What is needed for Ukraine to win

What is needed for Ukraine to win

CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 28 April–4 May 2024

Five publications (Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal, Globe and Mail, CBC, and Politico) 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: appeasement as a tool is underestimated; China has crossed the Biden administration’s red line on Ukraine; what needs to be done for Ukraine’s victory.
  • Russia at war: Putin is obsessed with defectors; Putin’s energy gambit appears to have backfired. 

Appeasement is underrated. Stephen M. Walt (Foreign Policy) emphasizes that rejecting diplomacy by citing Neville Chamberlain’s deal with the Nazis is a willfully ignorant use of history. After all, not every autocrat is like Adolf Hitler. While the author backs support for Ukraine and advocates for “more help for the besieged Ukrainians,” he believes that it is incorrect to compare events of 1938 with Russia’s present war against Ukraine. Why should such parallels not be drawn? First, those who invoke the Munich precedent generally do not understand the overall situation in 1938. Chamberlain was neither naive about Hitler nor unaware of the danger posed by Nazi Germany. He saw the Munich agreement as a tool to buy time to rearm British troops: “He hoped that the deal reached at Munich would satisfy Hitler and ensure peace in Europe, but if it didn’t work, Britain (and France) would be in a better position to fight when war eventually came.” Secondly, the constant obsession with Munich puts too much emphasis on one single event, and the other compromises and agreements that took place between the major powers are seen as essentially irrelevant. Third, the claim that the Munich agreement tells us how to deal with dictators contains an important contradiction: “Leaders as depraved and reckless as Hitler are rare. If that is the case—and if Hitler’s combination of megalomania, racism, and suicidal willingness to take risks is largely responsible for World War II in Europe—then Munich should be seen not as a highly representative event with far-reaching implications but as a highly unusual occurrence that says relatively little about most interactions among great powers.” A policy of appeasement is not always a good idea. But to limit ourselves to this narrative is to limit the ability of the US to achieve its goals. As Winston Churchill noted, “[a]ppeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble, and might be the surest and only path to world peace.” According to Walt, “Given the United States’ considerable strengths and favorable location, U.S. foreign-policy officials should generally seek the ‘magnanimous and noble’ path, seeking to resolve differences with adversaries via a carefully considered process of negotiation and mutual adjustment, even when dealing with dictators whose values and interests are at odds with their own.”

Putin is obsessed with defectors. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan (Foreign Affairs) argue that Moscow has launched a ruthless campaign against Russians who are fighting for Ukraine. Instead of enjoying his triumph the day after the (fraudulent) presidential election, Vladimir Putin gave a speech warning Russians of the serious threat facing the country, namely, “Russian defectors who have been joining the enemy in Russia’s two-year-old war in Ukraine.” In his speech, Putin compared Russians who are fighting for Ukraine to Soviet soldiers who sided with Nazi Germany in World War II. For him, these Russians are not only traitors “but also defectors—since, as Russian nationals, they are legally subject to military service for Russia itself.” Therefore, they will suffer the same fate as the defectors of Joseph Stalin’s time. However, the persecution and killing of Russians who spoke out in defence of Ukraine began earlier—a few months after the failure of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine: “In the summer of that year, the Russian parliament adopted an amendment to the Russian criminal code that designated any act of ‘switching to the enemy’s side during the military operations’ as high treason, subject to a prison sentence of up to 20 years.” Today, the volume of attacks by Russian units fighting on the side of Ukraine is more symbolic than of military significance. And such an aggressive reaction to them is a sign of the regime’s fragility. According to Soldatov and Borogan, “Putin’s preoccupation with Russians who join the other side is not an emotional act of vengeance or a reflexive response to the attacks against Russia. It is a strategic decision informed by a long history of Soviet and Russian paranoia about threats from within—and a further symptom of the regime’s emulation of its totalitarian twentieth-century predecessors.”

