War in Ukraine: what to expect?
The Economist’s recent interview with Valery Zaluzhny, the Head of Ukraine’s armed forces, has highlighted the dramatic shift in the perception of Ukraine’s chances to win a war over Russia- chances which, while initially considered non-existing, for a time being were deemed very solid, thus having an impact on the policies of key powers regarding Kyiv and the war it is fighting. Basically, Zaluzhny had to admit that Ukrainian counteroffensive that was once viewed as the major attempt at breaking Russian defensive lines, reached a stalemate Ukrainian army is not physically capable of breaking unless it implements radically new military technologies. Such an admission, which is going against Kyiv’s official narratives of a looming victory and severely wounded Russian army, speaks of the extent of the problems Ukrainian military is facing.
However, this interview only emphasized the trend that had been already visible for some time. The fact of a stalemate in Ukraine was claimed by Richard Haas in his piece for “Foreign Affairs” published this spring. In September, President Zelensky replaced Defense Minister Reznikov with Rustem Umerov, allegedly due to the thriving corruption in the former’s reign: serious accusations were made of alleged black market sales of arms supplied to Ukraine that could end up in many conflict zones around the world. The article published by Simon Schuster in the “Time” magazine has emphasized the deep political crisis lurking beneath the surface of Ukrainian politics. President Zelensky seems to be increasingly isolated from the government elite that is gradually losing belief in his strategic competence in leading his country through the war, as he is openly accused of dictatorial tendencies which can spell very serious trouble for the government so much dependent on the Western help.
But what’s gone wrong in Ukraine? First of all, it seems that Zelensky’s strategy that worked brilliantly in the first months of the war, becomes increasingly unsustainable in the long term. To keep Ukraine’s fight for survival at the top of the global agenda and secure the maximum amount of Western aid, he used his public speaker talents and carefully built an image of the leader of a nation at war. Zelensky’s narrative regarding Ukraine as a beacon of freedom against tyranny resonated strongly with the Western public opinion as it evoked the proud memories of victories in the Second World War and Cold war over communism.
However, it looks like the Ukrainian leader clearly overestimated his personal impact on the position of the West. The idea of supporting Kyiv and isolating Moscow was perfectly in line with the plans of Washington and its major allies; moreover, Russian aggression represented an objective threat to the security of Western institutions and the validity of “rules-based international order” in general, so they had little choice other than making a harsh response. But it turned out that many assumptions regarding Russian sustainability didn’t play out, while the international situation in more than 1.5 years of the Ukrainian war has changed considerably, boosting the influence of many non-Western actors and forcing the West to amend its position as well. However, Zelensky started to think that his public diplomacy approach is the ultimate key to success and the answer to certain pushbacks is more public diplomacy; he started to speak more assertively, sometimes putting pressure on allies to provide more help and be more radical towards Russia. Moreover, he has significantly exaggerated Ukrainian capacity to lead a successful counteroffensive that was calculated to be a decisive moment of the war. This approach could not fail to irritate many Western leaders who started to consider Zelensky unrealistic and demanding beyond measure. Finally, his row with Poland, the staunchest supporter of Kyiv’s cause, worried many in the West that support to Ukraine can start to turn against their own national interests while its capacity to bring victory to Kyiv is hugely doubtful.
On the other hand, there are objective circumstances that have been forcing the pro-Ukrainian coalition to review its strategy. First of all, a visible lack of weaponry and ammunition in the Western countries makes it impossible to provide them at the rate Ukrainian army needs. Some smaller European countries have already provided a significant part of their arms reserves to Kyiv and simply cannot give more. Moreover, the fact that Kyiv hasn’t built up its own production capacities to the extent it could, attests to corruption and management inefficiency and also feeds skepticism regarding Ukrainian military prospects.
Another issue is the way Russia has evolved and adapted to the sanction regime, economic stress, etc. While it was expected that severe Western sanctions would starve Russia technologically, constraining its capacity to produce weapons while also causing a drop in living standards significant enough to trigger dissent with the government and anti-war movement, this simply didn’t happen. Shipment through third countries, such as Armenia or Kazakhstan, helped Moscow to replace a large part of banned imports, including chips and details crucial for the weapons production. After its initial painful defeats, Russia was flexible enough to change its strategy and, at a certain reputational cost, to build effective defense and fix the frontline, effectively halting Ukrainian offensive and pushing Kyiv into the trap of a trench war with high morale-undermining losses. There is also significant evidence on Russia’s spectacular progress in drone technologies, electronic jamming practices that severely curtail the efficiency of Ukrainian bombing, while some of the U.S.-provided advanced weapons, notably so-called precision-guided “smart bombs” have been used with disappointing outcomes for Ukraine.
