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Endgame in Ukraine

Sub Title : The present snailmate and the various possibilities

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2023

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 58

Category : Geostrategy

: November 27, 2023

The protracted war in Ukraine, anticipated to be brief, has surpassed two years marked by unyielding Ukrainian resistance and a slower-than-expected Russian occupation of territories. Global attention has shifted due to crises like the Gaza war, impacting aid and support dynamics for Ukraine, especially from the USA. Domestic pressures and a potential change in US leadership loom as factors that may alter the course of assistance to Ukraine. With dwindling support from key allies and internal criticisms, Ukraine faces stark realities, while Russia appears poised for a drawn-out conflict, potentially awaiting a counter-offensive after the winter pause. The possibility of a negotiated peace remains complex with both sides upholding starkly different conditions for talks.

A war which was expected to be over in a fortnight or so has gone on for over two years. It has seen its shares of twists and turns. None expected the determined resistance of the Ukrainians after the invasion on 24 February, which halted each of the Russian thrust lines, and checkmated them virtually at the gates of Kyiv. Most also expected a Russian blitzkrieg that would simply sweep through Ukraine – but the occupation took much longer and proved far more difficult than anticipated.  Russia did eventually succeed in occupying most of the South and the Donbas, but it was a slow and expensive grind. The Ukrainian counter-offensive in the northeast and the south in Autumn 2022, was brilliantly executed, but in the end only recaptured around 3 percent of its lost areas – 17 percent of its territory was still held by Russia. If the Ukrainians continue advancing at the present rate, it will take them another 103 years to recapture its lost areas. So, even though there is talk of the offensive continuing in the next year, it has lost all momentum and the tide has turned against it.

The global climate too seems to have turned against Ukraine. With the horrific October attacks on Israel and the eruption of the Gaza war, global attention has shifted away from Europe towards the even more dangerous tinder box of the Middle East. The USA – Ukraine’s staunchest partner (in aid and moral support, if nothing else) is now focused on Israel and has diverted aid and diplomatic capital towards it. It is significant that in the latest tranche of US aid earmarked for Ukraine, twenty percent of the amount was shifted towards Israel.

There is also a sense of war-weariness. In the USA, there is a growing divide about the continual support for Ukraine, with the Republicans questioning President Biden’s policy of aiding and funding the Ukraine War – to the sum of $126 Billion already.  The US presidential elections of November 2024 could well prove to be the game-changer. Should Donald Trump return to the White House, he will definitely not propagate Biden’s Blank Cheque Policy, and will focus inwards, rather than on an unwinnable war in Europe. It would not be too surprising if the US takes a diametrically opposite stance towards the war thereafter.

There is also growing lack of support amongst Ukraine’s other allies as well. Poland, one of its most steadfast supporters announced that they would no longer be providing arms and support to Ukraine, but would focus on developing their own defensive strength. Slovakia too announced the same. And we have to only hear the silence in European capitals to realize, that more and more nations are rapidly veering away from the earlier concept of “Russia must be defeated at all cost” to adopting a more balanced approach of sacrificing Ukrainian “land for peace.”

This sentiment seems to be growing in Ukraine as well. There is growing discontent with Zelensky’s handling of the war. Some of his recent actions, like the insistence on holding on to Bakhmut and suffering needless casualties, against advice from his Generals have not gone off well. In a recent interview, the Ukrainian Army Chief, Valery Zaluzhny, seemed to imply that the war had reached a deadlock and could not be won any longer – a realistic appraisal of the situation. The signals emanating from Ukraine indicate that their offensive has run its course and at best, Ukraine can now just hold on.

At the end of the second year of fighting, it is Russia that seems better placed. They can sustain the long war of attrition with their vast reserves of manpower, ammunition and resources. The infusion of 1,90,000 reservists in December 2022, has helped them replenish units and formations and beef up the frontlines. With the successful blunting of the Ukrainian offensive – both in the Zaporizhzhia and in the Bakhmut sectors – they now hold an unbroken frontline extending from Kherson to Kharkiv. Their defensive layout is strong and well-coordinated and will be further strengthened to repel another Ukrainian offensive, should it come.

There has been a pause in winter, which will continue till the Spring thaw of March-April. And then what? Western media seems to imply that Ukraine will continue its offensive in the coming year, till they eventually attain their military aims. But that seems far-fetched. The Russians are silent about their intentions, but history shows that Russian military policy usually entails absorbing an enemy offensive, imposing heavy losses on them, and then launching their own counter-offensive deep into enemy territory. They have done the same in the Battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk, and it is quite likely they could follow a similar pattern, by launching their own counter offensive to consolidate their gains. The coming year will tell how the war could go, but the glimmerings of a likely end state are slowly appearing. We could evaluate some of the possibilities, one by one.

A Negotiated Peace

A fair and equitable negotiated peace that looks after the interests of both sides would actually be the most desired end state. But with both sides having such diametrically opposed interests, this may not be possible.

Both sides claim that they want to commence discussions, but the start point differs. Zelensky has clearly outlined his 10-point peace plan based on the reinstatement of Ukraine’s territorial integrity to its pre-2014 boundaries – which includes Crimea. It also includes security guarantees to preclude further aggression, criminal consequences for Russia’s war crimes, reparation of war damages (estimated at $700 Billion so far) and the return of refugees and prisoners.

“Nyet,” says Russia. They too want a negotiated peace, but their start point for any discussion is that territories liberated by them – including Crimea, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk are already part of Russia and no discussion on that can be entertained.

In the immediate future, a negotiated solution seems improbable.

But, should the war go on inconclusively for some time to come, there may be added pressure on Ukraine to accept a negotiated peace, on a line of a “land-for-peace” solution, in which they concede their lost territories in return for a cessation of hostilities.

