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How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?

The prospect of a prolonged stalemate is taking hold.

By Lawrence Freedman

Inevitably, among the commentary surrounding the first anniversary of the Russo-Ukraine War there was speculation about whether it will have concluded by the second or even third anniversaries. On 24 February 2024 will the air-raid sirens still be sounding in Kyiv? Will Nato leaders still be willing and able to keep up the flow of arms and ammunition to Ukraine? Will Russia still assume an inexhaustible supply of men to send to the front, and will Vladimir Putin still be making interminable speeches that blame the West for an indefinite war?

Putin’s state of the union speech for 2023, delivered on 21 February, offered his audience neither a path to victory nor a promise of negotiations. The war Putin described was not so much against Ukraine but against Nato, supposedly taking advantage of a puppet regime in Kyiv. Viewed in this light, even victory in Ukraine would just move the conflict to a new arena. Yet he did not even explain Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine. “Step by step,” he said, “carefully and consistently we will deal with the tasks we have at hand.” How many steps and how long this would take he did not say. He talked in much more detail about support to the families of “fallen fighters”, “long-term home care and high-technology prosthetics” for the badly wounded, and then, for those currently fighting, “a leave of absence of at least 14 days every six months”– which is something for them all to look forward to. Meanwhile “the latest technology” will “ensure high-quality standards in the army and navy… Our goal is to start mass production. This work is under way and is picking up pace.” He was describing a new normal for Russia, geared entirely to war.

The previous day, in Kyiv, the US president Joe Biden, standing beside the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, spoke for Ukraine’s allies when he insisted that freedom was “worth fighting for for as long as it takes”, adding that that was “how long we’re going to be with you, Mr President: for as long as it takes”.

[See also: Death and literature in Ukraine]

How long?

“How long will it take?” That is the constant question of this war. After a period in which there has been little movement in the front line, despite grim fighting, the prospect of a prolonged stalemate is taking hold. This is certainly a prudent assumption when it comes to making plans to keep the Ukrainian economy afloat and the military production lines running. Setting a timetable for victory creates strategic risk, either by wasting scarce resources to meet it or the demoralisation when it is missed. Despite this prudence, however, both sides are still looking for ways to end the fighting on more favourable terms, sooner rather than later. On the ground, neither are acting as if this conflict is “frozen”. The Russians are hammering away at Ukraine’s defences while the Ukrainians are gearing up to start their own offensive, probably around April or May.

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One of the challenges of all strategy is balancing considerations of desirable end states, and how they might be reached, with the pressing issues that demand the immediate attention of military and civilian policymakers. Wars progress through stages, the outcome of each one shaping the next. In this respect, as Putin said, it is a matter of “step by step”. We are at the current stage because of the choices made by both sides over the past year and how they were enacted: on the Russian side, the failure of its initial offensive, the subsequent focus on taking particular cities in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine whatever the cost, and the mass mobilisation authorised last September; on the Ukrainian side, its resilience and shrewd use of limited military assets, with its later moves determined by what the country could persuade its Western supporters to provide, and the alacrity with which it was delivered.

Anticipating stages yet to be reached results in contentious policy debates about issues that might never arise, or at least not in the form in which they are contemporaneously framed. One example of this tendency is whether Ukraine will seek to take Crimea by force of arms, and whether this would risk nuclear escalation. Another is if Kyiv can be persuaded to concede permanent loss of territory if it is stuck, at the end of 2023, in a bloody stalemate, and whether it will be pressed more if there is “fatigue” in Western societies (though this has been regularly predicted and has yet to happen). A third is concerned with how Russia would be accommodated into a new European security order, a matter that preoccupies France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.

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While policymakers need to think about these issues and plan ahead where they can – and even commentators can do their bit – we do not yet know the circumstances in which they will need to be addressed, if at all. Strategy is not just about how to achieve desired objectives but also how to cope with the situation in which we find ourselves now. That is why the outcomes of the current Russian and prospective Ukrainian offensives are so important. Everything that follows is contingent on these outcomes.

[See also: “Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory”: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants]

To underline this, consider the warning issued by Justin Bronk, of the defence think tank Royal United Services Institute: that new waves of Russian mobilisation, generating more conscripts for the front lines, would belatedly put Russia’s defence industry on a war footing – leading to its recovery from current shortages in manpower, equipment and ammunition by the end of the year. The conclusion he draws from this, however, is quite urgent. There is a limited window in which Ukraine might make decisive territorial gains, “which means Kyiv must risk committing to major counter-offensives this spring and summer”, and the West must do its utmost to support this effort.

