Home European News The Coming Year May Not End The War In Ukraine. But It Could Decide The Outcome.

The Coming Year May Not End The War In Ukraine. But It Could Decide The Outcome.

The Coming Year May Not End The War In Ukraine. But It Could Decide The Outcome.

On February 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a grim, resentful speech that changed the minds of many who had until then believed Russia would not launch a major new invasion of Ukraine.

Less than 72 hours later, Russian missiles rained down across the country, and Russian forces crossed the border, as well as the existing front line in the Donbas. And Putin, Western intelligence indicates, believed that Ukraine would be under Moscow’s thumb within weeks, if not days.

That did not happen, and now the full-scale war is reaching the two-year mark. Will it end in its third year?

The answer: Probably not. But talk of a stalemate may be misleading, lulling Kyiv’s backers into complacency at a time when one massive factor that has come to the fore could determine the outcome of the war: Western weapons deliveries.

“It’s always dangerous to make predictions, but it’s difficult to imagine the war ending by the end of 2024,” Ruth Deyermond, senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, told RFE/RL.

“As things stand, neither side seems to have the capability to inflict a decisive defeat on the other. For that to change there would probably need to be a significant shift in external factors, most importantly, the level of support provided by the West,” Deyermond said in an e-mail exchange.

“Significantly more Western material support will help Ukraine to make progress in liberating territory,” she added, while “a reduction in Western assistance could force Ukraine to agree to peace talks on Russia’s terms.”

Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the Crisis Group, puts it in starker terms. “If Ukraine runs out of weapons and people, yes, the war will end in the next year,” Oliker said in a telephone interview.

“It’s always been the case that surrender by one or the other side would end the war,” she said. “And if you run out of weapons and people, you don’t have much of a choice.”

The Shifting Tides Of War

The tide of the war has shifted several times since the full-scale invasion. Overall, 2022 was Ukraine’s year: After surprising the world by not just surviving but beating back Russia’s advance toward Kyiv in the north in the early weeks of the invasion, the defending forces recaptured substantial chunks of territory in the east and south, around Kharkiv and Kherson.

In 2023, a much-anticipated counteroffensive that Kyiv launched in June had fizzled by the end of the year, far short of its most ambitious goal: to smash through the “land corridor” leading from the Russian border to the isthmus linking Ukraine’s mainland with occupied Crimea.

In an interview published in The Economist on November 1, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces at the time, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, described the battlefield situation as a “stalemate” — a word that sounded defeatist to some in Ukraine, including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but that came up often in discussions of a war in which the front lines had moved little for months.

Things have changed since then — less on the battlefield, with one glaring exception, than far behind the scenes, in Washington, where a different kind of stalemate is presenting a growing threat to Ukraine’s defense. About two weeks before Zaluzhniy’s remarks, which may have been a contributing cause of his dismissal this month, U.S. President Joe Biden proposed $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, most of it for weapons.

Four months later, after a number of twists and turns in the U.S. Congress, where right-wing Republicans have blocked its passage, the aid package still has not been approved — and it’s unclear whether it ever will be.

At the front, Ukraine’s firepower is fading as the flow of Western weapons slows, and the situation around Avdiyivka is anything but a stalemate. After many months of fierce fighting, Russian forces captured the devastated Donbas city last week.

Boosted Confidence?

Like the long battle for Bakhmut, Russia’s gain came at a massive cost in troops and weapons lost, but it gave Putin a battlefield victory ahead of a March 15-17 election that is set to hand him a new six-year term and may have boosted his confidence about the war still further after Ukraine’s unsuccessful counteroffensive.

It also opened a potential pathway for Moscow’s forces to seize more territory.

“If Russian forces continue to advance past Avdiyivka and capture [transportation] networks, including west of Bakhmut, they eventually threaten a more strategic location, Pokrovsk, around 80 [kilometers] away,” military analyst Dara Massicot, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on February 20.

“Russian military leaders’ training and mindset will tell them that now is the time to press forward on objectives: [Ukrainian] units have ammunition and manpower deficits, American assistance is delayed,” and Western ammunition production targets have not been reached, Massicot wrote.

