If there is a single question put to me more than any other, it is not “who will win this war?” but “how long will it last?” The two questions are unavoidably connected. Both have acquired some extra urgency as Ukraine acknowledges that it is engaged in tough fighting in Donbas. Though this should not come as a surprise, given the effort that Russia has been putting into this latest phase of the war, it has challenged the developing expectation that Russia would move from one setback to another until at some point – possibly quite soon – it would be expelled from Ukraine altogether.
The ever-present danger for those analysing the course of this war is getting too far ahead of events on the ground, of drawing large conclusions from the latest engagement and then anticipating the outcomes of battles yet to be fought. For example, optimism about imminent Ukrainian victories comforted many with the thought that its sacrifices might not be in vain, and that Russia will soon be punished for its unprovoked aggression. But it has also encouraged a curious anxiety about the dangers of Ukraine winning too well. According to this view, if Vladimir Putin is pushed into a corner he might, to save his regime and face, act even more recklessly than before, for example by using nuclear weapons.
This highly speculative scenario, which can only be reached through a series of conjectures about how the war will develop and the likely consequences for Putin’s state of mind, has led some to urge Ukraine to make major territorial concessions to keep the Russian leader calm, as a sort of pre-emptive therapy. Others reach the same conclusion by a different route, this time assuming that Ukraine will be unable to push the Russians back because they are facing too much firepower. On this view, it might as well congratulate itself on a job well done in preventing Russia conquering the whole of the country, and accept the logic of conceding Donbas now. This will allow everyone to move on from this nasty business, ending the suffering but also the disruption to the wider international system.
However the conclusion is reached, the Ukrainians are asked to take comfort in Russia’s failure to win in terms of the objectives it set at the start of the war, which was to subjugate Ukraine, and the many wounds it will have to lick once the war is declared over. The comfort will be limited. Putin will be consoled that he has been allowed to meet his secondary objectives: Russia will acquire Donetsk, Luhansk and perhaps Kherson, while leaving the rest of Ukraine badly hurt and coping with the wreckage of war. Those who wish to get the war over quickly think such a settlement would be unfortunate, though ultimately acceptable. It would create a new equilibrium that would allow business to resume with Russia, perhaps more warily than before but still acknowledging that here is a great power that must still be respected, whatever its crimes. Such thoughts were given voice at Davos by Henry Kissinger and can be found lurking around the senior levels of some European governments and in US think tanks. These views are firmly rejected by the Ukrainian government. The reasons for this help to explain why the proposed concessions will not be made and why the war may last for some time.
First, Ukraine remains confident that it will prevail in the end. At some point, if things go really badly for Ukraine over the coming weeks and months, this confidence may be dented, but for now it is not affected by recent Russian gains. Compared with those feared at the start of this more focused phase of the war they are still of limited strategic significance.
Second, even if Russia enjoys a run of military success this will not change Ukraine’s war aims of getting Russian forces out of its territory. Kyiv cannot accept any permanent concession of land to Russia. Having seen what the Russians are getting up to in the areas already under occupation, the government is not going to consign more of its people to such treatment. It is collecting the evidence to demonstrate that Russia is engaged in a genocidal war, not necessarily in the sense that the term is often understood as seeking to exterminate a whole people, but in terms that meet the criteria of the 1948 Genocide Convention (“to completely or partially destroy a group based on its nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion”). Putin and his minions, including on state media, have not bothered to hide their intent, denying the existence of a separate Ukrainian people and, when given a chance, acting upon this denial – including by separating children from parents (so they can grow up as proper Russians), rape, deportations, abductions of community leaders, and erasure of the Ukrainian language and symbols of its national identity.
The Ukrainians, therefore, cannot see how the permanent occupation of this territory will end suffering: it will only ensure that Russia’s project will continue on to its bleak conclusion. If it is put to them that this will extend their suffering, they point out that they are a people who – tragically – are no strangers to suffering. They were the victims of the worst crimes of Stalinism, with the Holodomor, the man-made famine that took up to five million lives in the early 1930s, and then the terrible crimes of Nazism, which took some seven million a decade later. (Some consider these underestimates). They have now seen tens of thousands of their people killed in an unprovoked war, lively towns and cities shattered, and vital infrastructure destroyed. As much as 40 per cent of Ukraine’s GDP for this year has already been lost. All of its people’s options going forward involve more pain – so they will go for the one that offers their country the best future.
