Brigadier SK Chatterji (Retd);December 15, 2023

Two full-fledged conventional wars are concurrently writing hugely blood-stained stories on two different continents. The Ukraine War is close to being two years old, while the other in Gaza is barely two months. Over a thousand miles apart, the raging battle in Gaza influences the possible outcomes of the one in Ukraine. Ukraine has so far been supported to the hilt by the US, NATO and many more countries. However, there are definite indicators pointing to a shift in the focus of its supporters towards Gaza.

The war in Gaza is rolling on, leaving a trail of death, mostly civilians, behind. No army, post-World War II, has been involved in such an intense urban warfare operation as the Israeli Army fights today. The death toll, as per a Reuters report of 9 December 2023, puts the figures for Gazans at 17,487, while the Israeli casualties on the 7th October Hamas surprise attack stood at 1,200. However, the Reuters report also points out that these figures may not be comprehensive. 

In Ukraine, both armies are locked in a stalemate. With winter already at the doorstep, the need for a continuous flow of arms and ammunition is essential for its forces to maintain the status quo along the frontline. If its formations are not continually replenished, the Russians might launch a limited offensive with the restricted objective of making the odd strategic gain.

Almost the first thing that President Zelensky did after the horrific 7th October Hamas attack was to make his first visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels. He was correct enough in his approach in that he was exceedingly empathetic about Israel, while the Secretary-General NATO Zens Stoltenberg was a solace, “Your fight is our fight, your security is our security, and your values are our values.”

Though Stoltenberg’s words are very reassuring to the ear, the sudden attack by Hamas and huge casualty figures in Israel have shifted the focus to Gaza. Some members at the Ukraine Defence Contact Group Meet are reported to have privately conveyed their doubts about the Americans retaining the same focus on Ukraine with the Gaza operations requiring funding and resources.

The operations in Gaza are unlikely to be over too soon. Hamas cadres in Gaza are radicalised enough to fight hard and stand fast. With no possible getaways, they have their back to the wall. That leaves them with barely any option other than to fight to the end or surrender. The Israelis have asked them to surrender, and some surrenders are reportedly taking place.

Parts of the Western world already display fatigue in supporting the Ukrainian war. Supporting Israelis would call for more funds to be pumped in to add to the burden. The cost of supporting the Ukrainians has already hurt the man on the street. It’s also an election year for the Americans, and the Republicans haven’t been too cooperative in passing Biden’s attempts at boosting support for Zelenski. Senator Josh Hawley, in his post on X previously Twitter, wrote, “Israel is facing an existential threat. Any funding for Ukraine should be redirected to Israel immediately.” That’s perhaps a reflection of many more.

In the US, Republican Senators are trying to link aid for Ukraine with stricter measures to tighten migration across the border. Biden is trying to obtain consent to combined authorisation of a $110 billion package of wartime funding for Ukraine ($61.4 billion) and Israel, along with other national security priorities. An adjustment between the parties has not yet crystalized, though some Senators are optimistic about it. Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinkin said on television, “We are running out of funding” for Ukraine.

In Gaza, a temporary ceasefire allowed humanitarian aid and a prisoner swap. Zelensky will, of course, be expecting nothing better than another ceasefire in Gaza and some progress towards a solution. A truce in Gaza is something being looked forward to globally. On 11 December, Netanyahu called on Hamas fighters to surrender, saying it was “the beginning of the end.” However, the end of Hamas is barely an achievable objective. Accepting a two-state solution may pave the way for peace to return, however fleeting even that can be.

A desperate Zelensky reached Washington on Biden’s invitation on 12 December to convince the American Lawmakers, particularly the Republicans. However, his reception was not as warm as in 2022, nor did his interaction with the Senators lead to a positive nod. Apparently, Biden should be able to wade his way through with some compromises on the migration issue. 

Under the circumstances, for Zelensky, it’s important not to press further with the Ukrainian offensive. He needs to preserve his gains and also his forces to deny the Russians an opportunity to launch a major effort. The winter will be harsh, and the Ukrainians will also need to maintain morale. 

NATO members will need to understand that a Ukrainian collapse would get Russia to their doorstep. The attendant risks are too heavy to allow any laxity in support of the Ukrainian war effort. They have to find the funds to keep the Ukrainians going. Gaza cannot distract them enough to divert funds to Israel. These are two different wars on two different continents, and the cost of running one cannot be met by economising on the other. For all the funding they have done this far, the Ukrainians haven’t done too bad. According to a declassified intelligence report provided to the US Congress, Russia has lost a staggering 87 per cent of the total number of active-duty ground troops it had prior to launching its invasion of Ukraine and two-thirds of its pre-invasion tanks.

The Americans must come to terms with how far they are ready to go to maintain their status as the sole great power. Chinese belligerence also calls for the pivot to the East to be more vigorously pursued. The Americans will encounter difficult terrain if the South China Sea witnesses a flareup anytime soon. An encounter between M/L Kalayaan, a Philippines Ship, in the Soth China Sea being doused by a Chinese Coast Guard ship with its water cannon has been a rather disturbing development. A Reuters report also quotes the Philippines and says, “The Military Chief was aboard the ship rammed by Chinese vessels.” Further, as of now, the AUKUS is more an idea and less of a force, and Quad is a lot but not an alliance.

The worst fallout, both in West Asia and Ukraine, that can happen is the war in Gaza engulfing Israel’s neighbours. Top Israeli officials are sceptic that increased Hezbollah attacks on Israel carried out from Lebanon could prompt a powerful response. The probability of the war spreading to engulf a few more countries in Israel’s neighbourhood cannot be wished away. In such an eventuality, the Iranians can also be expected to be bolder in employing their resources.  

Any major reverse Ukraine suffers lowers the US standing. It also shrinks the EU’s already receding influence. It encourages China to gain greater control over the South China Sea. The Chinese are edging forward without having fired a shot. They would be more aggressive if the Ukrainians failed. That progression is in accordance with Sun Tju’s teachings, ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’. The stakes in Ukraine are high and should be prioritised beyond domestic and financial issues.