The war between Russia and Ukraine has imposed a difficult challenge on NATO and Europe. In particular, our continent risks to come out destabilized, between war at the gates, wave of refugees and socio-economic repercussions of sanctions. What are the scenarios for the near future and how should NATO and European countries deal with them?
This was the topic of the videconference "NATO and Europe facing the Russian-Ukrainian War", organized by Centro Studi Machiavelli on April 15, 2022 with guests James Carafano (Heritage Foundation, USA), Attila Demko (Mathias Corvinus Collegium, Hungary) and Guglielmo Picchi (MP, Italy), moderated by Daniele Scalea (Centro Studi Machiavelli).
The current conflict has been characterized by serious errors in intelligence, analysis, and planning. First, as is evident, on the part of the Russian Federation, which thought it would replicate what it did with Ukraine in 2014: a swift operation that would meet minimal resistance. Yet, noted the three experts (all of whom have visited Ukraine several times), the improvement of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in recent years was evident. But the Russian system has a serious flaw, according to Attila Demko: it does not facilitate those who want to bring the truth to the leader. This has produced bad intelligence, trapping President Putin, who probably didn't even have fallback plans beyond Plan A.
However, the US was also guilty of serious miscalculations. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley reportedly predicted on the eve of the conflict that the Ukrainians would hold out for 72 hours. In James Carafano's opinion, because American analysts relied on what the Russians predicted. Moscow's plan was to disrupt the Kiev government in the first or second day of operations, and then proceed almost unchallenged to occupy the country. Lacking on the American side was a more sophisticated analysis of Russian and Ukrainian capabilities.
Since in Washington it was not believed that Ukrainians would have been able to defend themselves - Carafano continues - the first response was not to provoke Russia, hoping to prevent the invasion. When the invasion started anyway, it was not thought to arm Kiev immediately, believing that it would quickly capitulate. Only after three weeks of conflict in Washington was it realized that Ukraine could resist, and as a result, the level of support was raised. Really poor planning, merely reacting to events on the ground.
How the conflict will proceed
After about a month of operations, Putin finally realized that Plan A had failed and was forced to fall back on Plan B: the destruction of the concentration of Ukrainian troops in the Donbass. Whether this could succeed was a matter of debate among the panelists.
According to Carafano Putin hopes to conclude the conflict for the May 9 celebrations, but the expert is very skeptical about the Russian possibilities. It is unthinkable that in such a short time the Russians will solve all the problems highlighted so far; the change of commanders cannot make a terrible logistics good, or improve vehicle reliability. The offensive would have to take place along lines of advance easily predictable by the Ukrainians, with a reduced fleet of armored vehicles and with unfavorable weather conditions.
Less optimistic about the fate of Ukraine was Demko. He warned of the "Western information bubble" in which we find ourselves. We don't know anything about Ukrainian losses until now. The Russians learn slowly, but they learn from their mistakes. In the Donbass it will be easier for them to supply troops, especially when - within a few days - the port of Mariupol is in their hands. The one in Kiev was a really difficult operation, conducted in an area that is the opponent's power center, a big city, surrounded by a territory rich in forests. The region of Mariupol, on the other hand, offers wide open spaces (where it has already been seen that the Russians can do well). Further north, near Izium and Slovjansk, the terrain is less favorable - with forests, valleys and rivers - but not everywhere the Ukrainians are firmly entrenched. According to Demko, if the Russians do not try to resolve the situation by the unthinkable date of May 9, but are more patient and perhaps aided by weather conditions, they still have a chance of success. However hard the Ukrainians may fight, artillery and aviation weigh in and there the Russians have an advantage. The new western weapons systems that Kiev will receive could be of little help, according to Demko, because Ukrainians are used to Soviet systems and the more advanced a new system is, the more difficult it is to learn how to use it. Anti-tank missiles are one thing, self-propelled artillery and Western-made tanks are another.
The three speakers agreed on the difficulty that sanctions on Russia create for Europe: in particular those that would affect gas and oil imports.
Attila Demko spoke about the case of Hungary, which imports 84% of its gas needs from Russia. Giving it up would cause great damage to Budapest, but what about Russia? It still has 200 billion dollars in reserves. If it does not sell to Europe, it can do so to China and India (which currently imports little from Russia, but is already negotiating to increase volumes enjoying excellent discounts). The prediction of the Hungarian expert is that, even if Russia stopped selling to Europe today, it could resist for years. Paradoxically, the biggest loser would be Ukraine: it would no longer have the royalties of passage and at that point Moscow would no longer have the brakes to destroy the Ukrainian energy infrastructure.
Carafano agreed that there is no sense in hurting ourselves just to increase the pressure on Russia. In the short term there are European countries that cannot give up imports from Russia, nor does it make sense to antagonize India for the same reason. The economy is an aggregate of which oil and gas are only a part, therefore we should not be fossilized on them. If anything, Europe should put pressure on Washington to increase its oil and gas exports. The U.S. is the world's leading producer of both commodities, but since Biden has been in the White House it has never been able to ensure that global demand is matched by supply. This is despite no shortage of infrastructure or labor.