Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing the Russian people for a long war in Ukraine, not exempt from the risk that the conflict could turn into a nuclear crisis, as the president himself has acknowledged. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, for his part, affirms that the Atlantic Alliance will support Ukraine in the hope that it will eventually prevail on the battlefield and decide where and when these peace talks will be held. And the Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski, ventures that the war will end in 2023 and for this he demands more weapons from NATO.
In speeches, Putin and Stoltenberg have made it clear that all the rumors spread these weeks about eventual negotiations are still a long way from materializing and should be left in the wish box for now. Such versions had come mainly from the United States, where the Republican Party, which will take control of the House of Representatives in January, after the results of the legislative elections in November, is not very convinced of the unlimited commitment that it is giving Washington to Ukraine.
Stoltenberg, in an interview with Roula Khalaf, editor of the Financial Times, has also come out against the position of some European leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who had once again recommended an “exit” for Putin in the event of forming that negotiating table.
NATO believes that the battlefield will decide peace
“Most wars, and surely this war itself, ends at the negotiating table. But we know that what happens around that table absolutely depends on the situation on the battlefield. If you want an outcome from those negotiations to ensure Ukraine remains a sovereign and independent nation, we need to provide Ukraine with military support,” Stoltenberg said.
Moscow is betting on taking advantage of the rigors of the Ukrainian winter to recover its exhausted army and better equip its units, now entrenched to safeguard the occupied territory in Ukraine. According to Stoltenberg, the Kremlin “is trying to freeze the conflict” during the winter of 2022-2023, in order to “regroup and launch a larger offensive later (in spring 2023), since the momentum is now in Ukraine.”
This alleged Ukrainian advantage is not shared by Putin, for whom Russia “has already achieved significant results” with the “special military operation”, as the Kremlin euphemistically calls the invasion of Ukraine. Speaking this week to Russia’s Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, Putin acknowledged that this campaign is “a long process”, although some of the positive results for Russia are now being seen, including they “the appearance of new territories” and other geostrategic successes such as the fact that “the Azov Sea has become an inland sea of Russia,” according to the Russian president.
Russia will not be the first to use nuclear weapons
Putin has referred to atomic weapons and has said that it is not in his will to be the first to use them. “We have not gone crazy. We know what nuclear weapons are,” said the Russian president, for whom this type of weapon is an element of “deterrence” or “retaliation.” And he has added: “we have these means and they are more advanced and in better condition than those of any other nuclear country. It is obvious.”
However, he has recalled the warning that the Kremlin has been playing with since it unleashed the invasion of Ukraine on February 24: “the threat of a nuclear war is growing” and the allies of the Kiev government are to blame. In any case, Putin has been blunt and has said that Russia will use “all means at its disposal to fight.”
Putin’s warning about the interference of the United States and NATO in Ukraine has been reiterated this Thursday by the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Riabkov. In an interview with the Rossiya-24 channel of Russian television, Riabkov has indicated that “the direct involvement” of the countries of the Atlantic Alliance in the conflict in Ukraine “is increasing”, in a “much more diversified way than a few years ago months”, with weapons “increasingly heavy and far-reaching”. It is a policy intended to produce “an escalation” of the conflict. “They are playing with fire. The risks are very high,” he warned.
Zelensky believes that the war will end in 2023
Precisely, Zelensky trusts that the new consignments of European and American weapons will make it possible to disrupt the Russian strategy of entrenchment for the winter and, through missile systems such as the HIMARS attack or the defensive NASAMS, force the Kremlin to withdraw from Ukraine, something that Moscow considers unaffordable.
In a video statement to the Politico website, Zelenski has predicted, somewhat voluntaristically, that the war will end in 2023, since “the Ukrainian military, which protects us all from the battlefield, is the champion.” And he enthusiastically adds that “Ukrainians will also be the most influential next year, but already in peacetime.”
In his interview, the NATO Secretary General insisted on Brussels’ commitment to continue supplying Ukraine with offensive and defensive material in order to tip the balance in Kiev’s favor in the event of eventual negotiations, which will take place, he reiterates, when the Ukrainians decide to start them.
“The more we want a peaceful solution, the more urgent it is that we provide Ukraine with military support,” according to Stoltenberg. And he has added that the goal is to create the conditions for a lasting and just peace in Ukraine, which will only happen with the defeat of Moscow.
The war started in 2014, according to Putin and Stoltenberg
Both Putin and Stoltenberg have agreed on a crucial point to understand the conflict: the confrontation between NATO and Russia over Ukraine did not start in February. This war began in 2014. According to the Russian president, with the interference of NATO in a “coup d’état” that would lead to the departure of the pro-Russian government of then President Víctor Yanukovych.
For the NATO Secretary General, the war began in 2014 after those events and the so-called revolution in Maidan Square, in Kiev, due to the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, in February of that same year, and for Moscow’s support for the secessionist forces in the Donbass region, where today a large part of the Russian army deployed in Ukraine is concentrated, in support of the Russian-speaking majority that inhabits the territories of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Bakhmut, the focus of the horror of the Ukrainian war
It is in this region of Donbas where the toughest fighting has been taking place for months and where none of the contenders has just prevailed over the other. Military and civilian casualties are heavy and the approaching winter helps to maintain positions, but also makes it more difficult for military units and villages isolated by the war to survive and supply themselves.
The battle for the city of Bakhmut, currently in Ukrainian hands, has become the most terrible example of the conflict, with more than a hundred daily deaths for each of the sides and with war scenes of mud, bombardments, broken trees and desolation. The surroundings of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, are reminiscent of the front line of World War I, with entrenched troops and heavy artillery doing most of the destruction work. A video from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense compares, in this sense, the battle of Bakhmut with that of Verdun, in the Great War.
The capture of Bakhmut by the Russian army would be a serious setback for the Ukrainian supply lines and would open a gap that would allow the Kremlin forces to advance towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. The capture of these important cities would give almost complete control of the Donetsk region to Russian troops. Putin would have achieved another of his supposed objectives of the invasion.
In his speech on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin announced that there would be no new massive conscriptions, like the one that this fall called up 300,000 new recruits. But he announced that 150,000 of these green soldiers are already in Ukraine. Many of them will be sent to the battle of Bakhmut and important news could come from this front line in the coming weeks.
The Russian defeat that Stoltenberg requires to guarantee peace may be more complicated than NATO foresees, if this fact of the increase of Russian troops in key points on the front or the intensification of air missile attacks in recent years is taken into account. months against the Ukrainian civilian and military energy infrastructure. Good wishes don’t always win battles, even if they are expressed by the head of an entire Western military alliance.