It’s a key moment. The pressure on President Putin to respond to NATO’s transformation of a limited proxy affair into open warfare is mounting.
On Thursday last week, a flotilla of European, British and American officials gathered at NATO’s Ramstein air base in Germany – ostensibly to claim a public relations success for the role Western weapons have played in Ukraine’s war against Russia. Yet the meeting had the second, deeper purpose of assessing kyiv’s ability to sustain a sustained war, that is, not just to briefly take territory, but to hold onto it.
This last aspect has taken on added urgency as there is just over a month to go before winter turns the Ukrainian terrain on the plains to mud, leaving tanks and heavy vehicles to flounder. Moreover, Ukraine’s public finances are in freefall, with foreign aid amounting to only $1.5 billion, leaving a hole of about $7 billion a month which is being filled by the fresh money printing by Ukraine.
The reality is that the cost of living crisis in Europe and the war against Ukraine are inextricably linked. As commentator Adam Tooze said: “There is no doubt that Ukraine is living on borrowed time. To put it simply, Ukraine cannot afford the war it is waging” – and as the crisis in Europe worsens with winter, the public’s patience with its governments’ spending on Ukraine is likely to evaporate. Kyiv is facing a severe financial crisis, one “which in the coming months could produce misery and tear apart the home front”.
The Ramstein meeting reshuffled the cards on Western military and financial aid to Ukraine, increasing contributions to NATO’s ongoing campaign against Russia from even more nations, while adding new weapons of Even more advanced precision strikes, to mixing deliveries in kyiv.
From his whirlwind trip to Kyiv, Secretary of State Blinken, escorted by Victoria Nuland, announced a new $675 million package of US military equipment, along with a “long-term” investment of $2.2 billion dollars to strengthen the security of Ukraine and 17 of its neighboring countries (obviously intended to convey the idea of a coalition of the willing coming together). Weeks earlier, Biden unveiled a $3 billion aid package, the largest yet. While it’s not so easy to distinguish between new monetary pledges and repackaged repetitions of existing pledges, some analysts put the true figure for the US commitment to Ukraine at $40 billion in aid. security; or $110 million a day over the past year.
Ramstein was clearly intended as an exercise in presenting the prospect of some Ukrainian military success, in order to bolster waning European support. The Kherson and Kharkov offensives were clearly timed in preparation for the Ramstein conference.
The latter amounts to a NATO challenge to Russia. It similarly challenges Moscow to step up its side of the war. The aid message – amounting to billions of dollars, training and weapons – was reinforced by the nature of the weapon systems announced for delivery, such as missiles with an accuracy of 1 to 2 meters when fired at ranges of 20 or 30 kilometers, thanks to their GPS-guided flight, unlike the laser-guided missiles delivered to Ukraine so far. In the same category are weapons designed to destroy Russian radar systems used to direct artillery fire.
The test launch, the same day, of a new intercontinental rocket, the Minuteman III, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, was the icing on the cake.
All in all, Ramstein marked a new stage in the conflict. The United States is gradually moving towards a NATO war against Russia. The meeting in Germany made this fully manifest. There was a current in the West that read Russia’s reactions to the sinking of its warships; delivery of HIMARS rocket systems; the Western “Ho Chi Min trail” of daily arms supplies to kyiv – as a “green light” for the West to enter “fully into NATO” – thinking that Russia is likely to accept the reinforced paradigm.
But will he?
Unsurprisingly, Ramstein’s “challenge”; the “psyops war” centered on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant; and kyiv’s offensives – taken particularly in the context of Russia’s tactical military redeployment out of the Kharkov region west of the Oskil River, to bolster the Donbass militia – have catalyzed a heated debate in Moscow over the way to react.
Many remember President Putin’s statement: “We learn today that they want us to be defeated on the battlefield. Well, what can I say? Let them try. You have not seen anything yet. We have barely started”. They are either calling for a move to total war, or at least “removing the gloves” when it comes to the western arms supply train.
It’s a key moment. The pressure on President Putin to respond to NATO’s transformation of a limited proxy affair into open warfare is mounting. Yet he knows that the cost of living crisis in Europe and the war against Ukraine are inextricably linked. Kyiv is living on borrowed time: regarding Europe’s cost-of-living crisis and the putative end of its subsidies. And also with regard to Ukraine’s own financial crisis which is tearing its society apart. And finally, about the rainy season and the mud to come (it is unlikely that Ukraine will make any military progress in the coming months).
All these factors have a shelf life of a month or even a little more. Will Putin wait or show Russia his teeth?