.
While Roman Abramovich, who is widely said to be close to Putin, is apparently being compelled to forgo his holdings in Britain, including ownership of the Chelsea soccer club, we haven’t heard of any restrictions that Israel has placed on Abramovich, an Israeli citizen who, it emerged this week, also succeeded in getting a Portuguese passport by devious means.
The Russians, an experienced Israeli observer said this week, still have time.
It’s true that their military moves have encountered surprising Ukrainian resistance and broad international sanctions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Putin has abandoned his military plans. It’s actually possible that being pushed into a corner will obligate him, in his own perception, to continue to pulverize the cities in the north, east and south of Ukraine, until he chalks up a significant achievement.
Russia doesn’t believe in a lightning military offensive. It continues to behave like a power that still has all the time it needs.
The sanctions were expected (even if they’re sharper than initially appeared), no one is firing rockets at Russian citizens in their homes, and from Putin’s perspective, the diplomatic clock will tick at the speed he tells it to click. Russia is still looking for a way to occupy territory and assets of sufficient import in Ukraine in order to send a message about its determination, to change the momentum in its favor and gradually to bring about attrition on the Ukrainian side and a loss of interest by the West.
In the Middle East there are as yet no signs of a shift in Russian policy stemming from the war in Ukraine. Israel continues to attack in Syria, according to foreign media reports. The apparatus for preventing friction between Israel and the Russian forces in Syria, whereby the Russians are notified in advance in order to avoid casualties among their personnel, is working well.
Meanwhile, the United States reduced the scope of the annual defense maneuvers with Israel (“Juniper Cobra”) because its European Command (EUCOM) needs to focus on the events in Ukraine.
The logistical elements of the exercise, which include the opening of American emergency depots, will proceed as scheduled, but this year there will be no joint deployment of missile intercept systems.
It’s already clear to Israel that the unfolding campaign in Ukraine will affect it in a number of ways.
Although there is a large disparity between Israeli democracy and Russian autocracy (which is gradually returning to a totalitarian regime), in Israel, too, the decisions were made by one leader over the years.
If we return for a moment to the period of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership, all the major decisions – the pressure on the United States to withdraw from the nuclear accord, the attempt to annex the settlements via the “deal of the century,” the Abraham Accords with the Emirates and Bahrain, even the deal involving the submarines and other vessels – were made in practice by one person, without any real supervisory mechanism.
That state of affairs, in which the other governmental authorities are enfeebled, heightens the danger of a miscalculation that in some cases is liable to end with a strategic disaster.
At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities between urban combat in Ukraine and combat that could develop in the Gaza Strip or southern Lebanon.
In an era of information wars and a growing involvement with the social media, Israel might have less time at its disposal than it did in the past to execute military plans before world opinion turns against it.
The political decision makers and the military hierarchy can also be expected to discuss extensively the implications of building the IDF’s ground forces.
Is the state leaving sufficiently broad security margins in the event that Israel becomes embroiled in a large-scale, unexpected war in the years ahead?
Source: Amos Harel – HAARETZ