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31 December 2023updated 30 Jan 2024 9:32am

How will the war in Ukraine end?

Intense diplomatic activity could be a feature of 2024 after a year of disappointment for both sides.

By Lawrence Freedman

This is the time for annual self-assessments, and this is mine. Although I have written about the Gaza War here and here, and will return to that early in the new year, this piece focuses on the Russo-Ukraine War. This is not only because of the amount I have written on the topic, but also because the question of the expectations surrounding this war has become an issue in itself. Has an optimism bias pervaded the commentariat? Did pro-Ukrainian sympathies lead it to play down Russia’s inherent strengths and fail to appreciate Ukraine’s vulnerabilities?

There was certainly more optimism surrounding the Ukrainian position at the start of the year than there was at the end. This is partly because of the uncertainties surrounding the level of US and European support, a matter to which I will return in my conclusion. But it was largely because of the meagre returns from Ukraine’s intensive efforts to liberate more territory.

Commenting on an ongoing war is difficult, especially for someone not close to the front lines. This is why, as I noted in last year’s assessment, my preference is “to talk about trends, possibilities, and developments coming into view.” Wars pass through stages, as fortunes shift, and the challenges of supply and reinforcement change. Over time some possibilities become impossible, some quite likely, and new ones emerge. Of these the most unlikely, such as peace negotiations, can be worth discussing to understand why they are unlikely or what would need to change to make them likely. So my self-assessment question is not whether my predictions are right, because I made few that were firm, but whether much happened that would surprise a regular reader of these posts.

And strategies make a difference. Few outcomes in war are inevitable. Armies can be caught out by sudden changes in the weather, spectacular acts of incompetence (a large force being conspicuously gathered in a way that can be easily targeted), or just the push and pull of competing military and political priorities. Perhaps the Ukrainian army could have achieved more with better choices, including by its international supporters, although the alternatives always seem much clearer in retrospect. Perhaps what it was trying to do was just too difficult. The Russian army put even more effort into its offensives and achieved even more meagre results in its efforts to occupy more territory. Both sides have struggled to mount offensives against well-defended positions. In which case how does this war end?

[See also: Who is winning the war in Ukraine?]

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Paths to victory

At the start of 2023 I assumed that any political breakthroughs depended on military breakthroughs. Both sides were planning offensives but Ukraine should have had something fresh to offer which explains the hopes invested in its prospective offensive. I saw reasons for optimism but also wondered if I had:

“underestimated the resilience of the Russian army and its ability to exploit mobilisation. It is easier to defend than to attack, and value can be found even in the most indifferent and unwilling soldiers, especially when they are considered expendable.”

Furthermore, would even favourable military developments for Ukraine lead to more favourable political outcomes? It was unclear how, if at all, events on the ground affected decision-making in the Kremlin. So little is known about internal debates in Moscow that it is easy to assume, almost as a default, that Vladimir Putin has everything under control. As I noted in late February :

“From our perspective, there is no point in wishful thinking about coups and mutinies. But that does not mean that we might not be surprised by developments in Moscow or by the impact of battlefield reverses.”

There were in fact already obvious tensions in the Russian high command. General Sergei Surovikin, in overall charge of the Russian forces, was tough and competent. But he was demoted in January, presumably because he was too defence-minded. Instead Commander-in-Chief Valery Gerasimov took over direct responsibility for the Russian campaign. The Russian offensives at the start of the year were unimpressive with crude and unimaginative tactics. Little progress was made, and then at high cost, with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group to the fore in Soledar and Bakhmut.

The Prigozhin mutiny

I reported regularly about Prigozhin’s bitter complaints over the lack of ammunition reaching him, blaming Gerasimov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu for “meat-grinder” tactics. On 19 May I asked “what is Prigozhin up to?”

“His bad-tempered video rants not only aggravate his disputes with the Russian Ministry of Defence about who is to blame for Russian failures in and around Bakhmut and the deaths of his soldiers but seem to get close to challenging Putin. Is this purely a Prigozhin thing or does it speak to wider disputes among the Russian elite about the course of the war and the capacity of the leadership? Certainly not a good look in terms of unity of command.”

