Picture credit: Contributor/Getty Images
Artillery Row

How the war in Gaza has emboldened Vladimir Putin

Ukraine is struggling and the West is distracted

At the end of a year so stained with the blood and tears of war, from Khan Yunis to Kiev, it was sobering to see the contrast in the political and military postures of the two leaders slugging it out for control of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky. Even more so to recognise how the war in the Middle East has begun to help Russia’s dictator.

Putin may be an indicted war criminal, but the spring in his step as he flew abroad for the first time in months, to the UAE and then Saudi Arabia, spoke loudly to his sense of being invulnerable after a year when he seemed exactly the opposite — never more so than after the rebellion of the militia he created, the Wagner Group, back in the summer.

As chutzpah goes, it was hard to beat the cheek of the Russian leader disembarking from his Ilyushin-96, flanked by fighter jets, and casting himself as a peacemaker in the Middle East. A leader with “open lines” to the Israelis and the Palestinians he called himself, first with Prince Mohamed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, then with Iran’s President Raisi, who was waiting for him when he returned to Moscow. Never forget that, in terms of regional power plays, Putin saved Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad during that country’s civil war, creating the military template in a land on Israel’s border for his later occupation of Ukraine (as I’ve written here).

Putin also got some business done in the Gulf — pushing his friends in the Middle East to keep the oil price high and so maintain the value of his own when he sells it abroad. Such trade is essential as he boosts his defence budget in Moscow to 30 percent of GDP, a number not seen since Soviet days, all part of his campaign to win the war and re-election. Not by chance did Russia announce a Presidential election, in March next year, as Putin returned to the Kremlin, his victory a formality it seems. Self-belief writ large. 

What a difference in the body language of Ukraine’s Zelensky

What a difference in the body language of Ukraine’s Zelensky. Just a year ago he was applauded to the rafters by the entire US Congress in Washington DC, as I noted in these pages. Now he has returned, at the behest of Joe Biden, to plead in person for a $60bn aid package for his country, blocked by Republican Party opposition.

Zelensky and Ukraine face a 2024 without the wherewithal — economically and militarily — to face Putin’s relentless determination to defend, occupy and expand his substantial slice of Ukraine, now amounting to almost 20 percent of the country. The White House did not mince its words in decrying the Republican Senators who voted to block the aid package to Kiev, accusing them of “knee-capping” Zelensky’s Government. “If Ukraine’s economy collapses, they will not be able to keep fighting, full stop,” the Biden team declared.

What’s the backstory here ? Well, firstly, there’s military realpolitik at work at the end of this year. Ukraine’s much-anticipated, much-vaunted offensive made little progress, raising the temperature in Washington and European capitals about taxpayers funding a never-ending, costly stalemate. Russia’s counterattacks may have accomplished little, but their multi-layered defence lines, and Putin’s willingness to use conscripts as cannon-fodder, meant his army did not buckle, even as the West armed and trained the Ukrainians.

At the same time, in the final quarter of the year, Russia expanded air strikes while boosting domestic production of ammunition and missiles. Witness the use of cruise missiles aimed at Kiev for the first time in months in early December. Putin’s forces have been helped by significant material support from North Korea and Iran, which has been supplying drones.

As importantly, Putin can celebrate the fallout from Israel’s war with Hamas, and its invasion of Gaza, with the 24/7 focus on what’s happening in the likes of Khan Yunis, Jabalia and Rafah. To put it mildly, the United States and Europe have been heavily distracted by the war in the Holy Land. To make matters worse, Washington and the Europeans don’t agree on the Middle East conflict. “The danger of disagreement with Paris, and Brussels, and Berlin, over handling Israel, the danger is that it spills over into how best to help Ukraine,” in the words of one of President Biden’s Task Force handling the conflicts. 

The impact is seen and heard on the front lines in Eastern Ukraine: Western aid that might have gone to Kiev is now sharing space with support for Israel and humanitarian help to the Palestinians. “We took American aid for granted, that was inevitable, we thought,” said one Ukrainian commander, barely able to conceal his anger as he spoke to US Television. “No more, it seems, is such aid inevitable. We are no longer number one.” The morale of Zelensky’s army is said to be lower than at any time since Putin’s invasion began.

At the Biden White House, they end the year still publicly bullish about helping Ukraine, believing that a serious portion of that $60bn aid package will pass early in 2024. Yet their broader thinking, to cajole Zelensky to the negotiating table at some point, is going nowhere, with Ukraine’s leader in no position to offer captured land when tens of thousands of his people have died defending it. All the while, not so quietly, European leaders warn Zelensky that time is not on his side, given the chances of Donald Trump returning to power next year with the message that the US taxpayer has had enough of financing Ukraine’s defence. 

The dilemma for the West, as a New Year of such variables looms, stares us in the face. Whether to double down on arming, and financing, Ukraine’s resistance to Russia, or seek negotiations, especially given the commitments elsewhere, on that new front of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Clearly, the simultaneous threat and promise of raising the prospect of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO and the EU looks increasingly shallow, if not a tad duplicitous, when you ponder the patent unwillingness of many within NATO to go to war for Ukraine, literally, if Putin doesn’t back off.

There’s the bitter pill to be swallowed as this year of blood ends with intractable conflict, producing death and destruction by the day, in Europe and the Middle East. Vladimir Putin is “sitting comfortably,” to quote that White House adviser, under no pressure to consider negotiations. Instead, he is surveying his options, plotting to be Russian President as long as he lives, and still capable of mayhem well beyond Russia’s borders.

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