Analysis. The Kremlin will certainly invoke the right to defend itself, including to strike any base in Europe from which it deems that an attack on its own territory originated.

The war in Ukraine is not escalating – it’s spreading

We’re at a moment when the Russian side has the momentum: they’re attacking all along the front line, with the Ukrainians consuming reserves and falling back in the face of the expected offensive in the coming weeks toward Sumy and Kharkhiv. The change is visible in Putin as well: no longer looking like an autocrat choreographically supported by a population rendered inert, but a leader who, while issuing chilling threats to Europe’s “small and densely populated” countries, is exhorting his government to work “as if on the front.”

The Ukrainian defense is struggling to recruit the necessary numbers and also struggling to stabilize the supply of Western aid, while the Russian aggressor now relies on half a million fighters and a robust production capacity for ammunition, missiles and clones of Iranian drones. Months of ground and air operations have sapped Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. At this point, Kyiv’s successes are confined to the sea around Crimea. By deploying artillery fire from some 20 kilometers away – that is, from the other side of the Russian border – Moscow’s forces are operating from virtual safety, out of the range of Ukrainian weapons deployed on the front. As a result, heavy Russian glide bombs glide across the front lines, bypassing the Patriot and Heimat missile defense systems, while barrages of thermobaric weapons turn bunkers, fortifications and villages into scorched earth.

Undermining the Ukrainian defense is another often-overlooked factor: the effectiveness of Western weapons systems is diminishing rapidly due to Russian tactical adaptations, especially on the electronic warfare side. Jamming knocks out communications and targeting, with the result that the Ukrainian hit rate today is far below that which enabled their successes in the first year of the war.

The appointment of an economist to head Moscow’s war machine tells us that in strategic terms, we are looking at a war of attrition and material, oriented towards resources before terrain. Russian artillery is able to fire 10,000 times a day, while Ukrainian artillery can only go up to 2,000. The Russians know that the Ukrainians aren’t able to return their fire.

There is no military solution in sight, just as there are no decisive weapons: the more precise weapons on the way will not result in radical changes any time soon. Continued efforts are necessary to achieve a saturation effect. It is a fact that the war has already moved significantly ahead of the debates about it, which always seems to be behind the fait accompli of the situation on the ground. For months, targets have been set on fire in deep Russia, and for the past few weeks this has been happening in Europe as well. The use of trainers and special forces in Ukraine has been widely reported in the news, and the fact is that the Ukrainians have been striking across the Russian border for some time. NATO’s goal seems to be shrewder management of what is already happening, with a continuous danger of spilling over: namely, balancing the resource equation and bringing Ukraine back to a position where it can re-motivate its fighters and prevent Russian momentum from reaching a decisive point. In this perspective, stemming the Russian offensive means recovering a negotiating position, at the very least.

Against this backdrop, the green light for the use of Western weapons against launching bases on Russian territory was given by the White House and major European capitals (Italy excluded). In itself, if appropriate to the circumstances and modeled on the principle of proportionality, a military response to attacks from enemy territory does not violate international law (ius in bello). These are the same cornerstone principles being invoked by the international courts at The Hague to limit and sanction Israel’s actions. Scholz’s Germany has committed itself to this framework as well, despite its markedly pro-Israel stance. One should recall that Putin has systematically threatened nuclear escalation, ever since the delivery of the first anti-tank Javelins in 2022. The pattern has been repeated with each announcement of new weapons systems to enable the Ukrainians to withstand the impact of the invasion and try to liberate their territories.

Given the deterioration of relations between Zelensky and Biden, Macron is planning to try to create an iconic moment and put Europe at the center of a reawakening of the will of Western democracies by organizing a meeting on June 6, the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings. We are now in the run-up to the European elections, and this plan can also be read as a response to the Ursula von der Leyen-supporting right’s increasingly gloomy and militaristic campaign.

This plan begins from an unavoidable starting point (the need to deter Putin), but has numerous limitations, starting with the controversy over what kind of response is considered “proportionate”; or the fact that Western governments tend to act in an uncoordinated fashion, with the countries further east at the forefront of setting the agenda. At the same time, provocative actions cannot be ruled out, given the uncertainties of the political situation in Kyiv as well as Moscow. The Kremlin will certainly invoke the right to defend itself, including to strike any base in Europe from which it deems that an attack on its own territory originated. As we have long reiterated in this newspaper, the risk is not so much of a vertical escalation but rather of a horizontal one; that is, one leading to our increasing involvement.

In the meantime, no one is even talking about negotiations. Both the Americans and the Chinese are shying away from the peace conference convened in Switzerland in mid-June. Everything seems to hang on the upcoming elections in the West, with Vladimir Putin’s fate remaining inextricably linked to that of populist right-wingers. More proof that the crossroads ahead is as political as it gets.

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