As the war in Ukraine entered its third month this week, Britain's foreign secretary Liz Truss warned that it could last for years and United States defence secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia must be weakened to the degree that it cannot invade elsewhere.
Vladimir Putin said any country that intervened in Ukraine would face a "lightning-fast" response, as his spokesman reminded the world about Russia's nuclear arsenal, which is bigger than that of any other country.
Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield have persuaded some of its allies that it can prevail over Russia as the two sides fight a battle over the eastern region of Donbas. And Russian atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol and elsewhere have fuelled a desire to see Putin punished and a determination that his aggression in Ukraine should not succeed.
'If the Ukrainians don't receive sufficient military support from their western allies, I think you'll find that the Russians will fight for as long as they can'
Rupert Smith is a retired British army officer who commanded the United Nations protection force in Bosnia and the author of The Utility of War, a study of modern warfare.
He believes that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the post-1945 settlement that governed the international order until the beginning of this century but notes that, despite the rhetoric from Washington and London, Ukraine’s war aim remains distinct from that of the collective west.
“The Ukrainian war aim is quite clearly to re-establish its sovereignty over its territory and to maintain it. What you have is a conflict, in the strict meaning of the word, between Russia and Ukraine. And we have a confrontation, which isn’t necessarily conflictual, between the collective west and Russia, which is in effect a proxy war. But they are separate activities and the aims are far from coincident.
“And therein lies our biggest difficulty. What is the aim of the collective west, to use the Russian word for us? Is it to weaken Russia? What does that mean? Is it to supply Ukraine with weapons and support and provide sanctions and all the rest of it so that Ukraine is kept in the fight and wins?” he says.
He is doubtful about the strength of western resolve and sceptical about hopes that a ceasefire will offer the necessary space for negotiations, recalling that there were 25 separate ceasefires in the Balkans between 1992 and 1995. None of them were made use of by the mediators trying to negotiate a settlement because none of the sides wanted an outcome other than their outcome.
“If the Ukrainians don’t receive sufficient military support from their western allies, I think you’ll find that the Russians will fight for as long as they can. And unless the Ukrainians fold, you will arrive at some point at which the Russians have ground their way to more or less holding Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the link into Crimea.
“They will then declare a ceasefire and the collective west will breathe a sigh of relief. The more bullish of the collective west will pile weapons and assistance into Ukraine and we will finish up with a divided Ukraine with a ‘line of control’ of some description, and there will be these ceasefires that will break down, start up again and so forth for the foreseeable future,” he says.
European diplomats agree that there is little prospect of a revival of last month’s peace negotiations until after the battle in the east of Ukraine, which each sides hopes will leave them occupying more territory. But the contours of a peace deal are already visible, with all sides agreeing that three main issues must be resolved: security, territory and sanctions.
Ukrainian negotiators last month conceded a central Russian demand, agreeing to military neutrality and not to seek Nato membership in return for an international security guarantee. They will not recognise Russia's claims over Crimea or the independence of the Donbas republics but would leave the territorial issue for future negotiation.
"What that would do would be essentially move the issue from the present war to the Cyprus situation," says Anatol Lieven, a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank.
"Turkey invaded, Cyprus, carved out a Turkish separate republic. And this has been subject to what, 45 years now of international negotiation. It's never been solved. The island has never been reunified, but there hasn't been another war. And what is very important from a Ukrainian point of view, this has not prevented the Republic of Cyprus from joining the European Union. "
Lieven, who reported from Russia in the 1990s and covered the Chechen war, rejects the suggestion that Putin is no longer acting rationally, pointing to his withdrawal from northern Ukraine as a sensible response to setbacks on the battlefield. And he argues that the Russian threat to the collective west has been shown to be less formidable than advertised.
Sanctions are not actually implemented by the government. They are implemented by the banks and by companies
“From two key points of view, Ukraine and the west have already won. Ukraine has beaten off the Russian attempt to create a puppet Ukrainian government and subjugate the whole of Ukraine. That’s over. It’s been defeated by the Ukrainians,” he says.
“By the same token, the west has demonstrated that Russia is militarily speaking to a great extent of paper tiger. It’s very powerful in eastern and southern Ukraine, and, of course, it can intervene with, of course, considerable local help in certain other parts of the world. But the idea of Russia as a Cold War-style threat to the west has been exposed as nonsense.”
