Vladimir Putin’s armies launched their fateful attack on Ukraine a year ago today. Tanks and troops poured across the frontier in what most Western governments feared would be a lightning thrust of fratricidal violence that would throttle Ukrainian independence. Then came the resistance, Russia not only held at bay but, miraculously, thrown back. As the world looks on, expectantly, waiting for the next decisive crash of momentum, a grim pessimism has again taken hold: 2022 might have been a year of heroism, but many fear 2023 might be the year the war settles into something far more conventional — and worrying.
In public, the talk might still be of liberating every inch of Ukrainian territory, but speak privately to those in London, Paris or Washington, and a cynical and sombre mood emerges. Here the talk is less of sweeping Ukrainian advances to come and more of a conflict that is likely to descend ever further into the anarchic quagmire before it stands a chance of emerging, grasping towards some kind of settlement. Over the past few weeks I have spoken to officials at the most senior levels of the British government in an attempt to get a sense of how those guiding UK policy see the war developing during the course of 2023. The overwhelming consensus is that the war in Ukraine is likely to get a lot more chaotically unpredictable before it settles — if it ever does.
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Most striking is how few hold much hope for a decisive victory for either side. For many in London, Berlin and Paris, today, Ukraine’s best-case scenario is to stabilise the front sufficiently to allow it to emerge as a viable, independent state, able to defend itself — to be able to breathe and live as a relatively normal country, to trade and grow, export and settle. The unstated goal, in other words, is to grasp towards a temporary settlement which eventually becomes a permanent reality even if no one ever officially recognises it as such. Conflicts have ended this way before: Kashmir, which has been “temporarily” settled since the Forties, and Korea which remains divided and at war while still being at peace.
The question Western diplomats are now asking themselves is what this “minimal breathable scenario” now looks like for Ukraine? I’m told it consists of three basic factors: first, giving Ukraine the capability to be able to stop Russia’s constant aerial bombardment beyond a future ceasefire; second, to ensure Ukraine’s free access to the Black Sea, and third, to secure a stable front. “This is the minimum Ukraine needs before it can even consider talking,” one official put it to me. The problem is that the pre-conditions for Ukraine to emerge as such a functioning, independent state are not in place. And so the war will drag on — potentially for a long time yet.
The war, according to one senior UK official is, in some senses, “eternal”. “The Western mind wants to know when these things can be wrapped in a bow,” the official said. “But they can’t.” The problem is that Russia simply does not believe Ukraine is a separate nation or legitimate state, but a part of greater Russia, in the same way China sees Taiwan. For as long as Ukraine is independent, in other words, there will be conflict. The “end” in such circumstances is little more than a temporary ceasefire in which Russia accepts it cannot improve its position.
The appointment of Valery Gerasimov as the commander of the Russian war effort is seen, in particular, as an indication that Moscow was now going all-out. Gerasimov is widely believed to be more offensive than his rival Sergey Surovikin who oversaw Russia’s retreat last year, stabilising its lines of defence.
The fear in London and Paris is that Gerasimov’s appointment, combined with Putin’s mobilisation, will allow Russia to bring to bear its two most important advantages: numbers and the ability to escalate. Over time, Russia’s numerical supremacy will begin to show on the battlefield. To some extent, the effect has already been felt. Ukraine is already being forced to sacrifice its “good” soldiers for Russia’s “bad” ones — conscripts and convicts — who the Kremlin has no qualms about sending into the meat grinder. The second advantage is escalatory dominance. In short, Russia can bomb Ukraine in a way Ukraine cannot bomb Russia. As long as this remains the case, Ukraine cannot emerge as a free state.
In Paris, there is particular concern about this “double asymmetry”. As such, French military advisers are, again, very cautious about how the war will unfold. The French president and those around him think the war will last for a long time with no clear conclusion. In Berlin, a similar sense of fatalism has taken hold. Few think the Russians will ever give up Donetsk, Luhansk or Crimea and most now see a long, drawn-out war with no obvious way out. “There’s no real sense that Russia can be defeated,” one analyst in Berlin told me.
Given this, most believe Putin’s plan is to play it long — to simply outlast the West. He may have calculated that there is little the West can do about the asymmetry of the conflict, given that no Western capital would consider putting boots on the ground or attacking Russia directly. This, after all, is what happened in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, where Western dominance was eventually seen off by smaller regional powers who calculated — correctly — that they would stay the course and the US would not. But, while the prognosis in Western capitals is gloomy, perhaps it is — once again — too gloomy. Many analysts are unconvinced that Russia can carry on indefinitely. Its offensive this year has been less than impressive.
The only route to a settlement as they all see it, is for the West to squeeze the heat out of the conflict by giving Ukraine what it needs to convince Russia it cannot win. And if there is ever a ceasefire, the West must be free to arm Ukraine sufficiently to protect itself from any future Russian attack. These are the parameters of a deal — there is now no other way.
The danger for Ukraine now lies less in being overrun but in losing a clear narrative arc that its Western supporters can believe in: the noble underdog triumphing over its evil colonial oppressor. If the war descends into a confusing series of offensives and counter-offensives in which there is no obvious victor, towns and villages nobody has ever heard of being taken and re-taken, the clarity of this narrative begins to muddy.
This general fear of inertia, then, is really a fear of the biggest strategic concern of all: losing the West’s support, particularly American support. Should Ukraine find itself defending territory rather than advancing, many in Europe’s capitals believe that the public will lose interest. If it is still dragging on by the winter, there could be another squeeze on energy supplies, creating another surge in prices. How would the public react? What if next winter is brutally cold?
In the United States, attention will quickly turn to the 2024 presidential election. How will Donald Trump’s bid for re-election play into this? There is a concern that his magnetic pull on the Republican party will drag rivals into promising to bring the war to an end on whatever terms. In Germany, the ruling Social Democratic party is already particularly cautious about the war effort.
Most of the analysts I spoke to are optimistic in one fundamental sense — that Russia will not be able to overrun the whole of Ukraine. Yet most are now pessimistic that Russia can be entirely defeated. The goal that many in the West now privately aspire to, then, is to “asphyxiate” the conflict by strangling Russia’s hope of victory before the West loses interest.
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