Third, there is no reason to suppose that if the concession was made, some new equilibrium would be reached. This was the hope in 2014 when Russia took Crimea and installed separatists in Donbas, allowing Europeans to pursue “normal” relations with Putin and keep up the imports of oil and gas, until this year when Putin decided to renew the fight. Would those urging Ukrainians to “be realistic” and make a compromise “for their own sakes” offer watertight security guarantees to the rump of Ukraine to ensure that this will not happen again, or bow to Putin’s equally “realistic” demand that Ukraine stay truly neutral? Those who think partition leads to stability might consider those two great examples of partition from the late 1940s – Arab/Israel and India/Pakistan.
The Ukrainian view – on which the country is united – is that this war will not end until they have at the very least returned to the borders of 23 February; if this has not been agreed diplomatically, they will keep on going until all of Donetsk and Luhansk has been retrieved, perhaps even Crimea. Whether this is considered foolish or futile, or even irresponsible, by those hard-headed geopoliticians who consider only the demands of international order, this is the course upon which Ukraine is set. Volodymyr Zelensky has promised to put any deal with Russia to a referendum. On current numbers, any concessions to Putin would be rejected.
Kyiv’s backers in North America and Europe agree for now that the geopolitical consequences of anything that could be presented as a Russian victory would be dire, a recipe for instability that would not permit a new normality but continuing tension. Having made the commitment, they are stuck with it, for to abandon Kyiv now would be a betrayal without any compensating benefit. A partition imposed on Kyiv will not end the fighting, but only ensure that it continues on terms more favourable to Russia.
This is a war that has been under way for eight years already. It has already had peaks and troughs. Recent comments from both Moscow and Kyiv accept the possibility that they may be in for the long haul. This raises the question as to whether the current round of fighting is about to conclude with a period of stalemate.
After the dynamism of the war’s first phase, as Russians moved quickly into untenable positions and then were forced to retreat, the fighting has now turned into a harder grind. The Russians began this second, supposedly more focused, phase of the war pushing and probing in multiple areas in the Donbas area. More recently, having failed to deliver anything for Putin’s victory parade on 9 May, their military efforts appear to have become more professional and effective, with some of the logistical and tactical problems that hampered earlier operations addressed. They are using their firepower – aircraft and artillery – to batter Ukrainian defensive positions, before following through with armour and infantry.
To its credit, the Ukrainian government has acknowledged that ground has been conceded and more losses are inevitable in the battle in and around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Ukraine’s commanders are facing some unenviable choices. Some of Ukraine’s most experienced soldiers are fighting there. Would withdrawal make most sense, to avoid a heroic sacrifice for land of little strategic importance, and for cities that have been largely evacuated and battered to pieces by Russian firepower? Or else, can these cities be defended, obliging Russian forces to take losses they can’t afford in the effort to take them?
Elsewhere – to the north around Kharkiv, and the south around Kherson – Russia has moved to a more defensive posture, digging trenches and putting supporting artillery in place. There may be occasional offensives to assess the resistance, but largely with the aim of fixing Ukrainian forces in place so they are not freed up for counter-attacks in Donbas. The best assessment of Russian strategy now is that they are seeking to take what they can from the current effort and then daring Ukraine to try to seize it back, while replenishing its depleted forces in case it sees the possibility of going on the offensive again.
This does not mean that the war is reaching a stalemate but it does mean a change in its character. Ukraine cannot make progress using Russian methods: turning its artillery and air power on anything in its way, even if this means reducing its own towns and cities to rubble; and overwhelming defenders with mass attacks, even if this means heavy casualties. Two factors will shape and support the Ukrainian offensive. First, their forces have shown greater morale and staying power. This asymmetry of motivation, which was apparent from day one of this war, continues to make a difference. Second, it is getting new Western equipment to the front and finding ways to incorporate them into its operational plans.
This sets the timetable. Deliveries take time. With the $40bn support package now agreed in the US, and with evidence that the Ukrainians are outgunned, Kyiv will be hoping for a faster flow of better weapons. Western inhibitions on the provision of weapons have been eased in several areas, notably, and critically, with modern artillery pieces. But while they are grateful for the M777 howitzers, the Ukrainians have been frustrated by the Joe Biden administration’s resistance to selling them the more advanced Multiple Launched Rocket System (MLRS). Latest reports suggest that the Americans are changing their minds. MLRS will allow for accurate strikes from long range. There has been little progress when it comes to aircraft, other than getting spare parts to make some 20 old combat aircraft flyable again. Modern combat aircraft would make a difference.