On 23 June this festering row came to a head. Shoigu had tried to bring Wagner under his ministry’s control. Faced with the collapse of his business model Prigozhin mutinied, challenging directly Putin’s whole rationale for the war by pointing out the lack of an extraordinary Ukrainian threat to the Donbas enclaves in February 2022, before marching to the Southern Command HQ at Rostov. Then, having encountered minimal opposition and a few cheers, he carried on towards Moscow.

The causes were no mystery but few could have scripted the ensuing events. I managed to get out an assessment on the Saturday morning, with more clarity on why it had happened than what was to happen next. Then, almost as suddenly as the mutiny began, it was over. Prigozhin was persuaded that afternoon while still en route to the capital that he should back down, in return for safe passage to Belarus. What struck me in a quick post-mortem was the passivity of the population. Civil society had stayed “largely indoors.” Putin would be aware “that at this vital moment when his position was under the greatest threat, many were watching to see what happened next.”

Although for a while Prigozhin carried on with his affairs in Russia as if nothing untoward had happened, and even at one point met with his old chum Putin again, it was hard to believe that he would survive such a challenge and so it proved. (I wrote about his death in August in the New Statesman).

The bigger question was whether the crisis would destabilise the regime. My view at the time was that it must do. Putin dithered, not dealing with the dispute while in its early stages, and then could only be rescued by doing a deal with people he’d just called traitors, albeit one on which he later reneged (as with so many of his deals). Yet six months on Putin does not give the appearance of having suffered long-term harm. Perhaps this remains a situation in which absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. The lack of political noise in Moscow does not mean that there is no unease or dissent among the elite.

One reason why the effects may be contained might be the speed with which the crisis came and went. Another might be the timing. This was at the dog end of the costly and unimpressive Russian offensives of the first part of the year. Surovikin’s connections to Prigozhin left him banished (though not dead). There were other commanders clearly unhappy with the higher conduct of the war. Meanwhile the Ukrainian offensive had begun. This was probably the period of maximum unease on the Russian side. If Putin now feels more confident it is because he weathered that particular storm. But it leaves a lingering “what if” question about the effect on the Russian system had there been more Ukrainian success or for that matter if the next mutineer has a clearer idea of what he is trying to achieve.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive 

A lot was riding on Ukraine’s offensive, including the added value that might result from western equipment transfers and training programmes. I noted in April that it was being “spoken of with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.”This post was prompted by a series of Pentagon documents that had appeared on a gamers’ chat room, revealing misgivings about the state of Ukraine’s armed forces and the hazards they now faced.

I suggested that we should free ourselves from some natural assumptions about what offensives look like.  

“The term conjures up images of heroic soldiers charging enemy positions, whether as cavalry with drawn swords, or columns of tanks moving purposefully over churned up fields, or hapless soldiers scrambling out of their trenches when the whistle blows to dash across no man’s land. But instead of frontal assaults, which normally end badly, this campaign might be more subtle, using opportunistic probes to find weak spots in the enemy lines, moving slowly by stealth, creeping up on unsuspecting defenders. They will want to avoid the grind of urban warfare favoured by the Russians, who do not care about the devastation caused, but will instead seek to cut off enemy units from their supplies, encircling them until their troops have little choice but to withdraw in a hurry or surrender.”

As a guide to what was to come this was, I’m afraid to say, pretty poor, not least because of the starting assumption that Ukrainian commanders would be aware that frontal assaults normally end badly and so would avoid. This was my own effort at expectation management.

The stakes were clear enough. On 10 May I observed that:

“The worst outcome for Kyiv would be a vicious cycle whereby setbacks lead to consequential Western disillusionment and calls for it to come to terms with a permanent loss of territory.”

My initial reaction to the offensive when it began in early June, in the Sunday Times, was cautious. The stakes were high and it was too early to say how events would unfold. But I noted, as the main thrust of the Ukrainian offensive came out of Zaporizhzhia, that:

“The Russian general staff looked at the same maps and prepared its defences accordingly. If this is indeed the main focus of the Ukrainian offensive then they are taking on Russian defences at their strongest, with layers of mines, anti-tank traps and barriers, trenches and artillery that all need to be overcome. Even without this level of fortification, defence has been the stronger form of warfare in this war.”

