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Climbing the escalation ladder: Ukraine uses Western weapons to strike inside Russia

The leaders of France and Germany announced last Tuesday that Ukraine should be allowed to hit military targets inside Russia. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that Ukraine can use German-supplied weapons “within the framework of international law”. French President Emmanuel Macron echoed this sentiment, saying  “We think we should allow them to neutralise military sites from which missiles are fired, military sites from which Ukraine is attacked, but we shouldn't allow them to hit other targets in Russia and civilian or other military sites in Russia." 

Earlier this month, Russia commenced a new offensive north of Kharkiv which has drawn Ukrainian troops away from the Eastern front. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky then implored Western allies to step up their involvement in the war, even suggesting that NATO allies intercept Russian missiles over Ukrainian territory to help Kyiv protect itself. For Zelensky, risking escalation is a secondary concern compared to advancing Ukraine’s strategic position. Last week, the Ukrainian president was granted the green light he desired after it was reported that President Biden will allow Ukraine to strike targets inside Russian territory using U.S. weapons. This is in spite of the U.S. Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin,  stating the opposite on May 20th. "Our expectation is that they continue to use the weapons that we provided on targets inside of Ukraine," Austin said

This may seem to indicate a massive dynamics shift in the conflict, whereby Ukraine had been fighting with one hand tied behind its back, and now have the operational freedom they required to achieve victory; This is not the case. First, some Western weapons have already struck Russian territory. The UK-delivered Storm Shadow missiles have already been used to strike Russian targets inside Russia according to reports from U.S. officials, and leaked communications from the German Defense Ministry. 

Second, in February, Biden approved the delivery of the long-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) to Ukraine. Subsequently, in March, the U.S. included a “significant” number of them in a $300 million aid package as per US officials. These deliveries were shrouded in secrecy. According to AP, they were so well hidden that U.S. lawmakers were demanding the weapons be delivered to Ukraine, despite the fact that they were already there. Ukraine had already used these weapons to strike Russian-held territory; in April 2024 on an airfield in the Crimean city of Dzanhkoi, which Russia annexed in 2014, and targets near the occupied city of Berdyansk in October 2023. The difference this week is that Ukrainian forces have utilised their newly permitted freedom to strike inside Russia’s internationally recognised borders, using Western weapons. A Russian S-300/400 air defence battery was destroyed in Belgorod Oblast, likely with the U.S.-delivered HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), according to intelligence from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Although Ukraine has already been aggressively shelling this part of Russia, this was the first confirmation of U.S. weapons being used to do so.  Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, also announced this news in a Telegram post which was later deleted.

With the U.S. and its allies now permitting strikes inside Russia’s borders, the threat of nuclear escalation has reached new heights. Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, responded by saying “This is nothing but a policy of provoking a new level of tensions. We realise that this negative trend in their approach unfortunately persists. They provoke Ukraine in every possible way to continue this senseless war,” Putin commented himself on the strategy shift from Western leaders, saying that representatives of NATO countries should "be aware of what they are playing with." These developments come less than two weeks after Ukrainian strikes on Russia’s nuclear radar stations in Krasnodar and Orsk, the latter of which is over 1,500 km deep into Russian territory. The primary purpose of these radars is to detect incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles, allowing Russia to determine whether they are under nuclear attack. These drone strikes will certainly factor into Russia’s growing cynicism towards the West and their policy on using nuclear weapons in the conflict. Considering the risks that this conflict continues to pose, it seems important to reassess the likelihood  of Ukraine winning and how Western intelligence and reporting has framed their chances of doing so.

First, despite reassurances from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Ukraine can win a war of attrition against Russia, the disparities in population and artillery are statistically insurmountable for Ukraine, barring direct intervention from NATO troops. During his visit to Kyiv in May, Blinken said Putin has it wrong — time is on Ukraine’s side. As the war goes on, Russia is going back in time. Ukraine is moving forward.”

These comments are only one month removed from reports that Russia is firing artillery at a ratio of 10:1 compared to Ukraine. Everytime that the reality of demographics and economies of scale pertaining to weapons manufacturing comes to rear its ugly head, signalling the end for Ukraine's fight, a new report comes from “Western officials” that Russia’s military apparatus is on its heels, presumably to implore Westerners to ramp up their support for the war. 

For example, in late February 2024, when Ukraine desperately needed more aid to withstand Russian aggression, the BBC published an article with the headline  “Russia 'struggling with supply of weapons and ammunition' for Ukraine war - Western officials”.

A few weeks later on March 11th, a CNN exclusive claimed the exact opposite “Exclusive: Russia producing three times more artillery shells than US and Europe for Ukraine”. Last week similar reports corroborated that Russia was producing shells three times faster and for a quarter of the cost compared to their Western counterparts.

In December 2023, a declassified US intelligence report claimed that Russia had lost nearly 90% of the personnel it had prior to the Ukraine war, and that Ukraine's military had set back Russia’s military modernization by 18 years. This at least implied that Russia was severely weakened, if not on the brink of defeat. However, in February 2024, Russia’s manpower was calculated to be nearly 1.2 million active duty members and 1.5 million reserves, on top of their now thriving weapons manufacturing industry. For reference, as of September 2023, the US military is reported to have 1.29 million active duty members and 767,238 as national guard/reserves. Whether this points to a gross miscalculation of Russia’s capacity to recruit personnel and bolster arms production or to intentionally misleading information coming from U.S. intelligence, isn’t clear. However, given that Russia’s GDP is 13x larger than that of Ukraine, and considering that they have least a 3:1 advantage in fighting aged males (approx. 45 million to 15 million), it is unclear how Ukraine could ever have emerged victorious even with Western weapons, despite the Pentagon claiming a Ukrainian victory was “absolutely” possible in 2022, in addition to prominent Western publications parroting that narrative right up until the beginning of 2024.

Whether Russia spending a third of their budget on defence is sustainable or not is another question. However, the idea that a reinvigorated Russian military industrial base with overwhelming disparities in artillery and personnel is an example of “Russia going back in time” and “Ukraine moving forward”, as Blinken said this month, is vacuous. Any reports of a weakened Russian military should be met with radical scepticism, especially considering the misleading and inconsistent intelligence reports from Western sources. 

Now that Russia has regained the upper hand on the battlefield, a negotiated peace is even less likely than it was during previous negotiation attempts. The Ukraine Peace Summit, requested by President Zelensky, which is set to take place from June 14-16 in Switzerland, ironically demonstrates how unlikely a true peace settlement is. The Swiss government released a statement outlining the aims of the event, “The conference aims to establish a forum for a high-level dialogue on ways to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace for Ukraine in accordance with international law and the UN Charter. It aims to create a common understanding of a framework favourable to this objective and a concrete roadmap for Russia’s participation in the peace process.” 

While this may seem like an important step towards rapprochement, Russia has not been invited. According to Zelensky, this was because “(Russia) is the aggressor” and they do not comply with agreements. It is safe to say that a negotiated peace settlement will be impossible to attain when the main belligerent in the conflict isn’t invited to the table. For that reason alone, it seems that the peace Summit is a performative endeavour, devoid of any legitimate attempts at diplomacy. China’s response to this attempted peace summit may summarise the event most aptly. 

"We have repeatedly stressed that the peace conference [on Ukraine] should have the recognition of Russia and Ukraine. Everybody should participate in it on an equal basis, and all peace initiatives should be discussed fairly," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said. Mao Ning also stated that "It will be hard for us to take part in this conference as we think that these three aspects will be difficult to achieve during the conference," adding that “not attending it does not mean not supporting peace.”

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