As we have welcome the New Year, many on both sides of the Atlantic are wondering whether the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the biggest war in Europe since World War II, will come to an end this year. The largest country on the continent, Ukraine, is being depopulated, having lost more than 100,000 of its citizens to death or injury. Europe itself is being destabilized by financial woes and influx of refugees from war-torn areas.
Contrary to the hopes of many, not only will 2023 not bring peace, it will likely see the most bloodshed yet, as the key warring parties – Moscow, Kyiv, and Washington, D.C. – are all postured for decisive escalation. Here’s why we are probably entering the "hottest" phase of this war.
Putin signals escalation to "defend Motherland"
In his New Year address, Vladimir Putin signaled resolve to take the fight to the finish, portraying the conflict as existential for the future of Russia.
Dressed in a dark suit and tie and surrounded by what was meant to be perceived as his troops, Putin delivered a stern nine-minute message, likely intended to galvanize support among Russians, put fear into his detractors, and show to the West that he has placed the entire Russian nation on a wartime footing.
The Russian president reminded his citizens that "defending our Motherland" is the "sacred duty we owe to our ancestors and descendants." He contrasted those who display "courage and heroism" and "with those who show "betrayal and cowardice." Putin blamed the West for using Ukraine to "weaken and fracture" Russia and noted that in "every challenging period in Russian history" the Russians united behind their "comrades-in-arms."
Meanwhile, the Russian military unleashed yet another massive bombardment of Ukraine, using missile and drone attacks that came in waves over several days and targeting vital infrastructure.
Last Wednesday, Putin deployed a frigate, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Gorshkov, armed with hypersonic Zircon cruise missiles to the Atlantic Ocean, having remarked during a video teleconference with his Defense Minister that Zircon "has no analogues in any country in the world."
In another attempt to signal Moscow’s readiness for escalation, Putin said, "I am sure that such powerful weapons will reliably protect Russia from potential external threats."
The Kremlin’s biggest fear is the deployment of U.S. and NATO troops into the theater in Ukraine. Moscow military planners have previously concluded that war between Russia and the United States is inevitable, given that the two Cold War adversaries have been in a confrontation for geopolitical control over post-Soviet states since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. So, escalation is not an unthinkable option for Putin.
Zelenskyy emboldened to out-escalate Russia
In a New Year’s message of his own, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised victory to his countrymen. In a 17-minute, emotional video, like his Russian counterpart, Zelenskyy stressed unity and pride and ruled out any other option but to win.
One week ago, Ukrainian forces launched a deadly counterattack of their own, hitting a facility in Russia-occupied city of Makiivka in Donbas, killing scores of newly mobilized Russian troops and injuring many more.
Last Wednesday, Ukraine’s military intelligence head Kyrylo Budanov, in an interview to ABC News, vowed more strikes "deeper and deeper" into Russia, including into Crimea, which Moscow annexed and has fully controlled since 2014. Kyiv’s spy chief warned about the "hottest" fighting coming in March and promised a Ukrainian victory in 2023.
Kyiv’s confidence can be attributed to Zelenskyy’s recent stellar performance before Congress, during his surprise visit to Washington four days before Christmas and the subsequent congressional approval of an additional $45 billion in military aid to Ukraine, showing Zelenskyy is still in Washington's ear.
Washington grows and invests in Russia’s defeat
Having poured $100 billion in security assistance into Ukraine, Washington has been steadily expanding the scale and scope of matériel it’s providing. What started off as blankets and non-lethal aid has grown into a steady stream of top-of-the-line military hardware. A partial list includes 8,500-plus Javelin anti-armor systems, 32,000-plus other anti-armor systems; 1,400-plus Stinger anti-aircraft systems; hundreds of armored Humvee vehicles and 440 mine resistant vehicles; and 200 M113 armored personnel carriers. Among the most sophisticated pieces provided are 20 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.
What seemed impossible just a few weeks ago is now on the way – a Patriot missile system and precision-guided bomb technology. There are even talks within the European combatant command whether to fulfill Ukraine’s request for F-16s, the world’s most advanced 4th generation multi-role fighter aircraft. Such discussions were viewed by some officials as a step too far, out of concern of escalation.
Members of the Washington officialdom now openly acknowledge that arming Ukraine is a low-cost way of bleeding Russia of manpower and matériel, arguing that it would prevent a larger European conflict. This justification contradicts the results of several years worth of wargaming conducted by the U.S. government to simulate a direct Russia-NATO kinetic conflict. These table-top military exercises revealed that continued escalation of hostilities in a contested post-Soviet territory eventually drags the U.S. into a broader war, spiraling out of control.
Ukrainians are not shy about asking for more and more. Budanov is expecting U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which "will significantly improve the combat ability of our units." No wonder he is confident that the "hottest" yet fight is coming. "I promise it will not take too long now … We will change this world together," Budanov told ABC. On New Year's Day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged the allies to stockpile weapons for Ukraine.
Realizing that the conflict is firmly on an escalatory path, Moscow is laying the justification for whatever dramatic action it may decide to take by portraying the West as coming for Putin’s head. In a bizarre statement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the U.S. on December 28th against carrying out a "decapitation blow" targeting the Russian strongman. He called it a "threat to physically eliminate the head of the Russian state."