Recently the British Chief of Defence Staff suggested that Ukraine was winning its war with Russia. I’ve only picked up reports of this on the BBC News, and I’m not sure what he actually meant. Ukraine should survive as an independent political entity. winning the war is another matter.
Clearly the war is not meeting Russia’s initial expectations. Their objectives seem to be diminishing. First they wanted to take political control of all of Ukraine. Then they simply wanted to sheer off the Donbas region and the country’s ports on the Black Sea. Now they seem to have let go of their attempts to secure Mykolaiv and Odesa, and the fighting is concentrated on the town of Sievierodonetsk, with Russians on the defensive elsewhere. A major effort to complete the conquest of the two Donbas oblasts has clearly stalled. Meanwhile Ukraine is recovering territory near Kharkiv.
All this is a huge achievement on the part of the Ukrainian people and their armed forces. But take a step back. Russia has still conquered large swathes of Ukrainian territory, especially in the south, including the important cities of Mariupol and Kherson. They have almost all of Luhansk oblast, and most of Donetsk. They are consolidating these gains by establishing administrative control and building defensive positions.
So what would victory actually be for Ukraine? Firstly, the war needs to end. Ukraine must be able to rebuild its infrastructure and start functioning again as a peacetime society, by, for example, freely exporting its agricultural products. That requires Russian consent – a formal ceasefire if nothing more. Then Ukraine must recover territory. There four distinct steps to this. First is recovering territory that is not within Russia’s main territorial ambitions. This is mainly the territory in Kharkiv oblast to the north of Donbas. Ukraine is slowly taking this back, but there remains much in Russian hands, notably around the town of Izyum. Next is recovering the other territory lost since the start of Russia’s attack in February. This is mainly in the south, and includes Kherson and Mariupol. Third is the rest of the Donbas, taken in 2014/15, but which hasn’t been incorporated into Russia itself. And finally there is Crimea, also taken in 2014, but now considered by Russia to be part of its own territory.
How realistic is the prospect of Ukraine taking back these lands by force? Except where Russia has decided to withdraw, Ukrainian counterattacks have so far reclaimed territory in only small steps. They have not shown an ability to concentrate large-scale forces sufficient to make major gains; if they did it would tend to play to Russia’s remaining military strengths. But there does seem to be widespread demoralisation in Russia’s armed forces, and Ukraine has demonstrated and increasing ability to project artillery and airpower. I think the first of my four steps is distinctly feasible. After that it looks a very big ask.
Meanwhile Russia is contemplating a long war. It may reckon that Western resolve has its limits. Extending sanctions to oil and gas is already creating disharmony within Europe. The economic costs to the West are mounting. While Russia is still able to sell large quantities of hydrocarbons, especially at inflated prices, it may find other sanctions quite bearable, especially since the rest of the world is loth to join in. As ever the ruling elites will suffer only relatively minor inconveniences. The Putin regime’s grip on Russia looks secure and it is being consolidated. Any major Ukrainian victory would require this to crack – which it shows no sign of doing. Most of the Russian political class seems to be investing in the war, and they will want to see some return on their losses. This is the sort of dynamic that makes wars so hard to stop.
And how long can Ukraine keep going? Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea, and destruction of rail infrastructure means that it is hard for Ukraine to export the agricultural products that are the core of its economy. It requires to be bankrolled by its allies. It is not hard to see that Vladimir Putin might think he has the advantage in the long game.
At some point Mr Putin might offer a ceasefire, conditional on the main Western sanctions being lifted, but with Russia holding on to most, if not all, of the second category of its gains, as well as all of the third and fourth. This would return the conflict to the frozen status prior to its February invasion. This is a dismal prospect, but it will be hard for Ukraine and its allies to resist. Russia may decide to incorporate its conquests into its own Federation, following Crimea. Whether it does so or not, it will have the major headache of consolidating its control over wrecked infrastructure and a largely resentful (or absent) population. There may even a continuing insurgency, though we must hope not. It would be hard to paint this as a Russian victory – but just as hard to paint it as a Ukrainian one either.
A lot depends on the next couple of months. If Ukraine starts making rapid progress in regaining territory, because the Russian forces are too demoralised to stand firm, then a new dynamic will take hold – although an unpredictable one, as we do not know how the Russian government would respond. But if the war settles into a stalemate, as seems most plausible, then both sides will have to consider a ceasefire.
This is probably the best outside observers can hope for. Russia would claim a famous victory, but the rest of the world will note its enormous cost. Vladimir Putin will consolidate his hold on his country, but internationally it will have been weakened. Ukraine would survive as a political entity, and would be free to engage fully with the West. But many refugees would be unable to return to their homes. The country will need to invest enormously in its defence.
At the start of this war I suggested that Russia lacked resources, and would not achieve the overwhelming victory that many assumed. It would be an equal mistake to exaggerate Ukraine’s ability to reverse the gains of Russia’s aggression.