As the war in Ukraine grinds into its third month, the prospects of any kind of negotiated peace have never seemed more remote.
Rhetoric from US and Russian officials is heating up. The fighting on the ground is getting more vicious. And the battle being waged using tools of economic warfare shows no signs of slowing down.
The events of the past few days have clarified that the chasm between Moscow and its adversaries is widening, dimming the prospects for diplomacy. Ukraine and its western backers appear to be losing what little patience they have with Russia as it continues to forge ahead with an invasion that, if successful, threatens upend the post-World War II global order.
Moscow’s massive military operation in eastern Ukraine is chugging on, slowly but successfully, with Kyiv acknowledging that several towns are falling to the Russians. More and more reports of apparent war crimes continue to surface. And Russian-appointed officials are preparing a “sham referendum” in the occupied city of Kherson, a brazen attempt to legitimize an invasion.
The US and European Union have already enacted several rounds of sanctions meant to hurt the Russian economy as punishment for the invasion, but a new effort to send much-needed weaponry to Ukraine is gaining steam. Representatives from 40 countries gathered at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany this week to help organize and coordinate the delivery of weaponry.
“We don’t have any time to waste,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Monday. “We’ve got to move at the speed of war. And I know that all the leaders leave today more resolved than ever to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression and atrocities.”
Austin said several countries had agreed to provide more support to Ukraine. Among them is Germany, which since the end of World War II has been wary of sending arms to other countries but will now deliver heavy weaponry to Kyiv.
Washington’s goal, according to Austin, is to see “Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” a significant and more aggressive shift in policy by the Biden administration after stating earlier it only sought to help Ukraine defend itself.
The Western shift in strategy has come about over the past few weeks, evidenced by a growing tolerance for increased risk with the more complex weaponry being sent in, and is a reflection of the belief that Putin’s goals in Ukraine would not be met if he manages to seize part of Ukraine, as they didn’t after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, a British diplomat said.
Those listening in the Kremlin likely see Austin’s statement as proof that Washington and the West are looking to box in Russia and prevent it from, as Putin has long promised, reemerging as a global superpower as it was during the Cold War.
“It looks like they’re not really interested in negotiations, and those that are calling for Russia not to win and calling on others to defeat Russia and to break to destroy Russia, which is what they’re doing by pumping Ukraine with weapons and lots and lots of weapons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday. “If this continues, it doesn’t look likely that the negotiations will be productive.”
President Vladimir Putin also seemed to cast doubt on whether diplomatic talks can move forward. On Tuesday, Putin claimed that negotiators had achieved a “serious breakthrough” during talks with Ukraine in Istanbul last month, but that progress was derailed following accusations that Russian forces executed civilians and left corpses in the street in the northern Ukrainian town of Bucha. The Kremlin has denied committing such atrocities and alleged that the satellite and drone imagery confirming them are fake.
Moscow’s efforts at economic warfare are now going beyond tit-for-tat sanctions. The Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom said Wednseday it will shut off natural gas shipments to Poland and Bulgaria, ostensibly because the two countries refused to pay in rubles. In effect, it means that Russia is now weaponizing energy exports.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the move a “direct attack,” while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it “blackmail.” Both leaders said officials had been preparing for this scenario.
“It is clear that at the moment the natural gas is being used more as a political and economic weapon in the current war,” Bulgarian Energy Minister Alexander Nikolov said.
Russia shows few signs of backing down despite the West’s more aggressive posture. Lavrov even warned that warned that the risk of nuclear war “is real, and it cannot be underestimated.”
The decision to better arm Ukraine could ultimately help it win the war. But with Russian troops being shot at with Western weapons, Putin may not be inclined to sue for peace.
CNN’s Natasha Bertrand, Kylie Atwood, Kevin Liptak and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report