21 December 2023

Bleak Prospects for Peace: The End of the Year View on the Russia-Ukraine War

As 2023 draws to a close, Oksana Myshlovska, Assistant at the University of Bern and former du Bois Visiting Professor at the Geneva Graduate Institute, analyses the end-of-year situation for the war in Ukraine.

During the traditional end-of-year press conference on 14 December 2023 the first one after the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February 2022 Vladimir Putin projected confidence: he is in control, the war economy is running smoothly, mobilisation is up to speed, and the people of Russia support political authorities and the “special military operation”. At the same time, Putin outlined the bleak prospects of the continuation of the war for Ukraine and its Western partners. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed, the Ukrainian war economy and war efforts are not sustainable without Western support, and Ukrainian political leadership has lost popular support, particularly for pursuing the war without consideration for losses.    

With this projected confidence, Putin reiterated his maximalist war aims, including denazification” (meaning the establishment of a Russia-friendly regime in Ukraine), demilitarisation (meaning the withdrawal of Western military and other support to Ukraine) and Ukraine’s adoption of a neutral status as the only road to peace, attainable only by their permanent renunciation of NATO membership. Furthermore , Putin demanded the recognition of the existing occupation as the new territorial reality and an inclusive international security architecture. 

The day after the press conference, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov reiterated the threats that the conditions for the beginning of peace talks will deteriorate for Ukraine if foreign military support for Ukraine continues.

The Ukrainian strategy has been to build a broad global coalition supporting its vision of peace. The key Ukrainian demands are the full withdrawal of the Russian armed forces from the territory of Ukraine and the restoration of territorial unity within the 1991 borders. The end of the year was marked by a notable event reinforcing the Ukrainian position: the symbolic political support of the EU in the adoption of the Council decision to  open talks on the accession of Ukraine and Moldova to the EU and the granting of an EU candidate country status to Georgia.

While at the end of summer and autumn, the political and expert debate centered on the recognition of the war fatigue in Ukraine as well as a stalemate, debate around prospects for Ukraine has become much gloomier at the end of the year. Some in Ukraine argue that Ukraine has lost the narrative battle with Russia as the situation was presented not as a “mutually hurting stalemate” but the stabilisation of Russia and the weakening of Ukraine.  Many more voices doubt Ukrainian victory and question the soundness of the continuation of military actions.

The gloomier picture at the end of the year has translated into multiple political and expert statements with enhanced threat perception. Threat perception escalated in the language of US President Joe Biden as well as throughout European capitals.  Russia has been attributed the intention not to stop at Ukraine, but to destabilise other countries such as Moldova and Georgia, and then after subduing Ukraine, to attack the NATO countries.  There were many voices calling for the strengthening of military capacities and defenses of the EU countries based on the belief that Putin can be stopped only by force.  Another key argument has been that territorial concessions and Ukraine’s adoption of a neutral status  would not appease Russia as it aims to achieve nothing less than the full destruction of Ukrainian independence and national identity.

Voices calling for peace have argued that the war cannot be reduced to the dominant narrative of a “centuries-long” Russian aggression with the primary motivation to rebuild the Russian/Soviet empire, but called for the need to see all the complexities of a multi-level internationalised conflict that escalated from the mid-2000s and involved the lack of compromises on all sides and miscalculations along the road of escalation. Furthermore, those who have supported the peace talks hold that Russia has bigger resources and can “grind” Ukraine, leading to its complete destruction and collapse in the long-term. Another key argument for the supporters of peace talks has been a recent interview given by one of the Ukrainian negotiators during the spring of 2022, David Arakhamia, who stated that at that time, Russia was ready to stop the military action in exchange of Ukraine adopting a neutral status, and the peace talks were disrupted due to external intervention.

At the end of the year, almost two years after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the prospects of peace look very bleak. Both the prospects of military victories for either side (that would deprioritise the necessity for mutual compromise) and the prospects of sustainable and inclusive peace meeting the needs of all sides through compromises and transformation of escalated identities and demands in the process of mutual engagement given the long history of “peace” through full suppression of the former military rivals and an almost full destruction of the middle ground and the weak position of the supporters of dialogue and peace in all jurisdictions look unattainable. For now, the most probable scenario is the worst of all: the war machine “grinding” ruthlessly human lives, hopes and livelihoods, and leaving behind the wounds and traumas for many generations to come.