For any peace negotiation to succeed ahead of one side capitulating, both sides must be able to claim victory of a sort, and a rout in eastern Ukraine over the next few weeks could rob either Kyiv or Moscow of that option. Journalist Gideon Rachman, whose new book, The Age of the Strongman, includes a lengthy study of Putin, fears that if one side is ready to make peace because they are staring defeat in the face, the other might be tempted to press on to victory.
“The other fear is that the west may be getting a bit triumphalist. Because we hate Putin so much and think he’s losing, we’re not really thinking about ways out for him any more. And if that gets out of his hands, then he really might use a nuclear weapon,” he says.
“I don’t think he’s ever faced a situation quite like the one he’s facing now where he faces complete humiliation and possibly a threat to his own power. And I think he probably has convinced himself of his own propaganda that the west are just as bad or worse than him. So I don’t think he’d have any moral compunction necessarily.”
Even if Ukraine is willing to long-finger negotiations on the status of Crimea and the parts of eastern Ukraine effectively held by Russia since 2014, territory occupied since the start of the current war could be much more problematic. Not only are these places Ukrainians have fought and died for over the past two months, the people who live there demonstrably do not want to be part of Russia.
Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin and a former adviser on Europe and Eurasia at the US State Department, says that the territorial issue will have to be resolved between Russia and Ukraine but security and sanctions require action by others.
The longer the war lasts, the worse it is for China's international image
He thinks sanctions could prove more problematic than security guarantees because relieving them is complicated, both technically and in terms of domestic politics.
"Sanctions are not actually implemented by the government. They are implemented by the banks and by companies. And just because the government says, okay, you can now do this again, doesn't mean that people actually will. Which was the situation in the first Iran deal where they said, okay, go ahead. And the companies said, well you know what? We're not going to because we don't really believe this. It turns out they were right," he said.
Shapiro thinks the EU will play an important role in determining if and how sanctions are eased, and some of its member-states could be guarantors of Ukraine’s security. But he expects the EU to accept what the US wants, a reflection of the way in which the war in Ukraine has driven Europe back into Washington’s embrace.
“I would say that that’s not just not in the European interest, it’s not in anybody’s interest, but it does seem to be happening,” he said.
The western response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has persuaded many in Europe and the US of “the return of the west” with their resolve an apparent rebuttal of claims that they were divided, weak and decadent. Across the global south, the western response to the war has been viewed more sceptically and much of the world has refused to go along with sanctions against Russia.
"To condemn the Russian aggression, which is what it is, on the basis of moral principles, and not to side with the western sanctions or support the US-led international order are not mutually incompatible. A lot of countries in the global south that voted for the UN General Assembly resolution, they did it because a major norm has been violated – although it has been violated by western powers too – but in this case, it's quite clear cut," says Amitav Acharya, an international studies professor at American University in Washington and author of The End of the American World Order.
"It's hard for some Europeans to understand that, because they think if you condemn Russian aggression, you should also be siding with us. I think generally there is a perception of double standards and even moral equivalence between what Russia did in Ukraine and what the US has done in Iraq, whether that's right or wrong."
Among the countries Ukraine has named as possible security guarantors is China, which has deep economic, political and cultural relationships with Kyiv as well as with Moscow. China insists that Nato enlargement is partly to blame for the war in Ukraine and has refused to join western sanctions against Russia but its support for Moscow has been restrained.
Xiang Lanxin, one of China’s leading international relations experts who is emeritus professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, believes Beijing’s interest lies in the war ending as soon as possible. He says China remains in close contact with both Russia and Ukraine and maintains good relations with both governments.
“The longer the war lasts, the worse it is for China’s international image. And also, the Chinese have an idea of making up with Europe. The EU is important now, so they don’t want the EU-China relations to deteriorate,” he said.
“China would not yield to EU’s demand that China should denounce Russia as an aggressor. That’s never going to happen, period. But the point about the EU is this, the Chinese do not really believe the so-called transatlantic solidarity can really last because of diversity of interests.”
Xiang says that any use of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons would put China in an extremely awkward position but it would probably observe the western response before deciding how to act. China is currently alone among the nuclear powers in having a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.
“If that’s the case, China itself may end up changing its nuclear doctrine as well. That’s a terrible scenario. I think even for China, it’s a nightmarish scenario, no matter what,” he says.