Meanwhile Tom McTague of Unherd, having interviewed senior officials in Western capitals, contrasts the public talk about liberating all Ukrainian territory, with private talk about “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”.

The best that can be achieved according to this sombre analysis is “a temporary settlement which eventually becomes a permanent reality even if no one ever officially recognises it as such”. This would leave Ukraine viable and independent, “able to defend itself — to be able to breathe and live as a relatively normal country, to trade and grow, export and settle”. This requires not only stabilising the front lines, but also the ability to deal with constant aerial bombardment, and access to the Black Sea. As all this is some distance away, if the wait is too long, might not Ukraine’s supporters lose interest and become over-eager for negotiations even if the terms favour Moscow? It is necessary, therefore, to persuade Russia to accept that it cannot improve its military position, that it must accept a ceasefire. This leads McTague to the same conclusion as Bronk’s: Ukraine must be supported hard now for it to have the best position to set terms for the long term, even though there is no agreed view on what the long term looks like.

[See also: John Sullivan: “Vladimir Putin does not want an off-ramp”]

China’s peace proposal

The only alternative to seeing who prevails through fighting is a diplomatic intervention. But the topics that would need to be addressed in a proper peace conference do not lend themselves to quick agreement – war crimes and reparations, easing of sanctions, detailed demarcation of borders, and so on. When the US vice-president Kamala Harris, speaking at the Munich Security Conference the weekend before last, urged for a focus on war crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice, she highlighted an issue that is understandably close to Ukrainian hearts but one that is unlikely to be on any conference agenda agreed by Moscow.

Nonetheless, peace diplomacy has been given a boost by the sudden intervention of China. Beijing marked the first anniversary with its own plan, urging that “all parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually de-escalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire”.

Although this is couched in language highly critical of the West, warning against “expanding military blocs” (ie, Nato), the use of sanctions, and weapons transfers that are “fanning the flames”. The statement also stressed its very direct opposition to any nuclear escalation, referred to international humanitarian law and the need to avoid “attacking civilians or civilian facilities, protect women, children and other victims of the conflict”, and demanded respect of national sovereignty and “territorial integrity”. It is limited by its lack of specificity about what all this means in practice. One can infer disapproval of Russian conquests and its crimes but it is not explicit, and Moscow always has its excuses and denials ready.

[See also: Will Ukraine run out of ammunition?]

Russia has responded as one would expect, promising that it is “open to achieving the goals of the special military operation by political and diplomatic means”, but with the critical rider that “new territorial realities” in Ukraine were recognised – that is the unilateral annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as well as of Crimea. The Americans have responded with scepticism and irritation, observing that talk of peace hides the active consideration China is giving to supplying Russia with lethal weapons. The German news magazine Der Spiegel has published details of China proposing to develop killer drones for Russia and parts for its aircraft. China has denied all this. But then it would, wouldn’t it.

The most interesting response came from President Zelensky. He is also anxious to persuade China not to provide weapons to Russia, but he can see an opportunity. If the principles set down in the Chinese paper were applied strictly then they completely undermine the Russian position. Of course these are always matters for interpretation but there is no great ambiguity in this case. It is not only the UN secretary-general António Guterres who has observed Russia’s fundamental breach of the UN Charter. The Russian invasion was condemned 141 to seven in the General Assembly with 32 abstaining, including China. Equally, when it comes to attacks on civilians and civilian facilities, that is precisely what Russia is doing. The war is being fought among the Ukrainian people and not the Russian, so that is an issue solely for Moscow. The Chinese are certainly critical of the West but not particularly of Ukraine, with whom it had decent prewar relations.

From Zelensky’s perspective, it makes more sense to expose differences between Russia and China rather than push them closer by encouraging Beijing to explain who is in the greater violation of the principles it claims to hold. He will also be aware of how many non-Western countries sympathise with the Chinese position. Hence his readiness to meet up with Xi Jinping. If Xi ignores Zelensky then the American charges of hypocrisy will have more credibility. If, however, he decides to continue with his initiative, perhaps by dispatching Wang Yi, his top diplomat and who visited Moscow last week, to Kyiv then the Kremlin will be perturbed.

In practice this is all largely performative. It is not going to lead to an early peace. Just as Moscow wants its conquests recognised, Kyiv demands a full Russian troop withdrawal (not mentioned in the Chinese plan). Beijing has no more ideas than anyone else about how to resolve the territorial issue at the heart of the conflict – more occupation vs complete de-occupation.

[See also: Kyiv stands, Vladimir Putin doubles down, China talks peace]

The Russian offensive. Is this it?

