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OPINION - Ukraine war is at a crucial stage, and China’s next move could be key

Ben Judah (Handout)
Ben Judah (Handout)

It often happens like this in war. Conflicts get bogged down. What’s going to happen seems to narrow — one hill, then another hill — until suddenly it feels wide open again. This is now the case in Ukraine. Two unanswered questions, one concerning Russia and the other China, will determine whether Vladimir Putin is defeated or turns this into a forever war.

Bakhmut is where the first Russian question is posed. Assaulted by the Russian army and the Kremlin’s notorious Wagner mercenary group with human wave attacks for months, the question of whether it will stay in Ukrainian hands is up in the air. In Kyiv, for now, they think they can hold it and that they are bleeding Russia dry in the process. The Ukrainian National Security Council claims that Moscow is losing a shocking seven men to every Ukrainian death.

The Russian question is this: can Moscow’s armies sustain these losses? Putin believes it can and that over the next few years he can bleed a smaller Ukraine into a ceasefire that tacitly accepts his gains. A Russian forever war fuelled by prisoners, mercenaries and below-the-radar mobilisation might ultimately prove so attritional that the West would push Zelensky to settle.

This is a real danger for Kyiv. But many allied officials scoff at the idea that today’s Russia really has the capacity to do this. Washington believes Moscow has suffered more than 200,000 killed or wounded. This means most of the Kremlin’s original highly trained and experienced force has been ravaged. While it’s easy to dismiss these casualties given Russia’s 143milion population, reserves won’t help an army take these casualties indefinitely. Morale can collapse; exhaustion can set in.

There’s precedent here: a broken Russian army fled Kharkiv Oblast last autumn. Spying an opportunity, the West has now increased its military support. Armed with this new kit, Ukrainian generals are eyeing up an offensive to reach the Sea of Azov through the flatlands of Zaporizhzhia Oblast — where liberating Bryansk or even Mariupol would break the landbridge Putin has conquered between his old occupations in Donetsk and Crimea. This could turn a failed war into a rout in the minds of the Russian public. This might, if not exactly break Putin’s grip on power, make it shakier. Forever war or complete failure. The future feels open.

The second unanswered question concerns China. The United States has been warning its allies that Beijing is considering arming Russia with artillery shells and drones. This would dramatically change the war. China’s arms factories would, in an inverse of American support for Britain in the early years of the Second World War, be turning themselves into “an arsenal of tyranny” to support Putin’s war. This would in time make up for Western warnings that Russia is running out of ammunition. Putin, with Chinese backing, would have the production facilities Russia lacks to fight that forever war. The cost of sustaining Western support at current and rising rate would be high.

It’s uncertain whether China would do this. The US has warned of severe consequences. With Xi Jinping’s economy still struggling from his disastrous Covid Zero policy, new sanctions would hurt. Such a move would enrage Europeans in particular, pushing them into a more hawkish position towards Beijing and ruining Chinese attempts to charm them away from alignment with Washington. It would also go against China’s pro-Russian peace plan.

Does Xi Jinping really believe Putin is going to lose without his help? Is he prepared to weather the pain of such a move because he thinks war over Taiwan is inevitable and he will need Russia to avoid a US superquarantine? Or is he creating options to pressure the West to take his peace pitch seriously? Worryingly, Xi Jinping has always come downon the more radical pro-Russian side of how the Chinese Communist Party sees the world.

It’s testament to how unpredictable war can be that a year ago most people in Washington felt that Kyiv was about to fall. The geopolitical fallout can be just as unpredictable. A Russian defeat or a Russian forever war are both on the cards. But many in Kyiv are asking: with the US presidential elections looming into view, will the White House push them into starting negotiations if the coming counteroffensive fails?

Putin knows a Chinese-supported forever war is not what President Biden wants as his backdrop.