Analysis |

A Bad Week for Putin, a Good Week for a Resurgent NATO

While Russia may be losing on the battlefield in Ukraine, it could still triumph if the Ukrainian economy collapses. The warning signs are there

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Ukraine
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A man holds a cutout of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the "Immortal Regiment" march in Belgrade
A man holds a cutout of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the "Immortal Regiment" march in Belgrade on Monday.Credit: Andrej Isakovic/AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Ukraine

UKRAINE – When Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his army to invade Ukraine on February 24, his main objective was to end, once and for all, the story of Ukraine as an independent state.

But he had another aim as well. He wanted to expose the weakness of NATO, to show it as an outdated, superfluous and useless military alliance incapable of protecting its eastern flank or expanding further toward Russia’s borders.

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Ukraine is still fighting and inflicting major losses on the rather hapless Russian military. And it seems that, despite having been repeatedly eulogized – French President Emmanuel Macron pronounced it “brain dead” as recently as 2019 – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not only busy coordinating weapons shipments and sharing intelligence with Ukraine, but is once again a desirable club with aspiring members.

The statement Thursday by the president and prime minister of Finland on their country’s desire to join NATO as soon as possible brought to an end nearly eight decades of Finnish neutrality.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin in Helsinki in October.Credit: Jussi Nukari/AFP

Sweden, another die-hard neutral, is expected to follow Finland very soon.

As expected, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, responded harshly, saying that this was a “direct threat” on Russia, and that it would “be forced to respond militarily, technically and by other means, to stop threats on its borders.”

This isn’t deterring the Finns, though. As a nation that has experienced numerous Russian invasions, it is loath to continue standing alone when Putin has shown he has no limits.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues via a video link in Moscow on Thursday.Credit: Mikhail Metzel/AFP

And this is the best timing for the Finns to join a reenergized and purposeful NATO: when Russia’s army – which has been shown to be nowhere near as capable as assumed – is already stuck in the Ukrainian mud. All the Kremlin has right now are empty threats.

This was a dire week for Putin, beginning with the depleted Victory Day military parade in Moscow, without even the customary air force flyby. A Victory Day in which the victories he expected to present to the Russian people have proved elusive.

And yet, if there’s one thing the Russians have learned from the war they claim only began in 1941, it’s that victory can sometimes take a long time and a whole lot of sacrifice to achieve.

Putin could have proclaimed victory in Red Square on Monday, saying Russia had achieved its objectives in its “special military operation” by enlarging its area of occupation in the Donbas and preventing the “genocide” of the ethnic Russians living there. He chose not to do so. He still believes he can topple Ukraine. And even if that doesn’t seem possible on the battlefield, he has other ways.

Two and a half months since the war in Ukraine began, the border crossings with Poland are no longer swamped by hundreds of thousands of fleeing civilians. Now that the Russian forces have totally retreated from the Kyiv region and concentrated on the eastern front, most of those escaping the war zones are finding refuge in relatively safe areas within Ukraine. Most of the traffic at the border is now headed in the other direction: refugees beginning to return and miles-long convoys of thousands of used cars.

A woman greeting her husband, arriving from Poland, in Kyiv on Thursday.Credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

In an attempt to revive the paralyzed Ukrainian economy, the government has announced a series of tax cuts and exemptions, including import duties on cars. So while the war is still raging in the east with no end in sight, in other parts of Ukraine they’re rushing to take advantage. Polish newspapers and websites are filled with ads offering to buy up used cars, and traders are bringing over by the truckload anything with four wheels.

This is great news, of course, for used car salesmen and those in western Ukraine who still have cash to upgrade their vehicle. But millions of other Ukrainians have been bankrupted by the war. Whether it is those who lost their homes and properties to Russian bombs, small business owners who went out of business, and their employees, or farmers who in the best case scenario can’t move their produce out of the country, and in the worst can’t even get to their fields in the war zone.

The damage to the Ukrainian economy so far is estimated to be hundreds of billions of dollars. And despite a friendly government, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund being ready with what is already being called “a Marshall Plan for the 21st century,” it won’t be enough as long as the war continues.

