by Gabriel Gavin
Thursday, 26
May 2022
Analysis
13:31

How will the war in Ukraine end? It won’t.

Neither side can afford to take an off-ramp
by Gabriel Gavin
Credit: Getty

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy has told world leaders that “only diplomacy will end the war” raging in his country, as Russia’s invasion stretches into its thirteenth week.

Up until now, the idea that anything less than Moscow’s total military defeat would be acceptable was effectively a taboo. Those, like French President Emmanuel Macron, who have called for Vladimir Putin to be given an ‘off-ramp,’ enabling him to save face with some kind of propaganda victory, have been slammed for carving up a nation that is doing everything to defend itself.


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The atlanticists agree. According to one influential US think tank, The Atlantic Council, a negotiated settlement would be “appeasement” of a hostile power, while Anne Applebaum wrote over the weekend that “the war won’t end until Putin loses.” But despite the tough talk, it is becoming increasingly clear that neither side has the capability to vanquish the other — and the prospect of a long, bloody deadlock is looming large.

And yet, it’s impossible to see what kind of deal Zelenskyy and Putin could do to end the carnage. Having scored major wins on the battlefield, most Ukrainians believe the tide has already turned in their favour and they now want to see justice done. To suddenly give up territory in return for peace would turn Kyiv’s president overnight from popular figurehead to pariah.

For hardliners in the Ukrainian military, like the Azov Batallion, any concessions at all would be a stab in the back when they are ready to lay down their lives for total victory, and a coup attempt might then be on the cards. In an editorial earlier this week, The Kyiv Independent summed up the mood —“Ukraine winning is the only option.”

Meanwhile, on the other side, even though Russian television propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov have admitted to “shameful” errors during the “special military operation,” they tell their viewers that the slow progress is only to minimise unnecessary civilian casualties. As Putin himself said in a speech earlier this month, “as in 1945, victory will be ours.”

Locked into that kind of rhetoric, the Kremlin has too much at stake to walk away empty handed, and recognition of its claims to sovereignty over Crimea and independence for the breakaway Donbas region are likely to be the minimum it could settle for. Those same demands — indeed the fact that the Russians had any demands at all — led to total deadlock the last time talks were held, and neither side has seen much point in reconvening since. Meanwhile, efforts to make the conflict too costly to sustain with sanctions have evidently made Russians more isolated, but failed to dent leaders’ resolve.

Without a realistic shot at a diplomatic solution, things are likely to carry on much as they already have. In the years since 2014, Ukraine has struggled to take back any of the territory occupied by Russian and Russian-backed forces in the Donbas, while Moscow and its proxies have been unable to push further into the region. The result was a bitter trench war that took its toll on people on both sides of the front line.

Now, despite tens of thousands of lives lost, all Putin has achieved is moving that front line a little further to the West, and the region seems set for the same kind of standoff it has seen for the past eight years, only on a larger scale.

The threat of a war nobody can win and nobody can end offers up a whole host of new problems, humanitarian, military, economic and political, for Russia, for Ukraine and for the West. But, for the time being, few seem prepared to contemplate them, given both sides are still intent on snatching victory from the jaws of a stalemate.

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Jim R
Jim R
6 months ago

For 2 1/2 years it’s been drilled into us that every single life is precious – no matter how old or unhealthy – and notions like freedom and liberty or functioning democratic institutions like parliament can never justify the loss of life. Now the very same people have turned the equation on its head – the loss of freedom and democracy for Ukrainians must not be tolerated, no matter the cost in lives and destruction. It’s almost like there’s no reasoning involved in any of this – all these arguments are simply a diversion, constructed only to mask the fact that the policies are chosen by powerful elites to benefit themselves.

Last edited 6 months ago by Jim R
martin logan
martin logan
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim R

Giving Putin a stranglehold over Europe will hurt those at the bottom of the ladder far more than the “powerful elites.”
As witness Germany in 1919 and 1946, and Russia in 1991.
If we lose this struggle, you will definitely not like it–unless you happen to live in Russia.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
6 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

I don’t think Vladimir Putin has the power to take any kind of hold over Europe, let alone a stranglehold. He couldn’t even take a stranglehold over Ukraine.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago

Good analysis, but missing a point: It is clear what Ukraine could offer Russia. Accepting the Russian landgrabs in a treaty would greatly improve Russia’s situation and would be pretty irreversible. But what can Russia offer Ukraine? Russian policy so far seems to aim at the total control over Ukraine – at which point Ukraine can be forced to renounce any paper concessions they may have gained. Ukraine has nothing to gain from making a deal with Russia, unless they get something in return that cannot simply be taken away on a whim (or after a new invasion).

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Ukraine did so well out of ceding Crimea to the Russians, I can’t see why they would not want more of the Russian’s generosity and cede more land to them in exchange for …. the next war?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Agreed. A settlement now just means another war to takeover Ukraine later. There’s no incentive for the Ukrainians there, so they may as well keep grinding on. A nation of 40 million partisans with nothing to lose (since they’ll be tortured, raped, deported and killed once taken over) in such a huge country will bleed Russia dry eventually.
And we’ll benefit in the West, without losing lives, from a vastly weakened Russia.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The deal would be Crimea and the Donbas in return for peace. Not a bad deal in many respects. It’s a complicated situation, but Ukraine has long been split between east and west. Might as well make the worst of the split official.
Crimea was more a drain on Ukraine’s treasury than anything else. Few (perhaps 2%) Crimeans want to return to Ukraine. The Donbas is not so clearcut, but those there who wanted to keep ties with Russia were being persecuted by Ukraine nationalists. That would never cease to be a problem.
Go back to the Minsk accords and end the war. An unjust peace can indeed be better than a just war.