For now it remains likely that both sides will wait on developments in the fighting before reappraising their positions on any prospective deals. In my previous piece I discussed the offensives being planned and why Russia would want to go first. This is what has happened. The view now is that what passes for Russia’s offensive actually began in late January with an attack on Vuhledar. This was added to the assault on Bakhmut, already under way for six months. There have been other attacks directed against the cities of Marinka, Adviivka and Kreminna. In a dismissive interview, Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine, observed that the “big Russian offensive they are aiming for is already under way. But it’s going on so well that not everyone even sees it – this is the quality of this offensive.” He claimed that Russia’s strategic objective, which he believed them incapable of achieving, was to reach the administrative borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by 31 March. Whether or not the timetable is correct the objective makes sense, as that would allow Putin to say he had met a minimal military objective.

When Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the general staff, was appointed supreme commander of the “special military operation” on 11 January, replacing the more methodical and cautious General Sergei Surovikin, his apparent instruction from Putin was to press on with the offensive. Gerasimov appears to have sacrificed preparation for speed. Preparation might have meant ensuring the junior officers that were promoted to fill gaps in the command structure understood their roles, improving the training of the troops, bringing more ammunition to the front and replacing lost equipment. To make more of an impact than with previous land initiatives, the Russian army might have tried to get more value out of its air force, or identified a single axis of attack in which it could concentrate its effort to punch through Ukrainian lines. Or at least probed the Ukrainian lines for positions that were inadequately defended.

The conditions are sub-optimal. They are moving from freezing cold to boggy. The military organisation is still being sorted, both because of the need to reconstruct depleted units and because Gerasimov is trying to enforce unity of command. This has provided one of the main stories of the week – the bitter complaints from the Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin about his men being starved of ammunition. In his fury Prigozhin released a rant targeted at the senior leadership, which included a gruesome image of numerous dead soldiers with the stark caption: “This is one of the gathering places of the dead. These are the guys who died yesterday. Due to shelling and starvation so called. There should have been five times less. Five times. So. Mothers, wives and children will get their bodies.”

At Bakhmut in northern Donetsk, some of the more elite Russian units have been playing an increasingly important role while Wagner nurses its losses. The Russians have made slow gains in the face of stubborn Ukrainian resistance. Because the city now has largely been destroyed and depopulated, this battle can appear to be largely about pride and sunk costs. It is not easy to give up an objective on which so much effort has been expended and for which so many have given their lives. For both sides, however, there is a strategic purpose. If Russia really is on the offensive, taking Bakhmut would introduce new options, including moving towards Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. For Zelensky the defensive work has value because of the costs and delay it imposes on the Russians, though he has reportedly cautioned that this would not be “at any cost”. For now, Russian forces are finding it hard to keep their troops motivated and to sustain one line of attack into Bakhmut, even when they have gained ground. Nevertheless it would not be surprising if Kyiv decided soon that it made more sense to evacuate the battered city and move to new defensive lines.

As in most of their battles up to now, Russia has relied on outgunning the enemy at Bakhmut, combined with the use of “expendable” soldiers to exhaust Ukrainian defenders. A shortage of shells and declining enthusiasm for the “cannon fodder” method may be limiting how many battles can be fought this way, however. The battle for Vuhledar involved two regular brigades of naval infantry trying different tactics. The result appears to have been catastrophic. One problem was that the assault was advertised in advance, so there was no surprise. Another, which affects any Russian advances over a relatively open landscape, was that vehicles and troops on the move could be spotted and picked out by Ukraine’s artillery. A third was that the fields over which the tanks were travelling had been heavily mined. A number of tank columns have reportedly been destroyed approaching Vuhledar, with claims that 30 tanks and other heavy weapons were wiped out on 6 February. Similar numbers were reported destroyed a couple of days later. Ukraine has claimed that it eliminated the entire Russian 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, along with 130 units of equipment.

According to Budanov: “In Bakhmut, it’s just infantry coming in wave after wave. Their artillery is only supporting them, and there are very few armoured vehicles. In Vuhledar, armoured vehicles were used, but they were destroyed in the first hours, and everything turned into small arms fighting.”

For now, according to a Ukrainian military spokesperson cited by the New York Times, Russia has given up on large-scale Russian assaults on Vuhledar, attacking only with “small bands of ten to 15 soldiers, probably probing Ukrainian defences for weaknesses”.

Elsewhere Russian forces appear to have had little or no success, with not much armour reported to be in play. Igor Girkin, the ultra-nationalist who has provided a continuing, and often quite accurate, commentary on Russian military failing, is warning of a lack of “shells and artillery propellants”, armour being burned up at a far faster rate than can be replaced, units not being supplied, and turning at best into “ordinary light infantry units with minimum equipment”. His remedy is to get urgent Chinese help – a “lend-lease” – otherwise “we could find ourselves naked and barefoot” by the middle or end of the year.

