‘Everyone can see the reality’ in Ukraine except for Putin, UK defense minister says

'Everyone can see the reality' in Ukraine except for Putin, UK defense minister says

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy shake hands after a meeting, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine June 10, 2022.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

British Defense Minister Ben Wallace on Friday said Vladimir Putin is “at risk of losing everything” if Russia does not withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

In a busy week for diplomacy, European leaders met in Moldova in recent days for the European Political Community summit, attended by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. NATO foreign ministers also met in Oslo to discuss short-term assistance to Ukraine in its defense against the Russian invasion, as well as a long-term plan for Ukraine’s potential membership of the military alliance.

Defense ministers from around the world gathered in Singapore on Friday for the Shangri-La Dialogue Defense Summit. On its sidelines, Wallace told CNBC that the Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles recently supplied by the U.K. had given a “boost” to the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

He added that while there is no “magic bullet,” the British government sees Ukraine gaining momentum.

“Russia, we see under continued pressure — it’s running out of stocks. I think the reckless and illegal use of targeting critical national infrastructure, civilian areas, is actually a sign of desperation, it’s not a sign of strength by the Russian regime, and so I’m optimistic for the future,” Wallace told CNBC’s Sri Jegarajah.

The Ukrainian capital Kyiv suffered aerial bombardment this week, although Russia denies specifically targeting civilians. Russian strikes have been documented against multiple hospitals, schools and theatres in various regions of Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion in February 2022. Last month, the UN estimated that more than 24,000 non-combatants had died over the past 15 months.

Moscow was meanwhile hit by drone strikes earlier this week, with President Vladimir Putin claiming the attacks targeted Russian civilians, while the country’s foreign ministry vowed to respond with “the harshest possible measures.”

Speaking to reporters outside the EPC meeting in Moldova on Thursday, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy said that the conflict will only cease if Ukraine wins, adding that “Russia can stop this war earlier, they can go out to their independent territory from our territory.”

Wallace echoed this sentiment, suggesting that the only route to peace was for Russia to end its invasion and withdraw troops from Ukrainian territory — a call unlikely to be heeded in Moscow.

“I think it’s really important that Russia understands that if it wants to extract itself from not only international isolation, but also what it’s been doing in Ukraine, it needs to start that process of leaving,” Wallace said.

“Everyone can see the reality — except potentially President Putin — that they’ve lost 250,000 men of their armed forces, killed or injured, they’ve lost over 10,000 armored vehicles, they’re in a sorry state.”

He also alluded to the “frictions exploding” within the Russian political and military apparatus. Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Russian mercenary contractor Wagner Group and former close ally of President Vladimir Putin, has launched scathing public attacks on the Kremlin’s war efforts as the group suffered heavy losses in Ukraine.

“I think the reality is hopefully dawning on the Russian system, and I think the first step to peace is withdrawing those forces,” Wallace added.

Asked whether further escalation of the conflict or the sense that Moscow is trapped in a spiralling ground war could increase the chance of Putin deploying Russia’s nuclear weapons, Wallace cited the importance of India and China raising concerns about nuclear escalation late last year.

“We don’t see an increase of threat from the Russians,” he said. “But I think the key here is President Putin needs to know he can’t win in Ukraine, he needs to realize that he is at risk of losing everything.”

Beijing has continued to position itself as a potential peacemaker in the conflict, and China’s special envoy for Eurasian affairs recently embarked on a 12-day diplomatic tour of Kyiv, Moscow, Warsaw, Paris, Brussels and Berlin.

Envoy Li Hui told a press briefing on Friday that Russia appreciates China’s “sincere desire and earnest efforts” to find a solution, according to Reuters, adding that he believes neither Ukraine nor Russia has “firmly” shut the door on peace talks.

China previously laid out a multi-point plan for peace that evoked ire in Kyiv and the West for being far too accommodating to Russia as the state waging an illegal war of aggression. Beijing has refrained from condemning Moscow for instigating the conflict, or for its many ensuing attacks on civilians and national infrastructure.