Putin 'assassination attempt' marks serious escalation in Ukraine war

Russia says it downed two drones that were targeting the Kremlin in Moscow Tuesday night and accused Ukraine of attempting to kill President Vladimir Putin

Russia says it downed two drones that were targeting the Kremlin in Moscow Tuesday night and accused Ukraine of attempting to kill President Vladimir Putin.
Eduardo Ramon
Russia says it downed two drones that were targeting the Kremlin in Moscow Tuesday night and accused Ukraine of attempting to kill President Vladimir Putin.

Putin 'assassination attempt' marks serious escalation in Ukraine war

Moscow has said that it downed two drones that were targeting the Kremlin Tuesday night, accusing Kyiv of attempting to assassinate President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin said the drones were neutralised by special services using electronic radar assets.

Mr Putin was not in the Kremlin at the time, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the state news agency, adding there was no material damage to buildings.

Ukraine says it is making no comment.

It has been over a year since the war in Ukraine erupted and there is no end in sight, with leaked Pentagon papers suggesting that there will be no movement towards a political settlement this year, in part because Russian and Ukrainian positions have hardened.

Read more: Pentagon leaks show Western resolve in Ukraine war

Ukraine, backed by the United States and its allies, has vowed to continue fighting until it “recaptures all the territory it lost since 2014”.

Meanwhile, Russia seems intent on improving its position and shows no interest in ending hostilities, repeating only that it remains open to negotiations.

The US, which has cast the conflict as a global challenge pitting democracies against autocracies, continues to pour military and economic aid into Ukraine, so that it can continue the war.

Europeans also support Ukraine but hope that Russia, under mounting pressure from sanctions, will eventually come to the negotiating table.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on the economic issues via a video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on April 11, 2023.

China has hinted that it will not allow the defeat of Russia, but nor will it accept an open-ended conflict, and while it is apparently considering whether to provide lethal weapons to Russia, Beijing may grow impatient and choose to mediate.

Read more: Xi’s visit to Moscow highlights Putin’s increased global isolation

Drawing red ideological lines

The rest of the world, suffering the economic consequences of the war, does not want to take sides and just wants a resolution, which begs the question: why has a settlement been difficult to achieve so far? Indeed, what are the prospects for this?

For a start, the rationale behind Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine has not disappeared.

Rather, it has been reinforced, because Moscow is now even more convinced that the West wants weaken Russia, as evidenced in the ‘Concept of Foreign Policy (FPC) of the Russian Federation’ document, released on 31 March 2023.

Read more: Russia’s foreign policy gets an update

Second, the war has become ideological. For the West, it is autocracy versus democracy.

For Russia, it is an existential threat. As per the FPC, it is about the West “weakening Russia in every possible way, including [by] undermining its constructive civilisational role”.

Unfortunately, history shows that ideological wars are the most enduring, and Russia cannot afford defeat. It certainly cannot give up Crimea, nor can it withdraw from the land bridge connecting the peninsula to mainland Russia.

Mourners gather next to the coffin of Russian army Lieutenant Сolonel Andrey Savinov, who was killed during Russia-Ukraine conflict, at his funeral in the town of Kirishi in the Leningrad region, Russia April 11, 2023.

When it comes to the Donbas, while Russia may not be able to incorporate the whole region as planned, it will try to keep the territory it currently holds.

Finally, it will insist on guarantees for the safety, security, and cultural rights of Russian speakers in the region. This is a tall order and cannot be achieved in the short-term.

Two very different outlooks

The political outlooks of the warring parties are fundamentally at odds. On the one hand, the West’s political model is based on the diffusion of power, a system of checks and balances, and pragmatism.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (L) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg watches during a joining ceremony at Nato headquarters in Brussels on 04 April 2023

The Russian mentality, on the other hand, is based on immutable beliefs that are reflected in its political system, such as the belief in exceptionalism, the acceptance of a centralised authority, and a security phobia stemming from centuries of invasion from all directions.

Politics in the West is based on diffused power with checks and balances. In Russia, it is based on exceptionalism, centralised authority, and fear of invasion.

These differing characteristics are largely responsible for the intermittent rivalry between Russia and the West.

The Ukraine crisis has increased Moscow's sense of vulnerability and has further reinforced its need to restructure the European security architecture and accelerate the movement towards a multipolar international system.

This photograph taken on April 10, 2023, shows a missile on a field in the village of Novohryhorivka, in the Mykolaiv region, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

In a very real sense, the Ukraine crisis is about more than just Ukraine. It is key to Russia's position in the Eurasian space, which, in turn, is fundamental to its national security and to its international standing.

Russia riding it out

Meanwhile, President Putin's popularity in Russia remains high. The Russian government appears to have successfully cushioned the population from the effect of sanctions, at least in the major cities.

