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Reasons for the Peril of a Russia-Ukraine Stalemate

Neither Russia nor Ukraine are in a position to make peace. Both sides believe they can win the upper hand. The US and NATO are still resolute in supporting Ukraine but with many elections looming in 2024, uncertainty is in the air. The only certainty is that the horror of war will continue.
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Ukraine Russia war

Escalation of the conflict on the border of Ukraine with Russia – concept of a 3d map with tanks deployed on both sides of the conflict – 3D render © guteksk7 / shutterstock.com

March 01, 2023 02:22 EDT
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The first thing we have learned after a year of war in Ukraine is that there is no evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to rebuild the Soviet Union, the Russian Empire or the Warsaw Pact. His present post-imperial concern is to regain and consolidate the Russian Federation’s borders. Despite its huge losses of territory, Russia is still, by far, the largest country in the world. To prevent Russia’s further fragmentation, which is always a latent danger due to its ethnic diversity and territorial dispersion, control of its borders is a national security priority.

On the eastern side, the Russian rulers are strongly interested in maintaining control over Siberia, which gives the country access to the Pacific Ocean. Hence, they have a geopolitical interest in having friendly relations with China. On the western side, Russia retains access to the Baltic Sea in Saint Petersburg and has managed to keep the enclave of Kaliningrad despite the three Baltic republics declaring independence from the Soviet Union. On the southern side, Russia wants access to the Black Sea, which is the gateway to the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. Hence, Crimea is of vital importance to Russia.

If Putin were a new Peter the Great or a new Stalin, a settlement between great powers would be within reach: a Yalta-Potsdam-style division of spheres of influence. But as a country in decline with repeated loss of territories, Russia views the hostility from its neighbors as an existential threat. Therefore, it has responded with exasperated despair.

Not a very good war so far

The invasion has not worked as well for Russia as Putin expected. We have learned that, in war, it is more difficult to conquer than to defend. Some experts in military history and strategy estimate that for an attack to succeed in conquering adverse territory, the attacker may need three times more resources, in troops and weapons, than the defender. This alone can explain why, so far, the Russians haven’t entered Kyiv or Kharkiv, while the Ukrainians have not arrived in Crimea or most of the Donbas.

The attacker’s disadvantage is aggravated by bad management, typical of authoritarian governments. As stated by strategist Lawrence Freedman, “A lot of most catastrophic decisions come from autocratic decision-making.” Autocracies lack open and often critical feedback. They believe that “the advantage of autocracy is bold and decisive decision-making.” However, the lack of feedback mechanisms mean that “one poor decision or bit of bad luck can put [them] out completely.”

Along with catastrophic decisions, Russia has been hampered by the fact that some crucial potential allies have not joined its adventure. A few weeks before the invasion, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed an agreement for “unlimited cooperation,” but the Chinese have kept their distance since the war broke out. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone further than Xi and told Putin in public that today’s era is not an era of war.

A long bloody war looms

The current protracted stalemate has so far not yielded a clear winner. In a lecture at Georgetown University, CIA Director William Burns said that the next six months will be critically decisive. He suggested that the alternatives are either a quick military overturn followed by negotiation and peace or an escalation towards a long war.

A negotiated peace would require that none of the two sides achieves absolute victory or faces bitter defeat. In his recent visit to Warsaw, US President Joe Biden declared that “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never.” This is a very different declaration to a call for Ukrainian victory or Russian defeat.

So far, both Russia and Ukraine are still at the rhetorical stage of being maximalist in their demands. Each expects to be in a strong position if a real negotiation ever starts. In the past, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy explicitly stated he could accept painful concessions on Crimea and Donbas, which were the original objectives of the Russian “special military operation.” As the war has gone on, Zelenskyy has changed his position. He regularly proclaims his determination to move back to Ukraine’s 2014 borders. Zelenskyy also insists on applying for EU and NATO memberships. Russia, in turn, verbally rejects any concession of moving backward.

For an escalation in conflict, the Kremlin would have to make risky domestic moves, including new conscriptions and mass mobilizations. This would make Russian politics the continuation of war by other means, which is what Clausewitz meant even if he phrased it the other way. It is from impatience and distress that Putin toys with using tactical nuclear weapons over Kyiv. He is playing a game of chicken with the US on the assumption that Washington wants to avoid the risk of World War III.

As of now, it seems that Ukraine might be able to sustain its belligerence for as long as the US and NATO keep providing increasingly effective and lethal weapons, including drones, missiles, tanks and even fighter jets. However, political calculations and concern about excessive financial costs of war might make the US Congress and several European countries restrict unrestricted support.

The conflict has already lasted longer than many regional wars and might degenerate into a war of attrition. An end might come from changes away from the war fronts. There should be elections in Russia and Ukraine twelve months from now. There is uncertainty not only about the results of these elections but also whether they will actually be held. The US, the UK and the European Parliament also face elections in 2024, which will come in the middle of a war.One thing we certainly know and can be sure about is that war is the worst human activity with tragic consequences of death and destruction. We have plenty of information and images about the human tragedy in Ukraine. To understand the gruesome nature of war further, you could watch the movie All Quiet on the Western Front. It is probably the best war movie ever because of the way it captures the horrors of war. Sadly, that horror continue for a while in Ukraine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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