Step by step, the west’s war aims are expanding. What began as an effort to supply “defensive weapons” to Ukraine has evolved into an attempt to provide heavier weaponry. This week Germany and the UK agreed to supply armoured anti-aircraft artillery vehicles to keep Russia’s air force at bay.
On Monday Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said the west’s goal was to “weaken Russia” to the point where it could no longer invade or threaten its neighbours.
A day later the British junior defence minister James Heappey said it would be “completely legitimate” for Ukraine to use western weapons to strike inside Russia if need be.
These are different, more specific, statements, compared with some of the broad-brush rhetoric used in the early phase of the war when Russian forces were menacing Kyiv, and Ukraine’s crisis seemed existential.
“Vladimir Putin’s act of aggression must fail and be seen to fail,” Boris Johnson wrote in March. It was a generalised observation by the British prime minister that tactfully avoided spelling out any specific outcome.
Yet the language has toughened as the conflict has stalled. On the ground Russia’s well-telegraphed assault on the Donbas is still only gradually unfolding, with the gain of a handful of villages near Izyum, where the attempt to envelop Ukraine’s forces continues without any sign of a breakthrough, hindered by rainy weather, strong resistance and command and control problems.
On the other hand, there is no sign yet that Kyiv’s forces can counterattack in the strength required to force Russia back in the Donbas or the south, where Russia said on Tuesday it had captured the entire Kherson region.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has seized on the slowly enhanced weapon supply to sound off. On Monday, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that Nato was “in essence … engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy” in an interview where he also warned of the risks of a third world war and even nuclear conflict.
Nato is not at war with Russia, but it is hard not to conclude that the west is engaged in a proxy fight because of the ongoing arms supply. Nevertheless, western officials reject Lavrov’s proxy war description, because they do not want to lend legitimacy to any Russian reprisals beyond Ukraine’s territory.
“There is a Russian narrative that this is a proxy war between Russia and Nato. It isn’t. We are supporting Ukraine in their self-defence,” said one official on Wednesday, partly in an attempt to clarify Heappey’s remarks about using western weapons in Russia itself.
But given how much Russia is struggling militarily in Ukraine, the idea that Moscow could open a new front by, as Lavrov suggested, striking against weapons delivery in Nato countries, seems unlikely – not least because it would invite a western military response.
Nuclear threats are also designed to intimidate, but there remains an irreducible risk that Putin would escalate further if he felt threatened.
What is less certain is what the end state of the fighting will be. On Tuesday, Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful head of Russia’s security council, said “the result of the policy of the west and the Kyiv regime under its control can only be the disintegration of Ukraine into several states” in a Russian newspaper interview – arguably seeking to justify a de facto division of Ukraine along military frontlines.
On Wednesday, western officials said they would like to see Ukraine restored to the boundaries existing before 24 February – the start of the Russian invasion – “as a minimum”.
However, Ukraine is nowhere near being able to achieve such goals on the battlefield. A crucial period will come in the next month or so as the latest wave of western weapons, including US howitzers and German and British anti-aircraft systems, arrives.
If that does not prove enough to change the military balance, the question will become how much more Britain and other Nato members are prepared to commit.