Sunday, December 4

The Observer view on why Europe must double its pressure on Putin | editorial observer

No amount of propaganda or fake news can disguise the fact that President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invaders are in deep trouble in Ukraine. The problem is partly military. Moscow’s forces have failed to secure major cities, including the capital, Kyiv. They have suffered tens of thousands of casualties – including 16,000 dead, according to Ukraine – and lost hundreds of tanks, planes and armored vehicles. Bad planning, poor logistics, incompetent leadership and rock-bottom morale, sparking reported mutinies, have undermined their entire operation.

Yet Putin’s problem is also political and ideological. Russia has almost zero international support. And in an extraordinary intervention that is certain to infuriate and antagonize the Kremlin, US president Joe Biden said in Poland on Saturday: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” At home, too, Putin faces mounting criticism. Russia’s people and army do not seem to have any clear idea what grand cause supposedly justifies their sacrifices in Ukraine.

Not so Ukrainians, both soldiers and civilians, whose courageous, highly effective defense of their homeland has held the world spellbound and paralyzed Putin’s war machine. They have no doubt of what they are fighting for: for their children, for their future as a sovereign nation, for democracy. It is no exaggeration to say, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that Ukraine is fighting for Europe and the world against the reactionary forces of autocracy and authoritarianism, a central theme of President Joe Biden’s Warsaw speech.

The latest Moscow defense ministry statement saying that Russia will henceforth “focus our core efforts” on achieving “the main goal, the liberation of Donbas”, while disingenuous, may nevertheless be seen as an admission that Russia has failed in its wider aims, as vaguely set out by Putin, of “denazifying” and “demilitarizing” all of Ukraine and forcing regime change on Kyiv. It may be this statement is another lie. It may be that Russia’s commanders are trying to regroup. But it does give cause for cautious optimism.

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Sensing weakness, Zelenskiy has been quick to renew his call for unconditional peace talks. He is right to do so. If it ever gets its act together, Russia’s military remains a formidable if wounded beast. It has reserves of men and weaponry that Ukraine can only dream of. If the battlefield stalemate continues and its humiliation deepens, Russia also has chemical and biological weapons. Fears that Putin may resort to such extremes produced a stern warning from Biden last week of an unspecified, consequential Nato response.

An immediate ceasefire, followed by talks that do not seek to make Ukraine’s territorial integrity the price of peace, must be the aim. Neither side lacks incentives. The suffering of Ukraine’s people is dreadful. About a quarter of the population is displaced. Millions have fled abroad. The prospect of more war crimes and massacres, such as that in Mariupol, where up to 300 women and children reportedly died in a theater bombing, is unsupportable. Putin needs to stop, too, if only to prevent permanent damage to Russia’s economy, its global standing and its hold on power. Does he see this? Who knows?

At this fragile juncture, the clear responsibility of the western democracies, working through Nato and the EU, is to step up pressure on the Kremlin to stop the war – not in any way to ease off. Unfortunately, there are signs the latter may be happening. Influenced by France and Germany, last week’s EU summit failed to impose significant new sanctions. Russia’s hugely lucrative EU oil and gas exports are largely unaffected so far. Calls by the Baltic republics for a ban on Russian road freight and shipping were ignored. And Ukraine’s EU membership hopes were dashed anew.

A parallel Nato summit also saw too much self-congratulation and too little self-examination. Despite Biden’s talk of unprecedented alliance unity, there are clear divisions. Poland and other east European members have pressed in vain for a more robust military approach, for example by supplying MiG-29 fighter planes. Boris Johnson’s idea of ​​sending tanks was reportedly quashed by President Emmanuel Macron. Promised weaponry from France and Germany has not arrived. Speaking via video link, Zelenskiy bitterly complained that the more sophisticated armaments Ukraine needs are not forthcoming and personally challenged leaders who he said were dragging their feet.

It may be that Putin is becoming more realistic. Or that, observing intra-European tensions, he is playing for time. It’s possible that, in any negotiation, he would settle for the territorial gains he has made in the Donbas region while trying to hang on to a southern “land bridge” to Crimea. It’s possible, too, that some European countries might favor such a deal and even offer to lift sanctions, if it stopped the war, the refugee exodus and the economic damage it is causing them.

Such concessions would be difficult, even impossible, for many Ukrainians to accept and they should not be pushed into making them. Ukraine must ultimately decide how and when this ends. Meanwhile, this is not the moment to ease western pressure on a flailing Russia and its war criminal president.

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