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  Opinion   Columnists  27 Feb 2024  Indranil Banerjie | Western hysteria mounts as Russia makes Ukraine gains

Indranil Banerjie | Western hysteria mounts as Russia makes Ukraine gains

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant.
Published : Feb 28, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Feb 28, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Ukraine-Russia conflict escalates, triggering shifts in geopolitics and the global economic landscape.

 A view of the town of Avdiivka in the Russian-controlled part of the Donetsk region on February 19, 2024. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)
  A view of the town of Avdiivka in the Russian-controlled part of the Donetsk region on February 19, 2024. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

The nondescript town of Avdiivka (pre-war population: 32,000) in eastern Ukraine entered the history books on February 17 this year when Russian frontline troops surged into the town in the war’s most significant breakthrough in months. The encircled Ukrainian soldiers fled the town in disorderly retreat, leaving hundreds of their wounded behind and uncounted numbers unable to escape.

The Russian capture of Avdiivka sent shock waves across Western capitals and blew a hole in the propaganda about Russia slowly losing the war in Ukraine. This battlefield victory was the most significant since Russian forces captured the city of Bakhmut in May 2023. The latest Ukrainian pullback coming after last year’s failed summer counter-offensive and continued Russian pressure along the 1,000-km-wide frontline suggested that things were not moving to Kyiv’s advantage. A triumphant Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the capture of Avdiivka and pledged to push further into Ukraine.

The Western response to these setbacks, which came precisely a week before the second anniversary (February 24) of the Russian invasion, has been close to hysterical. Mr Putin has been termed a tyrant, a war criminal and a “crazy SOB” by top Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden. Washington slapped 600 new sanctions on Russia, which came on top of 4,000 earlier sanctions imposed by the US since the start of the war. Similarly, the European Union introduced new sanctions (its 13th since the war began in February 2022) on several foreign companies and individuals for exporting products that could have military use for Russia.

The US Senate has also passed a military aid package (temporarily stuck in the House of Representatives) earmarking $61 billion for Ukraine. Europe has signed a 50-billion-euro cheque for Ukraine. There has also been some debate about seizing Russia’s $300 billion-plus foreign assets lodged in Western banks, a move that would seriously undermine the

global financial system. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has only fanned Western anxieties by claiming that his country is just the first step in Mr Putin’s determination to subjugate all of Europe, a charge that the Russian President has vehemently denied.

Four top Western leaders, including the Prime Ministers of Italy, Canada and Belgium and the European Commission president arrived in Kyiv on the war’s second anniversary to pledge solidarity with Mr Zelenskyy’s continued war efforts. “We will stand with Ukraine with whatever it takes, for as long as it takes,” Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau declared, as he pledged $2.25 billion in financial and military support. Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, while signing a 10-year defence pact with Ukraine, said: “The message I want to send today to… all the Ukrainian people is that they are not alone.”

With the Ukrainian and Western leadership digging in their heels and refusing Mr Putin’s offer to freeze the frontlines and negotiate an end to the war, the global rift and associated risks are only increasing.

For the moment, President Zelenskyy faces enormous challenges. He has had to sack his popular top military commander and major corruption allegations in arms dealings have surfaced in recent times, both of which have contributed to a lowering of military morale. Not surprisingly, a staggering six million Ukrainians have fled the country since the start of the war.

The Russian forces, despite a torrent of Western propaganda, are not on the backfoot. They continue to control about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory, including the key regional city of Donetsk, whose security was bolstered by the capture of Avdiivka 15 km to the north. Moscow has successfully ramped up military production and is able to fire more artillery shells than Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers are also exhausted, compelling Mr Zelenskyy to push for a bill to conscript an additional half a million Ukrainians into the Army, a move some say would cripple the country’s floundering economy.

The West’s strategy of crippling the Russian economy has not worked. The West had included a series of measures, including a cap on Russian oil prices, to derail its hydrocarbon economy. Nothing like that has happened; on the contrary, oil exports are close to prewar levels and, according to the IMF, Russia’s GDP expanded 3.6 per cent in 2023.

Ironically, it is Europe that seems to have suffered the worst economic battering, dependent as it was on cheap Russian energy exports. Having unilaterally turned off its taps to Russian energy, Europe faces an unprecedented surge in energy prices that have made large sections of its industry uncompetitive and sent farm costs skyrocketing. Europe today is paralysed by farm protests while economic growth has plummeted.

Geopolitically too, Moscow has held out with many nations outside the Western bloc not in sympathy with Western aims. A New York Times report pointed out that “Mr Putin is not nearly as isolated as US officials had hoped. Russia’s inherent strength, rooted in its vast supplies of oil and natural gas, has powered a financial and political resilience that threatens to outlast Western opposition. In parts of Asia, Africa and South America, his influence is as strong as ever or even growing.”

Faced with this reality, pressures are mounting in Europe to clamp down further on countries that are seen to be aiding Moscow’s war efforts, and this includes India, which along with China has been buying billions of dollars of Russian oil. India so far has very successfully been able to manoeuvre around the Western blockade of Russia, but it will find it increasingly difficult to stay that course.

The only acceptable outcome for the Western leadership is an unconditional Russian defeat, which finds echoes in Mr Zelenskyy’s declaration that he will not rest until every last Russian soldier is ejected from Ukrainian soil. This intransigence towards Russia has another, more ominous, aspect that could also adversely impact India.

And that is the cleaving of the global economy into two antagonistic halves. The Western powers have effectively pulled down a new iron curtain across the world, with Russia and its allies on the dark side. The gradual Western decoupling from China is adding to the global rift. This tectonic shift in global geoeconomics will pose a huge challenge for India, which has no desire to take sides or be sucked into the maelstrom of distant crises. But the fall of Avdiivka could well presage testing times ahead.

Tags: russia ukraine tensions, ukrainian president volodymyr zelenskiy, russia sanctions