April 2024

Heat of a cold war

Differing outlooks and potential shifts in leadership following elections across the world could change the dynamic of global support for Ukraine’s struggle against Russia, warns Tanya Vatsa 

The weariness of the Moscow-Kyiv conflict is beginning to loom large over all stakeholders. What began as a territorial dispute has become a matter of national pride for its various participants, including those not involved directly in the war. With NATO’s support, Ukraine seemed to be standing strong against its larger adversary, but not enough to change the initial power dynamic in its favour. Russia’s population is over thrice that of Ukraine and its military 4.6 times that of Kyiv. Tens of billions in aid from NATO with over US$75 billion from Washington itself, in the form of humanitarian aid and military equipment, has kept Kyiv fuelled for the two-year long battle. Gradually, NATO has become a significant player in the conflict and its support for Kyiv has been unwavering in the face of a militarily powerful and unrelenting Moscow.

Yet resources deployed by the West are now teetering on depletion and without reinforcements, Kyiv’s military capacity to stand against Russia will collapse. It is fortunate for President Zelenskyy that the domestic political leadership among the NATO states is overwhelmingly in favour of Kyiv’s sovereignty and largely against letting Moscow bully an ally into submission.

Without Western resources, Kyiv’s military capacity to stand against Russia will collapse

This year, however, could prove to be a turning point in the geopolitical ideologies that have been driving the allegiance, with more than 50 countries going to the polls, including the US. While Biden and his democrats are willing to continue the battle supplies to keep Moscow from closing in on an ally, the Republicans seem more hawkish regarding the expenditure on resources deployed outside of the country. Moreover, with Trump running for the Presidency again this year, the European Union is dreading a return to the political and economic uncertainty from their powerful Western ally which marred the previous Trump era. Giving the Eurosceptics a shot in the arm, Trump recently, and controversially, stated that the US would not come to the rescue of its NATO allies in the event of a Russian invasion, if they did not promptly meet their financial obligations. He went on to say that he would encourage Moscow to do ‘whatever the hell it wants’.

Gradually, NATO has become a significant player in the conflict

Today, against the backdrop of the long war in Kyiv and its possible outcome, European dignity hangs in the balance. Europe’s enthusiastic arming of Ukraine so it can fend off Moscow from its soil is underscored by trepidation arising from the need for European nations to secure their own borders from the ever-expanding territorial ambitions of the Kremlin. French President Macron’s recent bellicose statements about deploying ground troops from Europe in Ukraine were a reflection of the unpredictability and the impending pessimism regarding the outcome of the war, in which Europe is now deeply invested. The statement was neither agreed to nor supported by the other NATO members, including the US, the UK, Germany, Italy and the like. It was categorically declared that no such decision had been deliberated or concluded by the member states. While Macron acknowledged the absence of consensus for his perspective, he also suggested that no options should be staunchly excluded and no red lines should be drawn in NATO’s bid to help Kyiv return to its former territorial sovereignty.

Is the French President’s aggressive support for Kyiv sudden or unjustified? What does the larger European stance on the issue imply? How will Russia receive such a threat from NATO? These questions demand close scrutiny of the cause and effect of Macron’s plea to consider all possibilities as the war progresses.

Macronmay have been too quick to voice his opinion without consultation with his allies

Macron’s statement did not emerge in a vacuum. It was preceded by Washington’s hesitancy in clearing the latest aid package for Kyiv, the dwindling supply of Western armoury, Trump’s insensitivity to the military assistance of American allies in Europe and the French President’s attempt to resurrect the Weimar Triangle (Polish-German-French alliance) to boost European sovereignty and embrace a collective vision to restore Kyiv’s security. Macron’s intention of ensuring retaliation brings forth the underlying fear of collective loss at the hands of Moscow and the global humiliation it would entail for NATO and its Western stalwarts.

Why, then, would the rest of the military alliance differ, considering that they are not oblivious to the gravity of this possibility? The larger concern could be two-pronged.

First, the narrative is beginning to differ in different member states as the public grows weary of the cost of war. People’s rising discontent as money is taken away from public coffers is starting to culminate in protests like those in France regarding Marcon’s pension reforms, and the growing popularity of Republicans in the US for their protectionist approach of decreasing external expenditure. 

Second, NATO troops directly in confrontation with Moscow will bring several nuclear-armed countries face-to-face, a precarious situation which is then most likely to escalate into a nuclear war. That said, it is possible that, despite the emphasis on ‘European sovereignty’ in the Versailles Declaration and pinning of responsibility for the war on Moscow, the initial determination to arm Ukraine maybe wavering, creating rifts between Europe’s major powers, and making them re-calibrate their approach henceforth.

CALL TO ARMS? French President Emmanuel Macron

Statements like these have the potential to create ambiguity regarding collective strategies and also provide a false perception of threat to the adversary. Recalling the inception of the conflict, one of the major factors was attributable to NATO’s ambivalence regarding Ukraine’s membership. Moscow had retaliated with an invasion to the possibility of NATO reaching its borders, within its area of influence over the former Soviet satellite state. Another such unfounded warning may alert the Kremlin and intensify its ground offensive in Kyiv, proving counter-productive to the ultimate cause.

Macron is right in his preparedness and anticipatory vision for keeping all possible methods of military support open. He may, however, have been too quick to voice his opinion without consultation with his allies. An unintentional escalation of the war is in nobody’s interest. The long festering conflict which has drawn the big powers within its fold seems like a vivid reflection of the cold war era, with its looming distrust and suspicion. The only difference being that missiles are actually being fired and to keep the honour of the warring parties intact, in the prolonged battle for power, millions of civilians have perished.

Tanya Vatsa is currently the Geopolitical and Predictive Intelligence specialist at Inquest Advisories in India, as well as Editor at the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Dept of Defence, United States of America. She completed her Master’s in Legal Studies at the University of Edinburgh after obtaining a law degree from Lucknow’s National Law University, India