Three hundred days of war in Ukraine, and then?
Tuesday marked the 300th day of the war in Ukraine, and the outcome of that war remains as uncertain as it has been for much of 2022.
Despite the many big unknowns, the bases will be in place for most of the first quarter of 2023, and fighting is likely to be less intense due to the freezing weather on the battlefield. These forces will determine in the coming weeks whether military operations can be fully resumed on the battlefield in the spring.
It appears that neither side will be able to claim a decisive victory anytime soon. Historically, wars have tended to end in two ways: when one side imposes its will on the other on the battlefield and then at the negotiating table; or when both sides agree to compromise, they prefer to fight. Barring a major change in early 2023, no results are in sight for now in Ukraine, especially since both sides are willing to commit huge resources to the conflict.
The US alone has allocated more than $50 billion ($1 = 0.94 euros) to Ukraine, which is more than Australia’s entire annual defense budget. At the same time, according to the calculations of Western intelligence services, more than one hundred thousand Russian soldiers have died or been wounded on the battlefield.
Largely unknown in the West is the impact of these losses on the unpopularity of the conflict in Russia. Last month, Meduza, a Russian news website based in Latvia, reported that it had obtained a classified opinion poll conducted by the Federal Security Service, an organization tasked with protecting the Kremlin and providing security for high-ranking government officials. Apparently, a survey commissioned by the Kremlin found that 55% of respondents support peace talks with Ukraine, while only 25% want the war to continue. Therefore, unless Russia succeeds on a major battlefield early in the new year, it may become increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to even tacitly approve of the war among the population.
Nevertheless, the most likely scenario in the coming weeks is a continuation of the war of attrition. Indeed, the conflict is likely to continue until 2023, and possibly beyond, unless significant change is made.
The second key element is that even if the war continues with less intensity, especially during the cold winter months, the level and range of risks remain extremely high and therefore the outcome remains unpredictable. That’s partly because President Vladimir Putin’s exit strategy remains uncertain, and he could still make miscalculations, including the possibility of chemical or nuclear weapons being used by pro-Russian forces if Ukraine continues to make conventional battlefield victories.
In addition, it should be noted that the strategy announced by the Western alliance led by the United States is to try to defeat Russia. This is a significant departure from the post-World War II history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and raises the stakes if Western determination continues.
On this last point, even with possible new intra-Western tensions over strategy against Russia in 2023, the most likely scenario is that the alliance will remain united through the difficult winter ahead. This is due in part to American leadership that will bring together partners including the twenty-seven different members of the European Union (EU).
In November, US President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party defied US pollsters, retaining control of the Senate and minimizing losses in the House of Representatives. It’s a sign that Joe Biden has more political capital than expected right now, even if he’s not sure if he’ll be re-elected in 2024.
As pessimistic as this central scenario of an ongoing war of attrition with the greatest human cost, including for millions of refugees, may seem, it is not the worst scenario. This scenario is likely to materialize if the conflict expands beyond Ukraine to involve NATO countries, which remains an important possibility.
If this possibility still seems very improbable to many people, it cannot be ruled out because the situation is very uncertain. While NATO is doing its best to support Ukraine without going into direct military conflict with Russia, the miscalculations on both sides are a real concern.
This could be a real disaster for many, and the use of nuclear or chemical weapons would not be out of the question. In addition, not only will the sanctions and counter-sanctions regime become more severe, but there will be a wider economic collapse that accelerates the pace towards globalization.
Andrew Hammond is an LSE IDEAS Fellow at the London School of Economics.
Editor’s note: The views expressed on this page are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arabic News in French.