Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, much has been said about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations. Last October, I wrote about Putin’s vanity and megalomania which led him to overestimate Russian military capabilities, underestimate Ukrainian capacity for resistance, and miscalculate NATO’s unity and America’s strategic resolve.
But the Russian president is not the only one making bad judgements with devastating consequences in Ukraine and beyond. As the war drags on with no end in sight, it is important to address US President Joe Biden’s – and his Western allies’ – miscalculations in Ukraine as well. These, unsurprisingly, mirror Russia’s own failures, as both leaders prove incapable of learning the lessons of imperial hubris. From the start, Biden took the moral high ground, framing the conflict in Ukraine as a global one between democracy and autocracy, between respect for international law and national sovereignty and the scourge of Russian aggression. Yet, he pleaded with world autocrats to join the crusade and disregarded America’s own illegal wars.
He underestimated the power of Russian nationalism and rejected Moscow’s fears of NATO expansion towards its borders as baseless excuses for Russian imperialism. In the months leading up to the war, Biden undermined efforts to implement the Minsk agreements signed in 2014 and 2015 to end the conflict in the Donbas region. They were meant to pave the way for the creation of two autonomous Russian areas in eastern Ukraine and stave off the expansion of Russian intervention in the country. Both Ukraine and Russia had signed on, but France and Germany, which helped conclude and refine these agreements, failed to push hard enough for their implementation. Despite having much to lose from a devastating European war, European powers did little to stop the escalation.
Biden also underestimated Russia’s military endurance, betting on Ukrainians defeating it just as the Afghans defeated the Soviet Union with help from the United States. But for Moscow, Ukraine is far more important and strategic than Afghanistan, considering its shared history and geographic proximity. From Putin’s perspective, Ukraine is vital for Russia’s national security and his regime’s survival. Clearly, he would rather have it destroyed than see it join a Western alliance. During the first year of the war, Russian setbacks from Kyiv to Kharkiv demonstrated Ukraine’s resolve and resilience. But the tide of war began to change this year. As the fall of Bakhmut after months of vicious fighting has shown, Russia is no less resilient or determined to win. That is a recipe for a devastating stalemate.
Biden has also overestimated Ukraine’s capacity for war. This is not to be confused with courage and steadfastness, of which the Ukrainians have demonstrated plenty, and which allowed them to launch a successful counter-offensive last year. But the war has thus far been fought conventionally on Ukrainian territory, allowing the greater Russian firepower to overwhelm Ukraine’s smaller military and destroy much of its economy. These setbacks have not deterred the US and its allies from doubling down. On May 19, the US-led G7 countries meeting in Hiroshima vowed to renew their “commitment to provide the financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support Ukraine requires for as long as it takes”. This is yet another indication that the US and its allies are getting bogged down in “mission creep”. What began with sending ammunition to Ukraine, expanded to supplying artillery and American and German tanks, Patriot defence systems, and drones, which allow Ukraine to take the fight into Russian territory.
Most recently, the US has agreed to the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine to challenge Russia’s air superiority. Moscow has warned that providing Kyiv with this aircraft will lead to a dangerous escalation, while experts have questioned its immediate utility for the Ukrainian army without outside help manning it. From the looks of it, any future victory on the battlefield may prove to be a pyrrhic one, with the costs by far outweighing the gains. If the much-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive somehow succeeds in extracting a dramatic victory from the jaws of defeat, this could push Russia to use nuclear weapons in response, wreaking havoc in Ukraine and the rest of Europe. Even if Moscow resorts to deploying tactical nuclear weapons, which have smaller explosive power and are meant for use on the battlefield against enemy bases and troops, the ramification of such a move for European – indeed world – security and peace, cannot be overstated.
Some in the US administration consider the Russian threats of nuclear retaliation as no more than a bluff to deter further Western intervention. I hope they are right. I think they are wrong. Since 2000, the Kremlin has lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, stating that they may be used not only in case of a threat to the country’s very existence, but also “to repel armed aggression if all other means of resolving a crisis situation have been exhausted or turn out to be ineffective”. Lastly, just as Putin underestimated Western unity in their support of Ukraine, Biden underestimated the rest of the world’s indifference to what appears – from the perspective of the Global South – as a protracted European conflict that is Europe’s problem. As the rest of the world continues to trade with Russia, Western sanctions are failing to change Moscow’s calculus.
In sum, both Russia and the West have failed to pursue diplomacy as purposefully and stubbornly as they have pursued war. Both sides are digging in for the long haul, stacking the decks, stoking fears of nuclear annihilation, and framing the conflict as a “win or die” situation. Considering the irreconcilable differences between Russia and the West, the war is not likely to end in a peace agreement, at least not in the foreseeable future. Ultimately, the conflict may reach a stalemate and a long-term cessation of hostilities, similar to the 70-year-long ceasefire between North and South Korea, in which Russia may insist on a demilitarised zone that cuts through Ukraine from Kharkiv in the north to Kherson in the south. Meanwhile, as the war takes its toll on Russian and Western security and stability, China emerges unscathed. And to US displeasure, it is becoming a more powerful and credible world leader than ever before.