Fresh food and basic necessities remain available, sourced from places like Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia. Even supposedly embargoed European goods are found in Russian markets through intermediaries in the Caucuses, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Economically, Russia is holding up, contrary to predictions at the outset of the war that its economy would collapse. Estimates foresaw a 15% contraction in 2022, but the IMF says Russia's GDP fell by only 2.2% last year and is expected to do better in 2023, with just a 0.3% drop.

Likewise, the Ruble has not collapsed. Trade with the major economies outside the West - especially with the other Brics countries [Brazil, India, China, and South Africa] has increased significantly.

Europe's reduced demand for Russian oil and gas has been offset by increased sales to China and India.

A Ukrainian serviceman fires a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) from a launcher during a training exercise in the Donetsk region on April 7, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

When and if the Western sanctions do start to bite is difficult to predict. One potential issue may be the supply of Western-made microchips, which are essential to Russian arms production. A shortage may the impact on the Russian economy.

Western support for Ukraine

Ukraine has also proven to be resilient. With crucial support from the West, the Ukrainian military has performed beyond expectations to keep Russian attacks at bay.

Moreover, it has recaptured part of the territory lost in the war's initial phase. The home front stood firm, proving that the Ukrainian spirit is still very much alive.

Read more: Bakhmut holds as battle heats up amid fog and mud

As for the US, it has made it clear that its goal is to weaken Russia so that it would no longer poses a threat to its neighbours in the West.

Yet the end game for Washington is not clear. Members of past US administrations have asked if Ukraine can win the war, in the sense of recapturing the territory already lost to Russia.

Meanwhile, the international system remains in a state of flux. In the one corner, there is the United States and its allies. In the other, China and Russia, jockeying for position.

Read moreIt's a brave new world for Russia, China, and Europe

The rest of the world is apprehensive about what appears to be a protracted confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War, albeit this time fought with different weapons — mostly economic — which will have a more direct impact on the global south.

The prospect of mediation

Given the rigidity of both the Russian and Ukrainian positions, and given the distance between them, no one has yet made a serious effort to mediate. Several have said they are ready to do so, including Brazil, but realistically the only country with sufficient clout to perform such a role is China.

Beijing will have to be forceful if it intends to play peacemaker. Until now, it has only indicated its preparedness to do so. Its diplomats know that mediating between Russia and Ukraine will be fraught, so may be waiting for the right moment and the right allies.

China will have to be a forceful peacemaker since mediating between Russia and Ukraine will be fraught… Beijing's diplomats may be waiting for the right moment with the right allies

Although things seem to have reached an impasse, there are signs that the situation may change, with hints that the West's support for Ukraine may be eroding, alongside questions as to how long Russia can sustain the war.

Ukraine fatigue appears to have crept into US politics. Public support for the war may be waning in the absence of an end game and doubts about the West's ability to provide the weapons Ukraine needs to win the war. Republicans, in particular, have voiced concern.

As the 2024 election nears, there will be mounting pressure on Biden to clarify US goals when it comes to Ukraine. If he is forced to set limits, this could restrict his freedom when it comes to supporting Kyiv.

No US president — incumbent or incoming — wants to be seen to lose a war to Russia, even if the US is not fighting directly.

Longevity the key to success

Across Europe and the US, politicians know that Ukraine needs more and better arms to withstand further Russian attacks if the conflict continues, but war is eroding the West's military readiness and depleting its weapons stockpiles, and its defense industrial base does not seem able to replace the lost equipment and ammunition fast enough.

An American soldier walks past a line of M1 Abrams tanks, Nov. 29, 2016, at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo. U.S. officials say the Pentagon is speeding up its delivery of Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

In terms of energy dependence, a warm winter has let Europeans wean themselves off Russian gas, but across the EU there are mounting concerns at states' precarious economies and questions about military support of Ukraine.

Whether this translates into pressure to pursue a political solution in Ukraine remains to be seen, but Russia also faces difficult choices, because to continue its war, the Kremlin will need to mobilise more of its population, a decision that Putin would rather avoid.

Additionally, the lack of Western microchips will hurt its industrial production, in particular its military production, causing hardships for the people and a diminished military capability.

Read more: How microchips are reshaping geopolitics

In short, both Russia and the West may be reaching the point whereby the benefits of ending hostilities outweigh the costs of continuing with war.

If neither Russia nor a Western-backed Ukraine are willing to pay the political price of a settlement, the most likely outcome will be a scenario akin to the Korean peninsula i.e. a frozen conflict, with an armistice, a demilitarised zone, and no political process.

Given the minimum that both Russia and Ukraine are prepared to live with, hopes of a settlement are being put on-hold.

Likewise, for relations between Russia and the West, including on the matter of European security, most suspect there will be a long wait.

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