Russian Military Success

When Russia set out on its war, it had three broad aims for itself. To quickly capture Kyiv; to occupy the eastern and southern part of Ukraine right up to the Dnieper River; and bring about political change with the ouster of Zelensky and his “neo-Nazi government’ and the installation of a favorably disposed regime in Kyiv.

They came very close to achieving the first objective and almost captured Kyiv in the first week of the war itself, by an audacious air assault on Hostomel airfield near the capital. That assault failed by a whisker. The land offensive too was called off after a month or so, and the threat to Kyiv receded. The second objective – capture of all of Eastern Ukraine has not materialized, but the Russians have managed to take over the Provinces of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk – 17% of Ukraine’s richest and most fertile lands. Besides capturing the Donbas in the East, they have also taken over 70 percent of the Ukrainian coastline leaving it with just the port of Odessa and two minor ports.

Russia could attack again from the South and the East to strike out towards the line of the Dnieper River, which would carve Ukraine neatly into two. They could even restart offensive action in the Kharkiv sector, or threaten Kyiv once again. It is a viable option, and one that could be followed by Russia to consolidate their already impressive military gains.

The long war of attrition suits Russia better and they can use their present position of strength to carry the war in to the next year, and then attain the military objectives they had set for themselves.

A Ukrainian Success

In the western media, much has been made of the small successes of Ukraine’s offensive, but even that is slowly giving way to a grudging acknowledgement that Ukraine cannot win the war – irrespective of the amount of aid and arms that the west pours into it. And realistically now, Ukraine’s possibilities of attaining its military goals – i.e. the removal of Russian presence from all its occupied territories is looking increasingly remote.

The only saving grace is that Ukraine has committed only five of the twelve brigades it had built up for the offensive (the others presumably held in reserve in the hope of exploiting a breakthrough that never came

A ‘Forever War’ along the LOC

In April 2014, Russia simply annexed Crimea. They marched into it on the pretext of saving the Russian speaking population there, occupied it, conducted a referendum and in a fait accompli just made Crimea a part of Russia.

In the Donbas, the separatist movement by the militia of the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, which began in 2014 went on for eight long years.  The LPR and DPR aided by Russian soldiers in civilian clothing succeeded in taking over 40 percent of the Donbas. The line dividing the area controlled by the Russian sponsored forces and the Ukrainian forces saw intense trench warfare, raids, skirmishes and artillery duels almost on a daily basis and became known as the Line of Contact.

The LOC has been in force for eight years now. With the Russian territorial gains in this war, it has merely shifted around 200 kilometers inwards all along the frontline from Kherson to Kharkiv. Along this new Line of Contact, trenches, mines and fortifications have come up and brutal trench fighting goes on almost on a daily basis. With the failure of their offensive, Ukraine will be unable to evict Russia from its occupied territories, nor will they be able to push the LOC backwards. Russia too, may not be able to make tangible gains along the line (unless they launch a major offensive). It is quite likely that this war could slip in to a stalemate and become a ‘frozen conflict’ that goes on interminably, with the fighting raging along the new LOC as it has since 2014 onwards. Even if a ceasefire, a truce or even an armistice is implemented, the line dividing the positions held by Russian and Ukrainian troops will still be in place. It could be very much like the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, and that LOC too will keep festering, see firing, artillery duels, raids and skirmishes, and even small wars erupting from time to time.

The most likely outcome of this war will be the Russian occupation of its captured areas and a long stalemate that could lead to the establishment of a LOC. This line could well become the permanent dividing line between Russia and Ukraine and ipso facto the rest of Europe.

What will the Next Year Bring? 

War-weariness is already showing. The world has shifted attention to the even more dangerous situation in the Middle East. Much of U S aid and arms are being diverted there. Europe too seems to be tiring of the continue drain which is not showing much results.

Left to itself, Ukraine will be able to fight the war for just 45 days before it runs out of ammunition and reserves. Russia with its vast stocks can continue this war of attrition, much longer. There is also Putin’s personal staying power. Contrary to expectations, he has emerged stronger and enjoys an unprecedented approval rating of over 80 percent. He has also announced his decision to run for the Presidential elections in March 24, and there is no doubt of the results. So, Putin will be in power till at least 2030, and will prosecute the war till its aims are achieved. The political change that was hoped for in Russia has not materialized.

Ukraine too faces a Presidential election in March 24, which Zelensky is likely to conduct in spite of war time restrictions. His own position is less secure, and should the next incumbent be less inclined to continue a pointless war, they could decide to cut their losses, and accept a ‘land-for-peace’ truce, and the war could end on Russia’s terms. And of course, we have the much-anticipated US presidential elections in November 24, which may prove to be Putin’s ‘Trump Card.’

The ideal state for the war to end would be, of course, through a negotiated solution with Russia withdrawing from Ukrainian territory, (but being allowed to keep Crimea); Ukraine abjuring its intention to join NATO, but offered security guarantees instead; NATO moving back from Russia’s borders in deference to its genuine security concerns; and the West removing the sanctions on Russia and also chipping in for rehabilitation of war-torn Ukraine. That may be an ideal situation that caters for all sides. But unfortunately, we are not in an ideal situation. The west will not abandon Ukraine, but will keep supplying it with enough aid and arms to continue the war without capitulation. A Russian offensive may come later; perhaps even another local Ukrainian offensive could take place, but they may not prove decisive. In all probability, Russia-Ukraine war will continue in a long stalemate and the status quo will lead to the formation of a LOC between the two nations. And along that LOC, a long slow war could continue interminably in a state of frozen conflict.