Update 44: Russia's war with Ukraine

One year on and no end in sight

On the 24 February 2022 President Vladimir Putin committed the crime of aggression by invading Ukraine, and a quick Russian victory was anticipated. One year later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared victory for his own country to be inevitable in a national address to mark the anniversary of the invasion, adding that Ukrainians had been proven invincible over “a year of pain, sorrow, faith and unity”. The reality, however, is of a protracted war with ever higher human costs. The war has disrupted global food security, humanitarian aid and increased political instability. There is currently no clear pathway towards peace, and no apparent political will to seek one.

It is a war between two armed forces, with their respective proxy supporters, but also an economic war and increasingly a conflict between competing systems of values: democracy and autocracy. But Western pleas for practical assistance from the Global South have largely been rebuffed, with some states like India and South Africa justifying their refusal to explicitly condemn Russia in UN votes (see below) by pointing to the West’s own chequered history of prioritizing interests over values.

The war has brought incalculable agonies on the civilian population of Ukraine resulting in an exodus of more than 8 million refugees across Europe and further afield. At least 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, according to the United Nations, but the true death toll is believed to be much higher. But the war has also been a story of heroic resistance that has inspired widespread admiration and solidarity. Because most of Europe has now abandoned any idea of developing stable, predictable and productive relations with Russia, at least while Putin remains in power, the focus of that solidarity has been on supplying Ukraine with increasingly lethal weapons.

Beyond the ongoing terror towards Ukraine, the war has also revealed the hollow nature of the Russian military threat to the rest of Europe. Despite a decade-long military modernization programme and superior firepower and troop numbers, Moscow has been barely able to advance beyond the Donbas and has instead resorted to indiscriminate targeting of civilian infrastructure and the Ukrainian economy. Outside of the nuclear threat, it is hard to see Russia mounting a serious military challenge to NATO, which has circled the wagons around member states in renewed displays of unity and strength.

How will the war in Ukraine end?

It is hard to say. There are broadly four paths forward from the current stalemate in which Russia controls about 18% per cent of Ukraine. First, with both Moscow and Kyiv appearing on the verge of launching opposing spring offensives, either side could potentially achieve a breakthrough leading to a declaration of victory. However, neither side appears capable of amassing a force strong enough to punch through defensive lines. Second, the war could drag on for years at a low ebb. Third, the war could escalate in several ways, including (a) by Ukraine taking the fight inside Russia (which may already be happening with recent reports of cross-border sabotage and drone attacks); (b) by drawing in additional states - Belarus (directly with troops and weapons in support of Russia),  China (indirectly via weapon supplies to Russia) or the US, NATO or some of its member states moving beyond proxy support for Ukraine to direct involvement in combat; (c) by Russia’s use of nuclear weapons; or (d) following a coup by right-wing “ultra-patriots” frustrated by the Russian army’s failures in Ukraine.

Fourth, a peace deal could bring an end to the hostilities, although the current outlook for a negotiated deal would likely involve Ukraine ceding some territory to Russia. While the second outcome currently seems the most likely, none of the other pathways can be ruled out. The option of a negotiated peace (see below) remains the most desirable outcome—a view seemingly shared by both the UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Gen Mark Milley, chair of the US joint chiefs of staff. Speaking to the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session on Ukraine on 22 February Guterres said, “War is not the solution. War is the problem…. And while prospects may look bleak today, we must all work knowing that genuine, lasting peace must be based on the UN Charter and international law. The longer the fighting continues, the more difficult this work will be. We don’t have a moment to lose”. And in an interview with the Financial Times on 16 February, Milley said neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to achieve their military aims, and he believed the war would end at the negotiating table.

Read more in the attached pdf on: the stalled diplomacy, including the recent G20 meeting, the UNGA vote and China’s 12-point position paper; military and financial assistance to Ukraine and Russia; the humanitarian consequences of the armed conflict; concerns about Ukrainian nuclear facilities; the risk of nuclear weapon use; investigations into alleged war crimes; sanctions against Russia; global food security; energy security in Europe; and developments in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and NATO, including tensions between Turkey and Sweden over the latter’s stalled NATO accession.

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