The civilian infrastructure has held up relatively well thus far, despite the Russian bombardment. But targeted strikes on fuel depots are beginning to result in a severe gas shortage and long lines at the gas stations that still have some. While a large proportion of private vehicles in Ukraine also use propane, which is still available, the flow of trucks that keep this large country supplied is almost paralyzed.

So far, Ukraine has avoided rationing and with the exception of the war’s first couple of weeks, there were barely any shortages in most parts of the country. That could happen now, though, with dire consequences for the resilience of Ukrainian society.

Fears of shortages are coming just as many companies, and especially stores, have started to reopen in the main cities – not just in Lviv in the west and the capital Kyiv, but also to the east in the main industrial city of Dnipro, where this week even fashion stores reopened.

Just a month ago, Dnipro’s mayor called upon the city’s million residents to evacuate for fear of a massive Russian onslaught. But with the exception of a few missiles that caused relatively minor damage, the Russians didn’t come. Many of those who did evacuate have since returned, and even building projects such as a new shopping mall in the city center have resumed.

“What you’re seeing here is an illusion,” a Dnipro businessman warned this week. “The Russian military threat may be 200 kilometers [125 miles] away and people now feel free to roam the streets and go shopping. But the real threat to Ukraine is the blockade on the Black Sea ports. All the produce from agriculture and the factories is stuck for two and a half months, with no end in sight. If the exports don’t restart soon, the economy will collapse and the Russians will win despite losing on the battlefield.”

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a cross depicting his tomb is seen at a checkpoint outside Dnipro on Tuesday.Credit: Jorge Silva/Reuters

NATO has done a lot for the Ukrainians and avoided any prospect of a direct military clash with Russia – for example, by refusing to even consider a no-fly zone over the country. But now, they’re quietly beginning to talk in Kyiv and Brussels of the necessity of a naval operation to reopen sea routes. If a clash does take place between NATO and Russia, it will almost certainly be in the Black Sea.

“Everything the media is reporting on how well the Ukrainians are fighting is bullshit,” says A., an Israeli citizen who has been busy over the past two months training a new infantry battalion of Ukrainian reservists, now stationed at the front near Kherson.

“Their reservists are untrained and have insufficient, mainly old, equipment. Some of the officers have had Western training, but most of the units have officers whose tactical knowledge is outdated. There’s the anti-tank missiles that were supplied by the Americans and British, but there’s not enough of it to go around.”

Together with another Israeli friend , A. – who was born in Ukraine but emigrated to Israel with his family as a boy – returned as a volunteer and is using the knowledge he gained as a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces to help. The Ukrainian officers were overjoyed to have them, and have allowed them to organize the new battalion as they see fit.

“With the exception of a few battle-hardened units and special forces teams who stopped the Russian armor, the Ukrainian military is still dilapidated,” A. says. “They have two things going for them: the Russians are even worse, much worse; and they have incredible resilience. They really feel they’re fighting for their survival and they’ll do anything, with whatever meager weapons they have. The Russian soldiers don’t even know why they’re here. That’s why Ukraine has survived so far.”

In recent weeks, the Ukrainian military has announced “counteroffensives” in the east that are pushing the Russians back, especially to the north and east of Kharkiv. But according to A., “these aren’t real organized counterattacks. It’s mainly just taking advantage of the places where the Russians are particularly weak to regain a bit of ground. We’re still far from a real counteroffensive that will push the Russians out. For that, they need brigades of tanks that will carry out concentrated attacks. For now, most of the Ukrainian targets are dispersed in defensive positions.”

The Ukrainian military is working frantically to build up new armored formations that will make use of the hundreds of Russian tanks they’ve captured, as well as older Ukrainian tanks that are being repaired and upgraded. Officers and tank crews are being trained by Western advisers. The talk is of a new armored division that will lead the big push in the east. But to have that up and running will take more weeks, probably months, and there’s no certainty Ukraine’s economy can last that long.

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