The Ukrainians are currently in no position to rush into frontal assaults. They will likely rely on steady attrition of Russian front-line forces through directed artillery fire and insurgent operations behind enemy lines (of the sort that have already been reported in Kherson) to erode Russian strength and morale, taking any opportunities when they arise to eat away at Russian positions and, if possible, overrun them. Russia must now defend a long front and substantial occupied territory. Its forces are already stretched and Moscow is scrambling to find reserves. The Ukrainians can’t wait too long but they will not want to move hard against Russian strongholds until they are ready. The Russians face many pressures of their own, having used up masses of equipment and stocks, as well as losing many troops, for limited gains. The economic pressures will not abate. Ukraine should still prevail – but it won’t be quick.
In any war, once the fighting moves from fast advances and bold manoeuvres and becomes more of a hard, attritional grind, then questions of economic and social resilience become progressively more important. Other than Belarus, which has provided a base for Russia operations but no forces, Russia is isolated. China has amplified some of Moscow’s propaganda themes but has given no material support and abstained on key UN votes. Like India it takes little notice of sanctions so it will continue to trade. For now, Russia can finance its war through its energy and food exports, which bring in more money than ever because of the inflated prices. But over the medium to longer term, its position as an energy supplier will be hit and sanctions inhibit normal economic activity, including manufacturing.
The EU will vote soon on its sixth package of sanctions, this time including banning Russian oil and weaning itself away from Russian gas. Discussions are under way to not only freeze Russian financial assets but to seize them and turn them over to Ukraine for reconstruction. Ukraine will certainly need the funds, though concerns about precedents for those holding their funds in dollars and euros will make these discussions difficult.
Ukraine’s war effort is being sustained by its many supporters. While Kyiv wants them to do more, pointing out that this is the best way to get the war over quickly, the Ukrainian government also worries that if it is not over quickly there will be some backsliding, leading to pressure to move to a quick diplomatic settlement. Following Kissinger’s remarks there have been lots of media stories along these lines, but they are all inconclusive. This is because only Ukraine can set its war aims. If it fails to achieve them, that would have dire consequences for European security and result in an extended period of tension and uncertainty. If the failure came because support was withheld when it was most needed then Western governments would have to live with the consequences. They are now invested in Ukraine. Even if there are concerns about sustaining public support through a cost-of-living crisis, Western governments are obliged to stick with it.
Even if they wish to see a diplomatic effort, for the moment there is no mechanism in place for the two sides to start talking. Intermediaries such as the Red Cross were involved in concluding the fighting in Mariupol. There is currently intensive diplomacy, led by the UN, with Turkey (controlling access to the Black Sea) playing a key role, on the desperate need to find a way to unblock the Black Sea to get out the stored agricultural products vital to ameliorating the global food crisis. There are hopes for a humanitarian corridor that will stay in place to keep the produce moving continually. It becomes easier if Russia cooperates, and presumably it does not want to be blamed for food shortages in the Middle East and Africa, but it has already demanded concessions on sanctions.
On how to stop the war there has been no progress and no contact. For the reasons explained above, Zelensky has no interest in a ceasefire that freezes the current position and allows it turn into a de facto international border. Diplomacy will only come into play, as far as he is concerned, when it will lead to a return to 23 February positions. Putin seems still to hope for more, and insists on concessions that Ukraine will not make. Some figures in the West worry about what will happen if Russia’s hold on Crimea looks vulnerable, and so are urging Kyiv to compromise – but they might want to note that Moscow still acts as if it has more to conquer. All calculations can change, depending on what happens in the fighting.
Wars rarely follow straight paths. There can be periods of intense activity, followed by pauses, even truces, as both sides regroup before returning to heavy combat. Front lines can appear static, only for there to be a sudden breakthrough. Armies can appear robust, only to be revealed as brittle. A dash forward can lead to overextension and then retreat. They do not follow a set timetable; it is impossible to say when this war will end. The prudent assumption for now is that this is not a short-term emergency but, for those countries supporting Ukraine, a long-term commitment; that there is no easy diplomatic fix; and that Ukraine will keep on fighting for as long as it takes to regain its lost territory.
Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his substack “Comment is Freed”.
[See also: War in Ukraine: The second coming of Nato]