In general, Ukraine has been too late on reacting to unfavourable changes in the global political environment. During the past 1.5 years, Moscow not only found ways to evade sanctions and escape economic collapse; it managed to accumulate anti-Western sentiments around the world, benefiting from growing polarization and economic stagnation in many parts of the world. In response, Kyiv failed to frame its war with Russia as an anti-colonial struggle which would have appealed to the so-called Global South; instead, its international discourse mostly focused on the role of “the bastion of democratic/ Western values against tyranny” which alienated many non-Western countries which came to believe that a Ukrainian victory would result in growing Western pressure, not also political but normative as well. That’s why even such non-Western powers as India, which enjoys good relations with U.S. and is considered a democracy, has not been willing to condemn Moscow and reduce their engagement with it. This worrying trend is now being exposed by a new escalation in Palestine, where Ukraine, despite its previous criticism of Israeli unwillingness to provide arms supplies, firmly chose the side of Tel Aviv, which is interpreted by many Global South countries as the proof its war isn’t anticolonial.
The Russian invasion in general challenged rules of the game and dramatically raised the level of global instability, making the West increasingly reactive and forcing it to drop many of values-based conventions of post-Cold war strategy which means that the ambition to sustain this order gets gradually replaced by more realistic goals of ensuring security and minimising threats rather than ensuring unchallenged Western domination. In the article already mentioned above, Haas spoke about the need to rethink the West’s strategic goals in this war, arguing that relying on Ukraine’s vision of them becomes increasingly incompatible with the core Western interests. He defined this new approach as “recognizing the realities without sacrificing principles”.
Finally, the cumulative socioeconomic impact of the war on European societies, including strong inflation, big refugee flows, and energy security issues, has triggered general fall of enthusiasm towards supporting Ukraine in many European countries. The outcomes of recent Slovakian parliamentary elections, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s admissions made in her prank conversation, and rising unpopularity of war support in many Western countries, starting from the U.S., are not good signs for Ukraine.
What should we expect? It is clear that there are attempts to build an opposition front against President Zelensky, now led by his former advisor and expert Aleksey Arestovich. Declaring the government’s crisis of ideas and unwillingness to recognize the realities on the ground, he now announces presidential ambitions as the next elections are scheduled for spring 2024 (though it is quite probable they will be postponed due to the state of war). The most controversial idea of Arestovich is the call for a lasting ceasefire, even at the cost of renouncing plans to take back Ukrainian territories now under Russian control. Citing all the reasons mentioned above, he states that it is the best Kyiv can do in order to save the country from destruction and depopulation, avoid losing more land and be able to attract multi-billion Western investments needed to restore Ukraine. To make his bitter claims more acceptable, he says that Kyiv may get a roadmap for Euro-Atlantic integration once certain peace with Russia is made so that it can ensure national security in the long term.
There are reasons to believe that this project will get serious backing in the West, as the chances are high now the U.S. will once more elect Donald Trump, or someone with similar views as its president next November. This will almost certainly stop American military support and Washington may be even willing to go to a partial normalisation with Russia. Arestovich’s mix of a realpolitik approach, populism and right-conservative social ideas can make him a suitable candidate for Ukrainian presidency in the Trumpist era. At the same time, his foreign policy views such as skepticism towards the international liberal project and the EU in its current form, preference for building a robust and cohesive Central-Eastern European bloc of conservative democracies with Ukraine as its inalienable part, also reverberate with Trump’s condescending attitude towards multilateral institutions and European bureaucracy in particular.
Of course, the conditions upon which Kyiv can obtain peace, are yet unknown and will depend on Russia’s perceptions of its capacity to inflict continuously severe damage to Ukraine in case of the continuation of the war. Ideally, Ukraine would prefer something like Azerbaijan did in 1994, agreeing on a permanent ceasefire and withdrawal from active combat without recognizing the loss of any of its sovereign territories and having international observers dispatched along the line of contact. However, given the power discrepancy and the trends in global politics, Moscow would not accept this scenario and instead will try either to make Kyiv recognize Russian sovereignty over the territories it annexed (at least Crimea) or at least to refuse from its right to restore territorial integrity via use of force and have this new status quo guaranteed by third parties. The German partition example has also been mentioned several times in Ukraine as one of the possible futures whereas Ukraine will formally stop pursuing its lost lands while retaining the one-nation narrative and hoping to implement it in the long term through economic development and waiting for major geopolitical shifts.
The scenario in which military engagement is not stopped but is reduced to a minimum can also be an option depending on Russia’s plans, as it would let Ukraine save its face and formally continue to pursue its territorial integrity while also maintaining a necessary degree of mobilization in Russia helping the Kremlin to prolong the current social consensus.