“If the United States does not provide additional aid, then Ukrainian military capabilities will gradually deteriorate,” Mark Cancian, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an e-mail. “I expect they will agree to some sort of negotiated cease-fire that allows Russia to occupy the territory it has seized.”

The flow of U.S. military aid peaked last summer at about $1.5 billion a month, and U.S. military equipment deliveries to Ukraine will fall 80 to 90 percent by the summer of 2024 if Congress does not pass a new aid package, Cancian told RFE/RL earlier this month.

Still, if dwindling U.S. aid and other factors do lead to a pause or an end to the fighting, it might not be in the coming year.

For one thing, Ukraine is now “focused on reconstitution and digging in to defend against continued Russian attacks,” military analysts Massicot, Michael Kofman, and Rob Lee wrote in a January 26 commentary for War On The Rocks, shifting its posture following the counteroffensive in 2023. And whatever the level of Western aid, Kyiv appears determined to avoid any agreement that would cement Russia’s territorial gains, even temporarily.

Another factor: Despite the seizure of Avdiyivka, it’s unclear how much further Russian forces may be able to go in 2024. Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, told The Wall Street Journal last week that Russian forces “don’t have the strength” to achieve what he said was their main strategic goal of seizing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which make up the Donbas, in their entirety this year.

Meanwhile, analysts say that for Russia, holding the territory it now controls and seizing more in the east and south is only part of the plan — a springboard to more ambitious goals that would take more time to achieve.

“Russia still maintains the strategic objective of bringing about the subjugation of Ukraine. It now believes that it is winning,” Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, military analysts at the Britain-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), wrote in a commentary published on February 13. “Surrender terms currently being proposed by Russian intermediaries include Ukraine ceding the territory already under Russian control along with Kharkiv, and in some versions [Odesa]; agreeing not to join NATO; and maintaining a head of state approved by Russia.”

Russia hopes to make this happen by means of a three-stage process, Watling and Reynolds wrote: Draining Ukraine’s ammunition and personnel reserves by maintaining pressure along the front, “breaking the resolve of Ukraine’s international partners to continue to provide military aid,” and then making further battlefield gains “that would be used as leverage against Kyiv to force capitulation on Russian terms. “

“The planning horizon for the implementation of these objectives, which is providing the baseline for Russian force generation and industrial outputs, is that victory should be achieved by 2026,” they wrote.

The Most Crucial Part Of The Equation

But there’s a big caveat: an emboldened Russia might try for more — or try to get it faster. Over nearly a quarter-century in power, Putin has often adjusted the Kremlin’s goals based on advances and setbacks.

“It is vital to appreciate that Russian goals may expand with success,” the RUSI analysts wrote, “and given that the Kremlin has violated almost all significant agreements both with Ukraine and NATO, there is no assurance that even if Russia got what it wanted out of negotiations it would not subsequently endeavor to physically occupy the rest of Ukraine or be emboldened to use force elsewhere.”

On the other hand, failure by Russia to make substantial progress toward its goals in 2024 would have a knock-on effect, making success in the coming years increasingly difficult for Moscow to achieve. And the most crucial part of this equation is Western military aid.

“The Russian theory of victory is plausible if Ukraine’s international partners fail to properly resource the [Ukrainian armed forces],” Watling and Reynolds wrote. “However, if Ukraine’s partners continue to provide sufficient ammunition and training support…to enable the blunting of Russian attacks in 2024, then Russia is unlikely to achieve significant gains in 2025. If Russia lacks the prospect of gains in 2025…then it follows that it will struggle to force Kyiv to capitulate by 2026.”

Other analysts agree that what happens this year will go a long way toward deciding the war’s outcome.

“Decisions made now will determine whether the Ukrainian military is resourced to hold its positions through 2024, fend off Russian attacks, and rebuild strength for 2025 and beyond,” Massicot told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.

“[T]he signs all seem to indicate that the fighting will continue into at least early 2025,” Deyermond said. “What happens after that, including how soon and under what circumstances the war ends, will depend on what happens later this year.”


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