The Russian onslaught on Ukraine continues with no end in sight. Few predicted this a year ago. By all indications, in February 2022 Vladimir Putin expected Ukraine's passive acceptance of its more powerful neighbour's actions, with no meaningful involvement of other countries. This grave miscalculation has led to a protracted conflict.
If anything, the Russian invasion has provoked a situation that echoes the Cold War. The United States and other NATO countries have committed themselves to supporting Ukraine with economic and military means. Russia is doing its best to stick to its pre-war narratives that cast NATO enlargement as the justification for the ‘special military operation’; we hear very little these days about the purported Nazi regime in Kiev that was engaged in genocidal attacks on ethnic Russians in the Donbas region. Vladimir Putin has repeatedly flagged the potential use of nuclear weapons. Economic warfare – Western sanctions, Russia’s disrupted energy supplies and general mayhem in supply lines caused in part by the war – is part of the broader context that looms over the international system.
The war itself has seen its ups and downs. In the late summer of 2022, it looked like Ukraine was about to drive Russian troops back. But as winter set in it became clear that neither side was ready for diplomacy. Russia called in reservists and tried to break the morale and endurance of Ukrainian resilience with relentless bombardment of infrastructure, the Ukrainians stood firm and escalated their appeals for military assistance from NATO.
The prospects for negotiation are bleak. For a potential peace deal the core demands of at least one side need to change. There is no evidence that this has happened, or that it will happen soon. Ukraine is unlikely to accept territorial losses for it would imply that Russia has succeeded. Moscow will not simply withdraw because it would infer weakness and severely undermine Putin’s right to hang on to power.
Yet, if the war is ever to end one side will need to blink. The costs of the war, both material and human, might break the level of commitment of the Russian political elite. Past wars in which miscalculation was a crucial element, such as Vietnam for the United States, or Afghanistan for the Soviet Union, ended in this way. Domestic political conditions shifted in the country that had miscalculated, making exit the only viable option. This may only happen, however, if the West stands firm in its support for Ukraine, in the face of increased domestic pressures linked to the costs of the war. If they do not, Russia may still find itself an ‘honourable’ exit, a diplomatic off-ramp with face-saving measures. Any gain of territory for Russia can be interpreted as having justified the immense cost of what is increasingly referred to as Putin’s war.
The prospects for peace are not bright. Sadly, this will continue to be a long-protracted political, economic and military battle of resolve. And by the end of 2023 it will most probably still be ongoing.