A month later I reported more on the anxiety surrounding the offensive. Instead of starting with breaking through enemy lines Ukrainian forces were having to rely on smaller-scale operations to create gaps and stretch Russian reserves. By contrast Nato forces would only have attempted this operation with superior air power, and Ukraine barely had any air power at all. Moreover, this was “a sobering reminder that the Russian armed forces, for all their dysfunctions, could also adapt to the demands of war and would not be pushovers.”

As we learnt more it also became apparent that the demands of close coordination of complex operations in tough conditions were beyond fresh units that had not quite enough training. They had lots of new equipment but it came in many different types. Furthermore the battles in the Donbas against the Russians, including for Bakhmut (which was eventually taken in June) had come at a high cost, with many experienced soldiers lost in the fight. The debates still rages about whether an earlier tactical withdrawal from Bakhmut would have made sense.

By the end of July there was no point in pretending that all was going well. “Ukraine has had to adjust its tactics after initial setbacks, so that we are now assessing progress against different criteria than were in place when it began.” My view of the offensive reflected my wariness about an American fixation with manoeuvre compared with the unimaginative, hard-grind of attrition. (This was a concern I first expressed in August 2022). One problem is it leads to playing down the benefits the US has always got in its conventional operations from superior firepower.

“‘Attrition’ describes what regularly happens in war. It is not really a type of war or a distinctive strategy. Even the cleverest manoeuvres do not preclude attrition in the short-term. And if they fail to achieve decisive victories the likely consequence is attrition in the long-term.”

There were soon the inevitable leaks from anonymous US officials blaming the Ukrainians for not concentrating their forces more on the southern front and getting too distracted by the eastern, without acknowledging the deficiencies in equipment (not just aircraft but also mine-clearing). In his self-assessment, Phillips O’Brien concludes that he was too optimistic in assuming that the US and its allies would transfer the long-range systems necessary to attack and disrupt the supply lines behind enemy lines. I have some sympathy with this view – the Biden administration has been far too cautious – and more accurate long-range systems (such as ATACMS) would undoubtedly have helped, but how much is unclear because the Russians had already adjusted their logistical practices and improved their electronic warfare capabilities to cope with these threats. And Ukrainians were putting a priority on liberating territory and that required a land offensive in some shape or form.

In practice the problem was that the Ukrainians had been encouraged to embrace a western manoeuvre concept but without the capacity to make it work, which left them too dependent on the Russian army being in a weakened and demoralised state. The Ukrainians reverted to the sort of smaller-scale operations that they understood better. This meant however that progress was slow, giving the Russians time to reinforce areas coming under threat. Without improved coordination between units it was difficult to scale up the effects and take advantage of any breakthroughs.

All of this was understood in August. There have been no revelations since then that require regular references to a disappointing offensive, other than the readiness of senior Ukrainian figures to speak in these terms. For several months now the narrative has been one of protracted “stalemate”. (My efforts to point out that this term is wholly inappropriate, as a stalemate in chess means the end of the game and does not describe a deadlock have been to no avail.)

Ukraine has been unable to put itself in a position to force a decision on Russia. But even if the offensive had made more progress it would have been a tall order to put the Russians sufficiently in a corner that their choice was only between battlefield humiliation and a negotiated withdrawal. We also need to keep in mind that there have been some successes, including pushing back the Black Sea Fleet through the effective use of naval drones.

Back to Putin

While it has become de rigueur to mention Ukraine’s military disappointments it seems to be assumed that Russia’s difficulties mean very little because it ultimately has the size and resources to keep going, and because it has acquired Ukrainian territory which Ukraine is struggling to retrieve. But Russia is still nowhere close to a satisfactory outcome. In a June article by Sergei Karaganov, an established ultra-nationalist analyst, which I discussed in October, most interest was in his urging Putin to take more nuclear risks (advice rejected by Putin). I was more struck by his description of the problem he was trying to solve. Suppose, he wondered, if the four regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia) or perhaps the whole of eastern and southern Ukraine were fully occupied.

