Ukraine would have fewer casualties if the West paid more attention
CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 6–12 May 2023
Three publications (The Conversation, Politico, and National Review) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the North American press during the past week (6–12 May 2023). The sample was compiled based on their impact on public opinion as well as on their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These three publications represent centrist and conservative viewpoints on the political spectrum.
This report covers only the most-read and relevant articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective North American publications themselves in the past week. Its scope covers promoted articles on home pages and articles from special sections on Ukraine, with the hashtag #Ukraine, from the paper editions of the publications, and about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.
Topics featured in the selected articles:
- Ukraine’s current affairs: Ukraine has ready plans for how to win the war today and guarantee its national security in future;
- The world and Ukraine: USA should not discuss scenarios for ending the Russo-Ukrainian war with China; Russia’s victory would empower China regionally and globally; South Africa believed to be sending arms to Russia;
- Russia at war: Russian men are reluctant to join their army; the 2023 Victory Day Parade demonstrated the deterioration of the Russian military; leader of the Wagner group attacks the authority of Russia’s military command; Wagner group may be designated as a terrorist organization in the UK.
Ukraine has plans to defeat Russia and the West should face up to this task. Frank Ledwidge (The Conversation) writes about his experience of visiting a wartime Kyiv as part of a delegation of Western military, intelligence, and diplomatic experts. He highlights that Ukrainian people are profoundly determined “to fight what almost everyone now accepts is going to be a long war” and shares a few more impressions. Primarily, at no level is there any appetite among Ukrainians for a settlement or ceasefire with Russia (because it would only postpone hostilities for a few years, not resolve them). Secondly, Ukrainians strategize the security of their state on two pillars: inevitable NATO membership and proliferation of national defence prowess. Thirdly, Ukrainian leadership fully understands that a country at war will never be admitted to NATO, and therefore “they are asking for some form of roadmap to membership.” This roadmap may include guarantees from Western states to defend Ukraine in case of a new military conflict after the ongoing war ends. Fourthly, “frustration is growing in Ukraine’s leadership about a failure on the part of western leaders to understand the existential nature of the war, both for Ukraine and Europe itself”; the West is urged to provide Kyiv with everything it asks for to win the war, fast and decisively. Fifthly, Ukraine’s counter-offensive will not be lightning-speed; it will consist of a chain of operations lasting for months, during which sustainable Western support and uninterrupted weapons supply are critical. Finally, Ukraine takes active measures to restore and boost its military-industrial complex to become more autonomous in the development and production of defensive equipment. Ledwidge concludes that “if we are genuinely interested in helping Ukraine secure itself, we need to get serious about replacing the current piecemeal system of dripfeed donations with a large-scale resupply and re-equipment programme. The aim must be to help Ukraine create an army which can integrate properly with its western allies and defend itself well beyond the spring offensive.”
Washington should not discuss scenarios of ending the Russo-Ukrainian war with Beijing. Jim Geraghty (National Review) writes an expanded and critical article about the US’s incentive to find a common language with China on how to resolve the Russo-Ukrainian war. Geraghty regards this incentive as harmful and provides a list of reasons for this. Primarily, Russia does not want to cease hostilities, as can be deduced from new waves of conscription and continuous missile attacks on Ukrainian cities. Not to mention that Russia accuses the US of orchestrating attacks on its interior, in particular hitting the Kremlin’s dome with a drone. Secondly, Ukraine is not interested in any kind of peace arrangement today because it is about to launch a long-touted counteroffensive. Not to mention that settling the hostilities in the nearest future may legitimize the Kremlin’s rule over the occupied territories. Thirdly, the US approaching China, if happens, will raise the question of to what extent Washington is really standing against Beijing: “If you’re openly or subtly inviting Beijing—an increasingly strong ally—to the negotiating table over how to resolve the Russia–Ukraine war, you are not standing up to China. You’re increasing its leverage over world affairs.” Fourthly, China is sympathetic to the Russian side in the war and is even believed to deliver rifle parts and drones to the aggressor. While presenting itself as a peacemaker, Beijing fails to acknowledge Russian misdeeds or recognize Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Therefore, the bigger the role of Beijing in the resolution of the war, the higher the probability that the Kremlin will achieve its objectives. Geraghty concludes with a question: “Does anybody in the Biden administration care that inviting Beijing in to play peacemaker is completely at odds with the tough-guy, ‘as long as it takes’ Churchillian leader that Biden intermittently pretends to be?”
