It is difficult to predict, ‘how’ the war will end, but easier to forecast ‘when’. 

Not anytime soon. 

The war may run for a few years before the strategic imperatives force a mutually agreed peace. Let us examine the contours of the conflict that would enable us to predict the termination condition.

Russia cannot win, and Ukraine will not lose

After repeated denials, Russia eventually launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 Feb 22. Shrewdly titled ‘special military operations’; implying a surgical, military operation with narrow, clearly specified, limited objectives. The title did not fool anyone. Russians brought to bear the full might of its military superiority onto relatively unarmed Ukraine. The blitzkrieg on to Kyiv eventually stalled as the Russians overestimated their military potential while under-estimating Ukrainian resolve. Russians realized the flaws in their approach and refocused the vector of their ‘special military operations’. The plans were modified, forces re-aligned, and a new joint commander brought in. Phase II of Russian military operations are in play at this time.

Russia will probably declare victory and a unilateral ceasefire after it captures territory in the east and south of Ukraine. Russians would like to take over the restive regions in the East followed by a slice of the land corridor running through Mariupol, linking Crimea to Russia via land. Thereafter the Russian war machine would like to run westward, through Odessa till Transnistria in Moldova. This would reduce Ukraine to a land-locked country, denying them access to the Black sea and the Sea of Azov. Few outside Russia believe that these military objectives can be achieved. Fewer still believe that these military objectives can be attained in a short time frame of weeks. 

Despite the overwhelming military superiority that Russia enjoys over Ukraine, it is improbable that Russia can achieve the abovementioned military goals in near future. The Russian gains will come at a cost that will be paid in blood and treasure. While Russia may have access to almost unlimited military hardware, its pool of human capital is limited. Also limited is the Russian industrial capacity, economic heft and room for diplomatic manoeuvring. Even if Russia attains these military aims, it would find few backers on the international stage that would recognize Russian occupation as legal. It is important to mention here that, China, a long-time ally, has not recognized Crimea as part of Russia even to date, even though the province was annexed in 2014.  

Ukraine is unlikely to cede any part of its territory to Russia and will continue to resist such efforts both militarily as well as diplomatically. Any unilateral ceasefire announced by Russia, after it has annexed the territory it wants, would be rejected by Ukraine. With a gradual influx of modern western weapons into the Ukrainian military and with almost unlimited access to funds for military hardware, the tech asymmetry on the battlefield would eventually shift in Ukraine’s favour. As long as Ukraine can find people to fight, it would not run out of weapons to fight. The war would go on unless Ukraine loses or Russia wins. Both outcomes look improbable at this time. There is a third possibility, which at this stage appears the least likely, that involves a Russian change of mind, compelled by domestic pressure, international sanctions, pushback from the military or a combination of these factors.  

The Other War we may not be seeing

Besides the battlefield, this war is also being fought in the informational domain, diplomatic level and the economic front, with attendant implications at a grand-strategic level. 

With his daily appearance on social media, President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a household figure amongst much of the world. He provides feedback, answers questions, and meets the press, including Russian journalists. He seems accessible; routinely seen with his people on the streets, and even on the battlefield amongst his troops. President Vladimir Putin on the other hand is seen only in the orchestrated meetings and pressers sitting aloof and distant. His approval rating at home seems high, but he has been widely criticized the world over. Recent killings in Bucha, inhuman treatment of civilians, and the siege of Mariupol are some of the events that are being played on TV screens around the world, except in Russia. The Russian point of view is barely seen, heard or accepted outside Russia, China and a few other countries. The dent in the Russian standing on the world stage is huge and would take years to repair. Ukraine, on the other hand, is being viewed as a courageous David standing up to a ruthless Goliath. The information war is undoubtedly being won by Ukraine thus far.   

On the economic front, at this stage, Russia has been able to shrug off sanctions and find money to fund its war from the oil and gas it sells to Europe. The ruble has recovered in value to the pre-war levels. Russia practically maintains a strong grip on the economic jugular of Europe. Recovering from Covid shock, most European nations cannot afford to wean off Russian gas & oil, lest they risk diving into a major recession. Till this dependence changes, Russia will dominate the economic war. Other sanctions, imposed by USA and western countries would bite, but, the impact would occur many years down the line. Therefore, any hopes of sanctions modifying Russian behaviour will be misplaced. 

Diplomatically, Russia has never been this isolated. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to global ostracization and some mild sanctions that Russia was able to ignore. However, this time the range of sanctions and level of diplomatic isolation runs deep. In an unprecedented move, the UNGA kicked out Russia from the UNHRC. Russian actions have not been sanctioned by any major country other than the vassal States. Even the longtime allies like China and India are limited in their support by refusing to criticize Russia openly. While refusing to condone the aggression, both have pitched for a ceasefire and peaceful resolution. However, these backings are motivated by national interests rather than the approval of Russian decisions. China will not allow the sanctions imposed on Russia to negatively impact its economy. Similarly, India would love to import cheaper hydrocarbons from Russia, but would not risk its international standing by backing Russia unconditionally. India is heavily dependent on Russian arms due to historical reasons. This dependency too will reduce in times to come, as India seeks a wider import base as well as expand domestic capacity. It’s almost certain that international organizations including ICC would bring charges against Russia for war crimes and violations of human rights. Equally certain is the fact that Russia would deny them, however, it would still aggravate Russian isolation on the world stage.    

At the grand-strategic level, President Putin’s gamble has already failed. He wanted to weaken cohesion in NATO, instead, NATO has never been more united. He did not want Ukraine to join NATO, now Finland and Sweden are aspiring to join NATO. He did not want NATO weapons in Ukraine, now NATO is pouring the most sophisticated weaponry into Ukraine. He wanted to fracture the EU, and now the EU is speaking in one voice. He wanted to use Russian gas as a weapon. It seems to be working now, but almost certainly, Russia would lose that leverage over time. He wanted a strong and prosperous Russia that is seen as a world leader, instead, the war would leave Russia militarily weaker, economically fragile and diplomatically isolated. 

A turbulent future ahead?

Ironically, the world fears a defeated Russia as much as a victorious Russia. President Putin has already established that he has scant regard for international norms, and if cornered, he would not hesitate in using weapons of mass destruction. The use of chemical, biological or radiological weapons would invite a similar response that could be disproportionate as well. While Ukraine and Europe would witness massive destruction, Russia would not be left unscathed. Invariably, the whole world would suffer the consequences of one man’s madness.  

In sum, this war would drag on for a considerable time as Russia cannot win, and Ukraine will not lose. Russian gains, if any, would be impermanent and would come at a great cost in blood, treasure and international standing. World war I and two had their origins in Europe. Regional hegemony, the perceived threat from the neighbours, military alliances and inflated egos of the national leadership were the main reasons behind those catastrophic wars. All these ingredients exist today. There is a grave danger that this unexpected war in Europe could lead to a slow march into the third world war.  

The author is a former Indian Air Force officer with extensive experience as a leader, fighter pilot, instructor and administrator with international exposure. He is keenly interested in matters concerning national security and strategic affairs.

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