“But there will still remain a part of it with an even more embittered ultranationalist population pumped up with weapons – a bleeding wound threatening inevitable complications and a new war.”

The worst outcome would be, “at the cost of enormous losses”, the liberation of all of Ukraine, which will “remain in ruins with a population that mostly hates us” and a “redemption” that would take more than a decade. He wanted to take (what were claimed to be) the former Russian parts back into Russia and turn the rest into a friendly buffer state. This is why he wanted to “break the West’s will to incite and support the Kiev junta, and to force it to retreat strategically.” All this was despite Russia only acquiring marginal bits and pieces of territory, and relinquishing much more, since its initial offensive of February/March 2022. From this perspective Russia remains a long way from a sustainable victory.

A recent CNN report suggested that:

“Russia has lost a staggering 87 percent of the total number of active-duty ground troops it had prior to launching its invasion of Ukraine and two-thirds of its pre-invasion tanks.

The losses in recent operations in the east, especially around Avdiivka, also justify the adjective “staggering”. This is a strategic location, more so than Bakhmut, important to Russia’s efforts to gain control of all of Donetsk. Like Bakhmut the city has been obliterated by the fighting (Russia’s territorial gains tend to come at the expense of habitability). The same CNN report, quoted an NSC spokesperson saying that since early October:

“the Russian military has suffered more than 13,000 casualties along the Avdiivka-Novopavlivka axis and over 220 combat vehicle losses-the equivalent of 6 maneuver battalions in equipment alone.”

The gains have been marginal. Ukrainian forces have recently withdrawn from the small town of Marinka, a suburb of Donetsk, which like all the recent Russian “prizes” has been left ruined and depopulated, in this case after almost two years of fighting. According to the New York Times this battle illustrated the “big advantage” of Moscow:

This may be the only way Moscow knows how to win but this is only an advisable strategy in extremis – supplies of cannon fodder are not infinite, and those of equipment and officers are more limited, and so far one grinding attack has led to no more than the start of another, with the interim “prize” another battered and depopulated town. (It is hard to dismiss entirely comparisons with King Pyrrhus’s victories over the Romans in 279 BCE which left the King lamenting that their cost was leading to utter ruination.)

So while in principle looking at a map creates new options for the next stage of the Russian offensive in practice losses of this sort reduces the ability of Russian forces to build on any gains. Ukraine’s Commander in Chief General Valery Zaluzhnyi has stressed the importance of inflicting heavy casualties on Russia, “until the enemy gives up fighting against our country,” while acknowledging that its hard to know in the Russian case when this point would be reached. With other countries it would have passed long ago.

“What’s happening on the contact line is there are piles of bodies and no one is even bothering to take them away. More and more bodies appear there every day. Unfortunately, that’s the Russian attitude towards its people.”

What has interested me about this Russian offensive, however, and the human and material resources thrown into it, is the urgency it betrays. I explored this in a post on 23 November. It suggested to me that Putin was not content with waiting and would prefer to get the whole business over and done with earlier rather than later.

The main reason for the assessment that it suits Putin to hang in there is that over time western support for Ukraine will drift away. Indeed, Putin was quite explicit about this in his press conference of 14 December.

“They’re [the Ukrainians] getting everything as freebies. But these freebies can run out at some point, and it looks like they’re already starting to run out.”

There have been much publicised problems with the next large tranches of EU and US support. The problem with the EU lies with Hungary’s veto of any funds to Ukraine, but either this will soon be overcome or, even if not, there are workarounds that will lead eventually to the desired result. The problem in the US reflects Republican efforts to tie support for overseas causes to action to stop immigrants coming in from Mexico. There is enough money left for one more military aid package, but then it depends on a new deal.

The most recent reports suggests that a deal is getting closer in the Senate but it will not be finalised until later in January, assuming that there are not further delays. Even with these new packages some of the shortages – particularly in artillery shells – will continue. This is already starting to be felt in front-line operations so that commanders are having to ration allocations, making awkward priorities about operational needs.