The worst outcome of the war for China would be Russia’s utter defeat. Natasha Kuhrt and Marcin Kaczmarski (The Conversation) outline three scenarios of how the Russo-Ukrainian war may end and scrutinize their impact on Chinese foreign policy. The first scenario, Ukraine wins, would weaken authoritarian regimes across the globe and contradict the most recent Beijing messages that the West is in decline. Moreover, Beijing would suffer a major economic and diplomatic blow if post-Putin Russian elites reprioritize relations with the West. The second scenario, Russia wins, would empower China and make it more aggressive in the neighbourhood. Taiwan would be directly threatened, the EU will need to start closer cooperation with China, and the Kremlin will become Beijing’s partner in Asian politics. The third scenario, Stalemate, would allow China to continue benefitting from cheap Russian commodities as well as strengthen its international standing as a peacemaker. Kuhrt and Kaczmarski highlight that China regards the ongoing war as a cornerstone conflict of modernity in which the liberal international order is at stake. The conflict is not between Ukraine and Russia, but between the great powers of “old” and “new” challengers. In this war, China sympathizes with Russia, yet tries to play a role of a neutral peacemaker: “The challenges for Xi consist of how to square China’s support for Russia’s reading of the global order with Chinese principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty.” Kuhrt and Kaczmarski conclude that “the bottom line for Beijing is, however, to avoid Russia’s complete failure in Ukraine. [If peacemaking efforts do not succeed], Beijing may decide to step up its support for Moscow, ranging from financial assistance to arms deliveries.”
South Africa believed to be helping Russia in its war effort. Jimmy Quinn (National Review) opens his article with a statement that “the U.S. [is] ‘confident’ that South Africa has armed Russia through secretive ammunition shipments.” In particular, at the beginning of December 2022 a cargo ship in the Simon’s Town naval base was noticed to be loaded with weapons and afterwards departed for Russia. The US considers the actions of South Africa as “extremely serious” and calls the state to practice genuine nonalignment in the war (which is the state’s official position). Quinn also writes that South Africa has recently demonstrated its openness to cooperation with Russia, which can be observed in the leading party’s delegation visiting Moscow to discuss “the recalibration of the global order” or the state’s army performing joint naval exercises with Russia and China. Quinn also highlights that the US allegations of arming Russia plunged South Africa’s domestic political scene into chaos. While President Cyril Ramaphosa denies all allegations, an independent inquiry has been initiated to probe the state’s engagement in arming the aggressor.
The Kremlin faces strong social resistance mobilizing more Russian men into the army. Marina Yusupova (The Conversation) opens her article with a statement that Putin is “planning to mobilize an extra 500,000 troops in 2023. In April he passed new legislation introducing electronic military draft papers, which will make it much harder to avoid conscription.” To encourage Russians to enlist, the Kremlin launched a powerful media campaign promoting “warrior masculinity.” The major messages are the drastic increase in personal income of volunteering conscripts, social admiration for their heroism, and attractiveness in women’s eyes. The campaign, however, will not likely bring the expected outcomes, as Yusupova argues. While the themes of “being a man” and “making more money” sound attractive to Russian men, the response will remain lukewarm due to post-Soviet skepticism toward military service. Since the early 1990s, young people have been trying to avoid call-up by all means necessary which left the state with an annual conscription of a maximum of 30 percent from the expected draft pool. Apart from this, while “Russian men tend to support the military as an institution, they are very critical of the way it is run in Russia.” The army is regarded as a “corrupt”, “venal”, “deeply damaged”, “rotten”, and “discredited” institution. This leads to the fact that the majority of contemporary army’s conscripts come from the poorest regions of Russia where signing a military contract remains the only way to make a living. An appeal to “warrior masculinity” does not work in the regions where young men can earn more money by sitting in warm offices or studying at universities, far from danger. The Soviet-era self-sacrificing is no longer the trend. Yusupova concludes that “individuals may vocally support militarism while refusing to personally engage in any military practices.”