China has crossed the Biden administration’s red line on Ukraine. Matt Pottinger (Wall Street Journal) is convinced that Washington should respond to Beijing’s violation of red lines in Ukraine. In March 2022, US President Joe Biden warned China’s leadership against “material support” for Russia’s war against Ukraine. Today, Beijing is “‘overwhelmingly the No. 1 supplier’ of Russia’s military industrial base, with the ‘material effect’ of having fundamentally changed the course of the war.” In 2002, China was careful with red lines, but since the beginning of 2023, after Washington’s inconsequential reaction to the supply of Iranian drones to Russia, Beijing has stepped up its support for Moscow in its war against Ukraine, “effectively turning the conflict into a Chinese proxy war with the West.” According to the Pottinger, fracturing the West through proxy wars in Europe and the Middle East fits neatly within President Xi’s exhortation of the Chinese establishment to seek opportunity in international turmoil: “In a telling essay this month in the Chinese Communist Party’s top ideological and policy journal, Chen Yixin—the current head of China’s premier spy agency—promoted the idea of waging a ‘struggle’ far beyond China’s borders. Mr. Chen’s essay in the magazine Qiushi included a line that might as well serve as the informal slogan of the axis of chaos: ‘Seek advantages and avoid disadvantages in chaos.’” Therefore, the US’s reaction to Beijing’s support for Moscow will determine not only Ukraine’s chances of winning a war with Russia but also the prospects for distribution of spheres of influence in the international arena.

What needs to be done for Ukraine’s victory. Jack Watling (Foreign Affairs) emphasizes that ending the war on favourable terms for Ukraine requires the implementation of a comprehensive strategy to counter Russian aggression. Therefore, the existing US-approved assistance to Ukraine is not enough. Kyiv and its Western allies should take the following steps in order to seize the initiative in confronting Moscow: (1) intensify the mobilization and training of new well-equipped forces; (2) convince the Kremlin that continuing the war is risky for Russia; and (3) establish “a position of sufficient strength to be able to set forth, on Ukraine’s own terms, the parameters of a lasting peace.” In the author’s opinion, contrary to widespread assumptions, there is no shortage of people in Ukraine who can be mobilized: “According to one recent analysis, there could be several million additional Ukrainians who are able to serve.” Instead, Kyiv’s system for recruiting and training people to serve in the armed forces is inefficient; this problem can and should be addressed. Russia is already facing several pressure points. First, Moscow is continuing to lose critical systems, such as air defences: “Equipping Ukraine to be able to damage or destroy prestige Russian assets is strongly in NATO’s interest.” Second, Russia cannot finance the war indefinitely. Western sanctions must be backed by the destruction of Russia’s oil infrastructure. Thirdly, it is worth taking advantage of the deep frustration of Russians with their government: “So far, Western governments have not aggressively pursued information operations against the Russian government, partly because they are perceived as escalatory and partly because they are not expected to have immediate effect.” According to Watling, “The United States and its European allies need to recognize that [merely] helping Ukraine negate Russian attacks is not the same as putting Ukraine in a strong negotiating position. The Kremlin is keen for negotiations based on the war’s current dynamics: it believes that once talks are underway, Ukraine’s Western backers will agree to nearly anything, seeing any settlement that can be reached as successful, even if it fails to protect Ukraine in the long term. And Russia’s demand would remain what it has been throughout: a surrender in all but name. For Moscow to truly negotiate, it must be confronted with a situation in which extending the conflict further will present an unacceptable threat to itself. It is only then that Ukraine will be able to extract meaningful concessions.”

Putin’s energy gambit is appearing to backfire. Eric Reguly (Globe and Mail) argues that despite Russia’s sustained aggression in Ukraine and the West’s extensive imposition of sanctions, the Kremlin’s strategy has largely faltered. While the Russian economy has seen faltering growth and reduced unemployment, key industries have in fact suffered significant losses. Reguly notes that state-controlled Gazprom, the world’s biggest natural gas exporter and one of the government’s main sources of foreign income, reported in 2023 that its net loss came to the equivalent of US$6.9 billion, on revenues which shrank by 27 percent. The collapse of Gazprom’s European sales and the subsequent plummeting of its market value underscore the failure of Russia’s economic warfare. The reliance on European markets for gas, coupled with the lack of pipeline infrastructure to redirect exports eastward, has left Russia vulnerable to shifts in the global energy dynamics. As gas prices soared and Europe diversified its energy sources, particularly through increased LNG imports, Russia’s once-dominant position in the European energy market has been severely weakened. “Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine appears to be gaining momentum, [albeit] slowly. His economic war against Europe has backfired. Gazprom’s downfall is proof of his epic miscalculation,” the author concludes. 