There is no point dismissing the challenges faced by Kyiv. Ukraine is more than holding its own, but it wanted to have liberated another chunk of its territory during 2023 and that has not happened. In addition to being willing to accept huge losses, the Russians have shown themselves to be adept at defensive operations and have improved their use of drones and electronic warfare capabilities. They might yet make their artillery advantage tell. So far Ukraine has managed this season’s attacks on its cities and critical infrastructure by drones and missiles, and the Russian high command will be worried that so many of its aircraft have been caught out recently by Ukrainian air defence (with five reportedly shot down in recent days). Nonetheless not all areas that need protection can be covered. There is also the extremely tricky issue of mobilisation which is now being addressed but requires up to 500,000 recruits.

This is why, as I argued in my last piece on the topic, in late November that instead of:

“pushing for a quick victory while Russia waits for its support to wane in the West, Ukraine needs to show patience and concentrate on strengthening its position for the longer term. A dash for a quick victory would exhaust scarce resources and, if it failed, lead to further demoralisation.”

According to Politico , encouraged by the Biden administration, this is the shift in posture currently underway, bolstering air defences, strengthening positions in eastern Ukraine, and making it harder for Russian forces to attack from Belarus. The suggestion is that this is to prepare for eventual negotiations, although the main need is simply for Ukraine to show that it can play a long game.

Peace negotiations

A Christmas Eve story in the New York Times claimed that Putin might be trying to find a way out. He was reported to have sent messages through “multiple channels” since September that he was prepared to do a deal, including freezing the fighting along the current front lines. This has generally been viewed with scepticism. There have been a number of proposals in circulation, from China’s last February and those later from the BRICS countries. They are problematic for Putin because if taken seriously they would demand far more of Russia than Ukraine (as Zelensky was quick to notice). This is because they have stuck with the UN Charter which precludes the sort of territorial annexations expected by Putin. At any rate none of these proposals has led to anything.

The next key date for Putin is the presidential election on 17 March. The election is so obviously rigged that it is hard for outsider observers to take it seriously as a landmark date. That may underestimate Putin’s fixation with process. He would no doubt like some tangible victory before then – say the capture of all the Donbas that would allow him to argue that core objectives have been met. If there has not been any progress then at least he should take stock. The winter will be over and he can see what territory, if any, has been taken. The effectiveness of the drone and missile attacks on Ukraine can be judged. He will have been able to see whether or not the EU and the US have sorted out their funding packages.

Suppose that nothing much has changed. The money is coming through and Kyiv is still holding steady, battered and bruised but determined to resist Russian aggression. Putin can’t keep his forces on the offensive all year long and now has to keep an eye out for new Ukrainian strikes on assets not only in Crimea (such as the recent hit on a large landing ship in the Black Sea port of Feodosia in occupied Crimea) but also in Russia proper. Having to rely on Donald Trump both winning the November US election (the next major landmark event) and then doing what he wants is not wholly comfortable.

To keep up the military effort, Putin may need further mobilisation (something he said at his press conference not to be necessary). This is not a prediction but it would not wholly be a surprise if he decided that this was as good a moment as any to suggest the possibility of a ceasefire arrangement. Otherwise he would be stuck with many more months of war without tangible progress and a growing sense of futility. “Futility” was my most used word in 2023 in connection with Russian policy.

There is a difference between keeping options open, perhaps seeing what response tentative, private probes might get, and going public with a concrete proposal. Most likely a new diplomatic effort would start with a third party initiative. Anything that generated any momentum would certainly change the context. Then both sides would have to show they cared about peace, even while reserving their positions. Military moves would start to be judged by how they affected prospective talks. But it would not necessarily bring the war to an end. Even if there was a sudden interest in peace negotiations these could well be played for time and propaganda effect without much expectation that they would lead to an agreement.

All one can say is that intense diplomatic activity can generate its own dynamic and could be a feature of 2024 largely absent from 2023. After a year in which both sides looked forward to military advances and were disappointed, this new year starts with expectations so low that the only way we can possibly be surprised is by developments that get us closer to a resolution.

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