Last edited 6 months ago by Carlos Danger
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
5 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

How many years of peace would that be? Russias goal is not a few bits of land, but the complete take-over and domination of Ukraine. Putin says so. If a deal meant that Ukraine could join the EU and runs its foreign poilicy without interference from Russia, it might be worth considering. But there is nothing coming from Russia to suggest that concessions now would lead to any kind of restraint later.

martin logan
martin logan
6 months ago

This is looking more and more like WW1.
The Russians are doing pretty much what the Germans were doing at Verdun: using artillery to bull their way through.
What’s interesting, however, is that Russia has been thwarted in each of its drives to take Kyiv, then Kharkiv, and then the entire Donbas. Now it is settling for taking the last corner of Luhansk Province, with Donetsk out of the picture, at least for now.
Both sides WANT to continue fighting. But Russia is 1) dusting off 30-year old tanks (T-64s), 2) running out of cruise missiles, and 3) dropping dumb bombs from 30-year old aircraft (SU-25s). Ukraine, on the other hand, is getting the latest NATO equipment. That doesn’t bode well for Putin.
We rightly regret WW1. But there was still a clear winner and a clear loser eventually.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

The Germans lost at Verdun.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
6 months ago

Agreed, agreed, agreed. So, the Democrat administration in the United States has to step in and do its job. Better late than never, but the war has to end, and the administration is situated to press to parties to settle. The parties could then save face and withdraw… But, will the administration press for a settlement, or will it continue to press for war, because Midterm Elections?
https://dvwilliamson.substack.com/p/the-russian-bear-at-the-crossroads

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago

If the Ukrainians wish to continue fighting, then every effort to assist them should be given. If they decide they’ve had enough and Donbas isn’t worth fighting over, then again that decision should be respected. It’s a decision for the Ukrainians and them alone, nobody else

Paul O
Paul O
6 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

With all due respect we cannot and should not keeping pumping money into a corrupt country (second most corrupt in Europe) just because their leader might or might not choose diplomacy. We don’t even know where this money is going, although from past experience we have a very good idea of where it will end up.

Real lives are at stake here, and our willingness to ‘fight to the last Ukrainian’, and leave that decision to Zelensky, is just morally wrong.

The military industrial complex is loving this, just like big pharma loved covid and is now cheering on monkey pox. And big government is loving the anxiety war and pandemics create as that gives them more power.

The west has spent way too many decades in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc and for what? In the end it usually turns out we were fed a lie.

These are real people and real lives being lost. It isn’t a computer game.

There is only one way forward and that is, and always has been, diplomacy. Alas, we are not blessed with a talent pool of trustworthy and competent negotiators.

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul O

Alas, we are not blessed with a leader in Putin who we could ever trust. Or do you seriously believe that the Donbas and Crimea will be his “final territorial demand” ?

martin logan
martin logan
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul O

If we don’t decisively crush Putin, Putin will crush us.
Pretty simple, really.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul O

Why is giving the Ukrainians the means to defend their sovereignty morally wrong, yet ceding large chunks of their territory to a hostile invader ok?
Seeing as Russia has already ignored a written agreement to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territory (in exchange for giving up its nuclear arsenal) why should Zelensky trust a word that comes out if Putins mouth? What’s to stop Putin simply carrying on his land grab at a later date once his armed forces are back up to strength?
I’ve heard the phrase “realpolitik” thrown around a lot during the course of this invasion, usually by those who simply want Ukraine to give Putin whatever he wants, however to me this is a prime example of it. For a relatively small price and without risking a single one of their soldiers, simply by arming Ukraine to the teeth they have a chance to severely weaken a hostile regime on its eastern border. Why wouldn’t or shouldn’t they take that opportunity?

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
6 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

We would be foolish to continue to pour money into Ukraine without having a say in what Ukraine does. We saw how poorly that worked with the Minsk accords.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
6 months ago

While the current situations seems like stalemate, slowly Russian ability to refurbish or build equipment seems affected by the sanctions. Given the near infinite Western capacity to deliver materials the tide ought to turn. So far Ukraine has limited ability to attack the Russian logistics chain but may acquire suitable cruise missiles to enter Russia should this continue. The Russian capacity to deliver munitions deeper into Ukraine has been severely limited and continued use of expensive weapons on apartment buildings is just madness. The grind eventually will turn to Ukraine’s advantage. At some point Russian may need to worry about it’s friends staying true as it becomes weaker. The US must really worry about the security of Russia’s strategic weapons as back in earlier days where the US aided those security efforts.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
6 months ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

How long will the West continue to pour arms and money into Ukraine? I don’t think it will be infinitely.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
6 months ago

This idea that the US gives Ukraine a blank check in its fight for democracy is a noble one, but a foolish one.