The Russian army is in a woeful state, unlike public opinion about its prowess. Noah Rothman (National Review) writes of the most recent May 9 Victory Day Parade in Moscow as the “parade of sorrows.” The symbolic importance of May 9 for Russia has grown to be enormous—it effectively serves as the founding day of the modern state. Under Putin, the military parades to commemorate the victory in the so-called “Great Patriotic War” became especially solemn. However, as Rothman notes, “Victory Day in Moscow more than a year after the inauguration of the Kremlin’s ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine demonstrated how depleted the stores of Russian military hardware have become.” Only 8,000 soldiers, one pre-war T-34 tank, and the mobile Rs-24 Yars nuclear-capable ballistic-missile system showed up on the Red Square in Moscow in 2023. Unlike in the previous years, there was no new equipment demonstrated, and neither was an aerial flyby. Rothman highlights that the reality of the parade collided with the skillfully manufactured public opinion that the Russian army is undefeatable (because the opposite is unimaginable). In this light, the rational assumption is that the inflated image of the Russian army will either lead to its collapse in Ukraine or make the Kremlin strategists approach the facts and reassess their ambitions.
Russian mercenaries’ complaints about ammunition hunger are most likely theatrics and political games. Erin Banco (Politico) critically assesses the latest statements by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, about the situation on the battlefield. Banco cites the US officials who denounce Prigozhin’s complaints about the deficits of weaponry and ammunition among his fighters which will eventually force them to withdraw from Bakhmut. Such a withdrawal, if happens, will “likely change the trajectory of the war in the eastern part of the country as Russia and Ukraine have been locked in an intense battle inside the city for months and have lost thousands of soldiers.” However, as Banco highlights, regardless of the promises to leave their positions, “Wagner continues to hold significant stockpiles of ammunition and maintains control of at least 85 percent of Bakhmut.” Prigozhin’s complaints are likely a part of his campaign to discredit the current Russian military command and strengthen his position in the Kremlin. Banco concludes that Ukraine and Russia continue exchanging blows under Bakmut with the former trying to take the initiative and push the enemy out of the occupied parts of the city.
Designating Wagner as a terrorist organization will have more of a symbolic than a practical effect. Brian J. Phillips (The Conversation) writes that “the UK is reportedly planning to officially designate the Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation. This would put Wagner on a list with 78 other groups, including ISIS, al Qaeda and newer white supremacist organisations.” If Wagner is outlawed in the UK then any person who either belongs to or supports it will be charged with a criminal offence and potentially imprisoned for up to 14 years. According to Phillips, the rationale behind recognizing Wagner as a terrorist organization resides in the evidence of the group murdering hundreds of civilians, including children, in Ukraine and Mali. That being said, the Wagner case is unique. Unlike ISIS or al Qaeda, Wagner is not motivated by ideology, but by money. It also is a state contractor, not a non-governmental actor. Even if Wagner gets cut off from the international financial system, its activities will remain generously funded by Russia. At the same time, the UK’s designation of Wagner as a terrorist organization comes with a few notable drawbacks. Primarily, it will make it harder to end the Russo-Ukrainian war, especially if a necessity for negotiations emerges. Secondly, humanitarian organizations and individual benefactors will limit their support to civilians in the Wagner’s occupation as any transfer to occupied territories will risk settling in the pockets of terrorists. Phillips concludes that “terrorist proscription might not be the ideal policy tool for Wagner, since the group is a business and not a traditional ideological group. And it’s not clear proscription would affect the group much in the short term, since most of its money comes from the Russian state. However, proscription could be an important global signal, and it could deter potential support for an entity that has clearly used terrorism.”