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Who Blinks First?


Wars always go through a dull phase.

Not, of course, for the poor bloody infantry actually, daily, shooting and dying, or the hapless civilians trapped and bombarded in the ruins of their homes, but for the onlookers, initially energised by the distant scenes and sounds of conflict, the narrative of cruel invaders and plucky defenders, and wondering – what next?

We can blame our attention span, conditioned by movies and gaming, where the story resolves after the third act or the wounded player re-spawns. Now, 100 days in, Ukraine is slipping from the headlines as the war slides into a slogging match that doesn’t produce easy heroic stories, just grim images of unspeakable destruction.

And you can almost hear the easing back in office chairs in a dozen foreign ministries across the EU – “isn’t it time to bring all this back to reality?” As they sense their publics moving on to other, newer concerns, politicians and diplomats find defiance against tyranny has a shelf-life - especially as the actual shelves are looking a bit empty right now.

Then there is always the fallback of self-doubt – are we defending our principles at someone else’s cost, fighting for freedom to the last dead Ukrainian?

So it’s hardly surprising that there’s talk of negotiation again, mainly coming from Berlin and Paris. From Kyiv’s point of view, there is no question of conceding territory – they have made that clear – so it’s hard to see what room there is for discussion with a Moscow still intent on gaining at least the Donbas. France and Germany want to keep the communication channels open to Putin, and they can’t be blamed for that, but there is a growing sense of pressure for a compromise from Zelenskyy.

There are a number of clocks ticking across this crisis. How long can Ukraine’s military hold their defensive lines in the Donbas? How long can Russia’s military sustain the huge losses of men and equipment? How long before the Ukrainians can deploy best US long-range artillery? How long before sanctions on Russia really begin to bite?

If Russia can keep going until the autumn, there’s a chance Europe’s energy needs could trump support for the Ukrainians in much of the EU. If Kyiv’s losses in battle are as high as feared, and the right equipment doesn’t reach the front-line, Moscow could still snatch some kind of victory in the east.

But Putin did not expect to commit so much for so long to a vanity project that looks less and less likely to succeed, and that makes him both desperate and vulnerable. The “military operation” myth is going to be harder to sustain as months roll on and the costs mount.

What all this will come down to is endurance - who is prepared or able to stay the course, and who decides, finally, the costs outweigh the benefits.


Articles by Roger Hearing

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