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Where Is the Ukraine War Heading?

Jul 25, 2022
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Recently, some big names in the Western strategic community have spoken out, calling for an end to the Ukraine war as soon as possible. 

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stressed in an interview that, "Negotiations should begin in the next two months before creating turmoil and tensions that will not be easily overcome." Henri Guaino, a senior adviser to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, wrote an article warning that European countries are "sleepwalking" into a war against Russia under the shortsighted leadership of the United States, and that the West has misunderstood the logic of the Ukraine war. Since the U.S., the rest of the West and Ukraine consider the preconditions for a negotiated end to the war premature, they have not responded to these calls positively.    

The three parties involved in the Ukraine war—Russia, Ukraine, and the U.S. and the rest of the West which support Ukraine—have opposing aims and motives. It is difficult to come together and negotiate a truce without fighting or rivalry. 

For Russia, recovering lost territories is a historical mission. Putin said on the 350th anniversary of Peter the Great's birth, “Peter the Great fought for 21 years to recover the land, and the same fate befell us.” These words explain the purpose of Russia's special military operation against Ukraine: to retake from Ukraine the Donbass and Black Sea coastal areas that originally belonged to Russia. In 2014, Russia took back Crimea; it now controls Luhansk; the next target is the Donetsk region. Russia hopes to use the fight to promote talks and gain more leverage for future negotiations to demand Ukraine's "neutral status.” 

For Ukraine, its losses on the battlefield have not dampened President Zelensky's determination to "regain lost territories.” He stressed that Ukraine will "liberate all the occupied territories'' and that the restoration of the territory to that which existed before the special military operation launched by Russian troops on February 24 was only a temporary victory, while "recovering all the territories" is the ultimate goal of Ukraine. 

There are two main reasons why Zelensky is so confident that he will retake all the lost territories from Russia. He needs to show his ambition to fight Russia in order to get more support and assistance from the West; with the large amount of assistance including a steady flow of weapons provided by the U.S. and the rest of the West, Zelensky has the courage to fight Russia as he has told G7 leaders that he wants the war with Russia over by the end of 2022.

From the point of view of the U.S. and the rest of the West, the U.S. can kill three birds with one stone. One is to weaken Russia. In Putin's words, "the United States is ready to fight Russia until the last Ukrainian"; another is to, through the imposition of several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia, deplete the power of European allies and prompt them to become more dependent on the United States; and still another is to strengthen the control of the European continent. After the NATO summit in Spain, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would comprehensively increase the deployment of naval, land and air forces in Europe. 

The Western allies, under the U.S.'s guidance, are united against Russia in a way not seen in years, offering money and weapons, taking in millions of Ukrainian refugees, and vowing to "defeat Russia" and ensure that the war won't “end with a Russian defeat of Ukraine.” 

As the war in Ukraine progresses, the conditions for a peaceful end to the war seem to be becoming clear. 

Condition 1: One of the warring parties can't fight anymore. At present, Russia and Ukraine are in a stalemate, and neither side can swallow the other. Only when one side eliminates the other's effective  forces and enters a phase of full-scale offensive, and the other side is exhausted and can't fight any longer, is there a prospect of peace negotiations to end the war. 

Condition 2: The collapse of the U.S. policy of supporting Ukraine against Russia. It is widely believed in the United States that the war in Ukraine provides a rare opportunity for the United States to weaken Russia. There is a high degree of bipartisan unity in the United States on Ukraine, with full support for Ukraine's resistance to Russia. The U.S. is opposed to Ukraine now negotiating peace. Despite the intense domestic partisanship in the United States, there are no signs of wavering or splitting between the two parties on the policy of supporting Ukraine against Russia. 

Condition 3: Western war-weariness overwhelms the zeal for war. The war in Ukraine has entered its fifth month, and European countries are on the verge of recession as energy and food prices soar. The cost of the war has been largely transferred to Europe, and the longer the war lasts, the greater the price paid by European countries. The spread of war-weariness in Europe has caused a rift in the unity of support for Ukraine. The European Council on Foreign Relations last month published an opinion poll on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The results showed a very      wide gap between the positions of many European governments and the public in various countries. There is a huge divide between those who want to end the war as soon as possible and those who want to continue fighting until Russia is defeated, with the former outnumbering the latter. 

In summary, the following conclusions can be drawn about where the Ukraine war is heading. 

First, the war in Ukraine will not stop for a while. At the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian army responded well and forced the Russian troops to withdraw from Kiev. The Russian army changed its way of fighting and concentrated its main forces in the eastern part of Ukraine, winning one battle after another and taking Lugansk in one fell swoop. The next point to watch will be the battle for the Donetsk region. Ukraine hopes to launch a counteroffensive once all Western military reinforcements are in place to regain lost ground and reverse the negative situation. However, since the current state of the battlefield is far from what both sides want to achieve, whatever the outcome of the battle for Donetsk, it will not change the stalemate between the two sides. Therefore, neither side wants to call it quits. 

Second, a negotiated solution to the crisis is difficult to put on the agenda. Western war-weariness has not overwhelmed the zeal for war. The European and American forces for peace still need a process of growth and expansion. The more intense the war in Ukraine is, the stronger the backlash effect of sanctions against Russia, and the greater the likelihood that war-weariness will turn into anti-war sentiment. However, at a time when anti-war sentiment is weak, the U.S. attitude is decisive. It is unrealistic to expect the U.S. to abandon its policy of assisting Ukraine against Russia. At present, the U.S. is a staunch advocate of war, attempting to take all means to trap Russia in the Ukrainian quagmire. 

Third, military combat and economic means are used in a two-pronged way. The two complement each other and promote each other, which is rare in international conflicts in recent years. Economic sanctions have become the main way to cut Russia’s revenues while also fueling inflation and dragging down prospects for global economic growth. After surviving the early shock of Western sanctions, Russia's economy quickly gained a foothold, with the ruble remaining strong and even exceeding pre-war levels against the dollar, and Russian energy and mineral exports generating enough revenue to sustain military supplies for a considerable period of time. Ukraine, on the other hand, has seen most of its exports blocked and its economy shrink dramatically, requiring $5 billion a month in aid to keep the government running. The economic cost is likely to rise further in the future. 

Fourth, the possibility of an escalating war cannot be ruled out. A protracted war has the potential to prompt the parties involved to reach an end to the war by expanding it. The United States and its NATO allies are in danger of being dragged into the war, which could even lead to a nuclear conflict between Russia and the United States. The fundamental reason for these scenarios is that the stakes are so high for both sides in Ukraine that neither side can afford to lose. 

Fifth, the war in Ukraine is headed for the long haul. Both Russia and the United States are so determined to win the war that it is impossible to reach a win-win agreement. The war will end only when both Russia and the U.S. are exhausted and can no longer fight, and it will take years of perseverance to get to this point, not overnight. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the West should prepare for a confrontation between Russia and Ukraine that "could last for years", while Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said in an interview that there is no timetable for the special Russian military operations. Therefore, the war in Ukraine is a long war of attrition.

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