As war drags on, Ukraine directs draft attention to men residing abroad. Geoff Nixon (CBC) reports that as Ukraine faces the prolonged challenge of Russia’s all-out war, the government has been implementing stricter measures, including lowering the draft age and restricting consular services for military-aged men abroad, in efforts to bolster its defence forces. “Staying abroad does not relieve a citizen of his or her duties to the homeland,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is quoted as saying, underlining Kyiv’s position on citizens’ obligations to their country. The urgent need for fresh recruits underscores the gravity of the situation, with concerns raised about the sustainability of the country’s defence efforts and tensions emerging over exemptions from front-line duty. Meanwhile, delayed military aid has exacerbated ammunition shortages on the battlefield, impacting Ukraine’s fighting spirit and capacity to defend itself. The mobilization issue is in the public eye in both Ukraine and Russia, with domestic political considerations influencing Kyiv’s actions and potential ramifications on Ukrainian diaspora engagement with their homeland. Quoted by Nixon, an assistant policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, Khrystyna Holynska, opines, “Actions like this…are not incentivizing them to keep ties with Ukraine.” 

Billions needed to clear Ukraine’s vast minefields. Briar Stewart (CBC) describes how Ukraine, while grappling with the aftermath of the ongoing war, is compelled to confronting the daunting reality of demining its territory and assuring the security of civilian lives. “More than two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country, Ukraine is now considered the largest minefield in the world,” Stewart reports. Since the start of the invasion, Russia has used at least 13 types of anti-personnel mines—which target humans, as opposed to vehicles, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Tragic incidents, such as Andrij Nalezhatyi’s family falling victim to a landmine explosion while assessing their rural holdings, underscore the profound impact of these hidden dangers on civilian lives. The threat persists, with as many as two million mines scattered across fields and forests, hampering agricultural activities and endangering communities throughout the country. The Ukrainian government estimates that 174,000 sq. km (or nearly 29%) of Ukraine’s territory needs to be surveyed for contamination: the scale of mine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) contamination in Ukraine is unprecedented, with 11 of the country’s 27 oblasts affected. Particularly in Kharkiv, Kherson, and Mykolaiv oblasts, contamination prevents access to agricultural lands and key transport routes. “What we are seeing in Ukraine really is on a level that we haven’t seen in decades,” Jasmine Dann of HALO Trust, who’s previously worked in Sri Lanka and Somalia clearing landmines, told Stewart. “The Ukraine conflict has also shown us really widespread usage of landmines, something that previously, I think a lot of people thought was going out of practice within modern militaries.” Demining Ukraine is projected to require a staggering $37 billion, according to the World Bank. To tackle this task, several nations including the US, UK, and Canada have stepped up, with Canada alone contributing over $35 million toward demining efforts. 

Foreign policy experts urge Biden administration to maintain support for Ukraine. Elias Stokols, Jonathan Lemire, and Alexander Ward (Politico) note that President Joe Biden’s recent victory in securing $60 billion for Ukraine through a foreign aid bill marks a significant foreign policy achievement. However, with this hurdle cleared, the administration plans to shift the public focus away from America’s ongoing commitment to the Ukraine war, prioritizing economic concerns in a preoccupied electorate. Foreign policy experts have warned that neglecting to emphasize the importance of continued US support for Ukraine could erode domestic backing for the war, complicate future funding, and challenge Biden’s presidential legacy. Nevertheless, the administration aims to balance multiple priorities, among them addressing the scepticism regarding US aid to Ukraine. “It’s important for the Biden administration not to cede public messaging on Ukraine to the people who are sceptical of US support,” cautioned Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. However, the administration believes that it can simultaneously tackle multiple issues while navigating the political landscape. Yet, while emphasizing other domestic concerns in the wake of securing Ukraine aid, the Biden administration risks downplaying the urgency and significance of its continued support for Ukraine, a cause that has been portrayed as vital to defending democratic principles and global stability. The Biden team, however, feels they have navigated through challenging political moments concerning the war effort, according to the authors. Recent polls indicate an increase in Americans’ support for Ukraine, especially as Russian attacks intensify on Ukrainian cities and the invaders make slow but steady progress on the battlefield. According to a Gallup poll released this month, 36 percent of Americans believe that the US has not provided sufficient aid to Ukraine, up from 25 percent in October. Another 36 percent feel that the US has given too much assistance to Kyiv, while 26 percent believe the amount was appropriate

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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