Signs Point to Ukraine War Contracting

Ukrainian grain going out, Russian gas coming in: Are these indicators that on the economic as well as political front there is a quiet push for cooler heads to prevail in Ukraine?

AP/Andrew Kravchenko
Pedestrians walk past a display of destroyed Russian tanks and armoured vehicles after snowfall at Kyiv, November 17, 2022. AP/Andrew Kravchenko

Despite various appearances to the contrary, there are fresh signs that the war in Ukraine, while certainly not appearing close to a conclusion, may be contracting. 

There is little doubt that despite a widely anticipated winter lull in fighting following the liberation of Kherson, hostilities between Russia and Ukraine will not diminish. Yet from some key lookout posts — including one nearer the Potomac than the Dnieper — the contours emerging from the fog of war are those of a very Continental conflict, and there are mounting indications that Washington and the major European capitals intend to keep it that way. 

One clear sign is the speed at which both President Biden and NATO moved to defuse a crisis over the provenance of a missile that fell inside Polish territory, close to the border with Ukraine, on Tuesday. Initial reports claimed there was more than one missile and that the strike was Russian, but these accounts proved premature: The Kremlin’s immediate denial of responsibility was met by Mr. Biden’s claim that it was “unlikely” the lone missile was fired from Russia. By Wednesday NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said the missile was likely Ukrainian air defense and “we have no indication that Russia is planning offensive military actions against NATO allies.”

Poland, which is no great friend of Russia or its president, swiftly fell in line with Mr. Stoltenberg’s assessment. On Wednesday the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, said in a tweet, “There is no indication that this was an intentional attack on Poland. Most likely, it was a Russian-made S-300 rocket.” 

In response to a reporter’s question Thursday about claims from President Zelensky that the missile wasn’t fired by Ukraine air defense forces, CBS reported that Mr. Biden replied, “That’s not the evidence.”

Mr. Stoltenberg, for his part, was also quick to call the incident in Poland a “direct result” of Russia’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine — on Tuesday alone Russian forces fired at least 85 missiles at targets within Ukrainian territory, Mr. Zelensky said. And there is no sign that Vladmir Putin intends to put the brakes on those missile strikes, which have crippled Ukraine’s power grid and cut electricity to many cities. 

Beyond the signals from Brussels and arguably from Moscow that whatever happens in Ukraine ought ideally to stay in Ukraine, there are multiplying signs of similar sentiment from Washington. At a press briefing on Wednesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, said that “the probability of a Ukrainian military victory — defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine to include what they claim as Crimea — the probability of that happening anytime soon is not high, militarily.” The general added that “politically, there may be a political solution where, politically, the Russians withdraw. That’s possible.”

During the same briefing, the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, credited the Ukrainians with having achieved “success after success after success” and  said of the Russians that “have failed every single time. They’ve lost strategically, they’ve lost operationally, and I repeat, they lost tactically.”

That tactical defeat may be what prompted him to evoke a political solution, though if any such solution would be predicated on a ceasefire it is clear that both sides are still too far apart for any kind of meaningful dialogue, let alone negotiations. 

Enter Turkey, and another indication that the powers-that-be wish to keep the war from spilling over to other countries. The Turkish president, Tayyip Erdogan, has styled himself as an unofficial broker between Moscow and Kyiv, a fitting role considering Turkey’s commercial and political ties to both Russia and Ukraine. On Monday the Turkish capital, Ankara, was the venue for a meeting between the director of the CIA, William Burns, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin. 

According to a White House statement, Mr. Burns’s message focused “on the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia” and the risk of “escalation to strategic stability.” The White House also said that Mr. Burns was not negotiating the end of the war, while for its part the Kremlin said that the talks were “an initiative of the American side.” An unidentified American official also said that Mr. Burns, who served as ambassador to Russia between 2005 and 2008 and speaks Russian, raised the issue of cases of unjustly detained U.S. citizens, including a professional basketball player, Brittney Griner.

At risk of overestimating the importance of dialogue between the pair, that fact that it did occur was arguably an astute move by the Biden administration. The errant missile strike inside NATO-member Poland occurred less than 24 hours after Messrs. Burns and Naryshkin parted ways at Ankara, but when those events occur keeping open lines of communication can be critical. 

Also, while everyone knows that winter is coming, less widely reported is that inflation-wracked Europe is still buying energy from Russia. Last week the Russian dissident website Meduza reported that since the beginning of the war, the EU has spent three times more on oil and gas from Russia than on assisting Ukraine — despite sanctions against Moscow. This week the Russian business newspaper Kommersant said Poland will continue to purchase Russian oil that flows through the Druzhba pipeline, which extends across Ukraine and Belarus into Poland and other points in Europe. 

Also, on Thursday, Mr. Zelensky announced that the UN-backed, Turkish-brokered agreement that allows Ukrainian grain exports safe passage through the Black Sea will be extended by another four months. 

Ukrainian grain going out, Russian gas coming in: Are these  indicators that on the economic as well as political front there is a quiet push for cooler heads to prevail in Ukraine, and to keep the fighting contained? Possibly, though winter in eastern Europe is never easy, and could yet bring some frigid surprises of its own.

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