The West should offer a “Plan B”

The West should offer a “Plan B”

CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 31 March–6 April 2024

Six publications (Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Globe and Mail, Politico, and CBC) were selected to prepare this report on how Ukraine has been portrayed in the North American press during the past week. 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 publications represent centrist viewpoints on the political spectrum.

This MMS 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.

  • The world and Ukraine: Russia and Ukraine are not ready for negotiations; House of Representatives recognizes Russia’s war against Ukraine as a genocide; the West should offer a “Plan B”; NATO should increase its support for Ukraine.
  • Russia at war: Russia’s economy continues to weather sanctions.

Are negotiations between Ukraine and Russia possible? Branislav L. Slantchev and Hein Goemans (Foreign Affairs) note that Russia’s infeasible demands, contrasted with Ukraine’s desire to survive, make peace talks unlikely. In its third year, Russia’s war against Ukraine is alleged to have reached a stalemate, with neither side demonstrating significant progress to turn the tide in its favour. In order to achieve peace in the conflict, both sides must be willing to accept each other’s minimum demands, but “despite the mutual lack of progress, neither Russia nor Ukraine can swallow each other’s requirements.” For both states, war remains a better option than negotiations. As at the beginning of the invasion, Moscow seeks to achieve four key goals: (1) seize Ukrainian lands: “Although Moscow never fully spelled out its territorial ambitions, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s references to the imperial idea of Novorossiya, or ‘New Russia,’ gave analysts a sense of what the Kremlin wanted”; (2) “denazify” and denationalize Ukraine, “purging society of Ukrainian history, culture, and the Ukrainian language”; (3) demilitarize Ukraine; (4) prohibit Ukraine from “joining NATO or from pursuing political or economic integration with the European Union.” According to the authors, “these four goals amounted to the dismemberment and subjugation of Ukraine.” For its part, Ukraine seeks to restore its territorial integrity and sovereignty and to obtain security guarantees for the future. For there to be a chance of a negotiated settlement, Moscow would have to accept that its demands are too extreme. But the Kremlin is not actually interested in peace: “For now, all the Kremlin’s public statements about being willing to negotiate are merely Kabuki theater designed to paint Moscow in a favorable light in order to undermine international support for Ukraine.” Slantchev and Goemans conclude, “Any durable peace must thus be based on deterrence, not satisfaction with the status quo. It requires that Ukraine be strong enough, both internally and through its partnerships, to repel Russian attacks. Putin is right about one thing: Ukraine’s sovereignty exists only as far as it can be defended from Moscow’s grasp.”

House of Representatives recognizes Russia’s war against Ukraine as genocide. Katya Pavlevych (National Interest) opines that while the US House of Representatives has recognized Russia’s war against Ukraine as genocide, it is not taking sufficient steps to stop it. On 19 March the House passed Res. 149, “Condemning the illegal abduction and forcible transfer of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation.” The resolution received broad support from both parties and was adopted “with 390 votes in favor due to its non-binding nature and indisputable evidence of the crime.” This is the first document agreed in Congress that recognizes “Russian actions against Ukraine as an act of genocide.” At the same time, the House remains paralyzed in approving further military aid to Ukraine. According to the author, this makes Congress an inactive accomplice to the crime. The resolution is a step forward, but adoption of any law will not force Russia to return the thousands of stolen Ukrainian children. The only effective tool for returning them is humanitarian and military assistance to Kyiv. Currently, this process is very slow: “With the current pace of the returns (out of 20,000 abducted children, only 388 have been returned), it will take fifty years to return all the deported kids.” A complete victory would give Ukraine an advantage in any possible peace negotiations and the opportunity to demand from Vladimir Putin the safe return of all abducted children. According to Pavlevych, “Without the right quantity and quality of armaments, Ukraine cannot launch a full counter-offensive and liberate its now-occupied territories. The liberation of Ukraine is crucial to prevent abductions of children that occur only in the occupied territories of Ukraine.”

What does NATO need for its 75th anniversary? David Cameron and Tobias Billstrom (Foreign Policy) call on NATO allies to make a commitment for members’ collective benefit. After two centuries of military nonalignment Sweden decided to join NATO, driven by two key reasons: (1) Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has called into question the security of the entire Euro-Atlantic; and (2) NATO’s effectiveness in ensuring the security of its member states. According to the foreign ministers, “As the world changed, it made sense for Sweden to turn to the alliance. Sweden will be safer in NATO, and NATO will be stronger with Sweden.” However, with Sweden’s accession the threats have not disappeared, and NATO leaders face five pressing issues ahead of its summit in Washington in July. First, all allies must invest more in collective security. Second, they must adapt more: “We can see this on the battlefield in Ukraine: Twenty-first century technology is vital to Ukraine resisting Putin’s nineteenth-century imperial ambitions. We must invest in cyber and artificial intelligence.” Third, the Alliance needs to better assist Ukraine: “Ukrainians are fighting not only for their own freedom and democracy but also for the security of all countries in NATO. While NATO will not be drawn into a conflict with Russia, it is crucial to provide Ukrainians with the strong and predictable support that they need to win the war.” Fourth, NATO must engage more with the world, helping more vulnerable partners and being more active “in both the High North and the Mediterranean, as well as the Baltic and Black Seas. We also need to engage more with partners in the Indo-Pacific.” Finally, all allies must commit: “While we pay tribute to U.S. leadership of the NATO alliance over the past 75 years, it is the combination of North American and European strength that has proved to be the force multiplier. There must be a stronger Europe within NATO.”