So even if they do force the Ukrainians out of Bakhmut there is a question about how much combat power the Russians can muster to exploit whatever openings that provides. As their offensive continues they will need to decide what resources they can afford to expend for limited gains, especially when they may need them to deal with a Ukrainian offensive in a month or two. Michael Kofman, from the military analysts CNA, concludes that: “Gerasimov is exhausting the Russian armed forces with a feckless series of offensive operations, which may yield some gains, like Bakhmut, but [are] unlikely to change the strategic picture. The second battle for the Donbas may once again leave RU [Russian army] forces vulnerable.”

This shows how each stage sets the conditions for the next. The challenge faced by the Ukrainians ahead of their upcoming offensive will depend on how much land the Russians have gained and the state of their army, in terms of numbers, morale and leadership, what equipment is available, as well as ammunition stocks. One can see from this why it suits the Ukrainian commanders to concentrate on reducing Russian capabilities as their own improves – thanks to Western supplies – even though this comes at a high cost for Ukraine as well.

Not a single element in Putin’s strategy has worked thus far: not the energy crunch that was supposed to persuade European governments to abandon Ukraine; not the attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure that was supposed to persuade the country to accept whatever fate Russia dictated; not the numerous offensives that, after the first weeks of war, have yielded remarkably little and left the Russian army a shadow of its former self. Organised defensively, with an influx of “mobiks” – conscripted soldiers forced into fighting – and keeping firepower in reserve, it still has the capacity to frustrate a Ukrainian offensive. Pushing Russian forces into an ill-conceived and ill-prepared offensive, even if sheer weight of numbers and artillery permit a few gains, risks depleting Russian capabilities and making the Ukrainian offensive easier.

The final stage

Caution should be exercised in trying to predict what might happen over the coming months, never mind the coming years. It has been apparent from day one that the same key that turned this war on would have to turn it off. Until Russia orders its troops to withdraw, the war will continue. Those who believe that the damage inflicted on Ukraine and its many dead, wounded and bereaved will encourage it to grasp at any proffered truce with relief and abandon its fight, have not been paying attention. Nonetheless, Putin will keep trying to exhaust Ukraine as he maintains his grip on the Russian political system. There is no point in wishful thinking about coups and mutinies. But that doesn’t mean Moscow wouldn’t be impacted by battlefield reverses.

Putin has become a committed adversary of the West. The antagonism is reciprocated. So long as he stays in power sanctions are likely to remain in place and relations will be generally tense and difficult. Even a new leader is as likely to come from the tough nationalistic wing of the Russian political spectrum as the milder technocratic one, and, either way, will continue to find it difficult to accept Ukraine as a separate, independent country. This difficulty was evident from the moment the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991. It led naturally to the annexation of Crimea and the violence in eastern Ukraine in 2014. This war did not come out of the blue. The conflict was already well entrenched and deadly enough before February 2022. Whatever happens now, there are deep legacies of bitterness, pain and mistrust that will run for many years.

Moscow will face awkward choices – about what portion of a declining GDP must now be devoted to rebuilding the military, or whether it is worth walking away from the most hard-line positions to get sanctions eased. There are a range of possibilities. A definitive conclusion to the fighting is not impossible, though the Ukrainian armed forces would have to enjoy remarkable victories. There could be a reappraisal in Moscow, as with Argentina after the Falklands War, when the cause is not questioned but the folly of attempting to resolve it by force of arms is acknowledged. A formal ceasefire and truce might turn into an opportunity to repair relations or an uneasy but durable peace, as with the North Korean armistice almost seven decades ago, though that is still seen as a potential flash point for a wider war. It is more likely that a period of calm will be seen as an opportunity for rebuilding forces and preparing for the next round. Alternatively, the conflict as it is may rumble on for years, with or without much fighting. Ukraine will therefore continue to seek security guarantees, inside or outside Nato. Even if the fighting subsides and reconstruction can begin, there will be more hard choices to be made about how to revive the economy.

All these choices and possibilities are worth thinking about now. But how they arise will depend on Ukraine’s success in meeting the more immediate challenges it faces. As is often the case with strategy, getting the short-term choices right makes the long-term choices easier. One step at a time. 

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. A version of this piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

Read more:

Ben Hodges: “The only hope the Russians have is that the West loses the will to keep supporting Ukraine”

No, Russia isn’t about to break apart

John Sullivan: “Vladimir Putin does not want an off-ramp”