The West should offer a “Plan B.” Matthew Blackburn (National Interest) warns that instead of teaching Russia a lesson, the West could end up losing. Behind the loud declarations of Western representatives about their continued support for Ukraine, there is confusion and a lack of understanding of what to do next. The proposals that are being voiced are not backed by a consensus among the allies. In the author’s opinion, instead of taking a new approach, old patterns continue: “NATO mulls over how to help Ukraine without provoking open war with Russia and fails, in the end, to deliver the kind of decisive assistance needed to turn the course of the war.” Russia’s “Plan A” failed in March 2022 on the outskirts of Kyiv, so Russia moved to its “Plan B”—“waging a grinding war of attrition to exhaust Kyiv’s will and capacity to resist while testing the Western alliance’s collective ability to sustain Ukraine.” In turn, the West’s “Plan A” is not able to withstand Moscow’s backup plan: “This plan consisted of sanctions to derail the Russian economy, diplomacy to isolate the Putin regime, and the use of NATO weapons and know-how to inflict serious damage on Russia on the battlefield.” However, this plan did not work because it was based on false assumptions. First, Russia’s economy turned out to be less vulnerable than it seemed. Second, expectations that most non-Western states would “stop trading with Russia also proved unfounded.” Third, the assumption that sanctions against rich Russians would facilitate regime change also proved to be wrong: “Instead, the sanctions have largely incentivized them to invest money in their own country and give their loyalty to the regime.” Forth, Russia’s failed use of hard power “in the first two months of its ‘Special Military Operation’ was taken as an indicator of gross military incompetence” and “corruption, poor morale, and disorganization.” NATO was not well prepared for Russia’s war against Ukraine: “its military doctrines foresaw interventions in civil wars or conflict with weaker opponents, not a proxy war of attrition with a peer competitor.” The current desperate attempts to gather ammunition to ensure Ukraine’s immediate survival are not a viable “Plan B” for the West. According to Blackburn, “A new approach to the war in Ukraine will not emerge from rhetorical and moralistic proclamations. Words alone will not prevent a Russian victory. What is needed is a clear accounting of what can be realistically achieved with the means available, as well as the cost, risks, and benefits of different scenarios. Trying what has failed before and expecting new results is, after all, not a recipe for success.”

Russia’s economy is weathering the sanctions. John Rapley (Globe and Mail) notes Russia’s surprising resilience in the face of Western sanctions and its ability to adapt to economic pressure during the war against Ukraine. The author notes that when “Western countries stopped exporting the computer chips used in modern weaponry, Russia started importing non-prohibited items, such as refrigerators, microwaves and dishwashers, then cannibalizing them for chips. Equally, it has maintained shipping by operating through shell companies that find ports willing to turn a blind eye, and has thereby maintained its trade.” Despite initial optimism from the West about isolating Russia, the Russian economy has rebounded, with significant growth and expansion in its defence industry. Moscow’s strategies, including increased defence spending, circumventing sanctions, and finding new export markets, have allowed it to weather the economic difficulties. However, Rapley warns that Russia’s long-term prospects remain uncertain, as continued reliance on trading partners like China and India may weaken its economy over time. In the author’s assessment, Russia’s future success in the war hinges on Western resolve and whether they maintain support for Ukraine over the long term: “If [Putin is] right, he’s headed for victory. But if he’s wrong, if Western countries dig in and support Ukraine over the long haul, Russia’s long-term prospects look grim.” 

Prospects brightening for US aid to Ukraine. Alexander Panetta (CBC) argues that amidst a harsh winter and political uncertainty, optimism is emerging in Washington regarding potential support for Ukraine. US lawmakers are increasingly confident about a forthcoming vote on a multibillion-dollar weapons package aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s defence capabilities. Despite internal party struggles, House Speaker Mike Johnson has finally signalled his willingness to push the bill forward, backed by discussions within Republican ranks and potential changes to the aid package. House Democrats have played a pivotal role in promoting the passing of the bill, crucial for both supporting Ukraine and potentially safeguarding Johnson’s speakership. The Speaker has committed to action: “We’ve been talking to all the members…When we return after this work period, we’ll be moving a product. But it’s going to, I think, have some important innovations.” The fate of Ukraine’s war effort hangs in the balance, with the renewal of US support crucial for its survival. As Ukraine faces dwindling artillery supplies and Russian pressure, the decision in Washington will significantly impact the trajectory of the war. Matthew Schmidt, a professor of national security interviewed by the author, says that for 2024 Ukraine’s motto is to survive. He believes, however, that “Ukraine wins in the end. It’s a question of, ‘Do they win in two years or in 20 years?’” 

White House navigates politics to advance Ukraine aid package. Jennifer Haberkorn, Eli Stokols, and Jonathan Lemire (Politico) write that aides to US President Joe Biden have been navigating political challenges while actively engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts to facilitate House Speaker Mike Johnson’s ability to bring a $60-billion aid package for Ukraine to a vote. Despite frustrations over slow progress in Congress, the White House has maintained contact with Johnson’s office during the recess, seeking to provide him with space to lead amid internal party divisions. “Our own urgent national security interests are on the line, because Putin will not stop at Ukraine, but Ukraine can stop Putin,” said White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates. The prolonged debate over Ukraine funding underscores broader challenges in enacting significant legislation during a presidential year within a divided government. Despite the obstacles, the Biden administration remains committed to pushing forward with the aid package, recognizing its critical importance in supporting Ukraine’s defence efforts. 

Media Monitoring Service

Media Monitoring Service (MMS) critically assess dominant narratives, including a special focus on disinformation, in selected key Canadian and US publications regarding contemporary Ukraine. The purpose of MMS is to inform experts and the general public about how Ukraine and Ukraine-related events are covered and reported on and to alert them to contentious ideas and claims that may be perpetuated in the media to Ukraine’s detriment. Read more

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