The war in Ukraine is likely to continue at a high level of intensity through 2022, and at a greater or lesser tempo for years to come.  There are several factors that can prolong the war. The first is that the issues at stake for Ukraine and Russia are existential and are not susceptible to compromise. Ukraine is fighting for its right to self-determination. Its government and people have shown that they are prepared to make great sacrifices to defend their national sovereignty. As long as Russia is occupying Ukrainian land, it will be difficult for any Ukrainian government to make concessions on this fundamental issue.

There is a view that Western support will be decisive in helping Ukraine to repel the Russian invasion and shorten the war. However, wars are notoriously unpredictable, and it is also possible that Western support that stops short of direct involvement will not be sufficient to enable Ukraine to defeat Russia. Western countries have provided arms, intelligence, military training and financial support to Ukraine. As long as the West remains committed to supporting Ukraine, the government in Kiev will hold on to the hope that, if it keeps fighting long enough, the West will eventually take more decisive action on its behalf.

The war could very well turn into a protracted stalemate because neither side is capable of defeating the other. Having suffered major setbacks in the first months of the war, it is unlikely that Russia will succeed in subjugating Ukraine. Russia’s invasion has turned the Ukrainian population irrevocably against it, including in areas in the east that were traditionally pro-Russian. This means that even its lesser aims, such as forcing neutrality on Ukraine and obtaining Ukrainian consent to territorial losses, will be very difficult to achieve unless the course of the war changes dramatically. Despite its undoubted military superiority over Ukraine, several factors have undermined Russia’s ability to press home this advantage. Its war planners badly miscalculated the willingness of Ukrainians to fight and the preparedness of their army. Ukraine has mobilised the entire country behind its war effort, whereas Russia is suffering from a manpower shortage and has so far eschewed a full mobilisation. In addition, Russia’s army is fighting on hostile terrain, appears to be badly led and trained and suffers from low morale. Finally, Russia’s military may be technologically superior to that of Ukraine, but it has proved no match for NATO’s advanced weapons systems, which Ukraine now has at its disposal.

In contrast, Ukraine’s army is fighting on its own territory against a foreign invader, is strongly motivated to fight and appears to be well-led. It can draw on advantages such as the support of the population and knowledge of the terrain. In addition, Ukraine is receiving considerable intelligence, logistical, military, political and financial support from the West. Nevertheless, even with Western weapons, Ukraine is unlikely to be able to inflict a decisive defeat on Russia. Ukrainian forces have already routed the Russians in their attempted advance on Kiev. Some suggest that Ukraine could inflict a similar defeat on Russia’s army in the Donbas. However, Russian forces are well-established and better supplied in the east, and it will be difficult for Ukraine to drive them out. This cannot be ruled out entirely, but, given the Kremlin’s determination to do whatever it takes to obtain a result that can be framed as a victory, Ukraine is unlikely to be able to deliver a knock-out blow to Russia’s military.

The prospect of a negotiated end to the war seems rather distant. Ukraine believes that it can win the war and has little inclination to make concessions to Russia. Russia’s brutal war has made it morally and politically unthinkable that Ukraine would surrender territory in negotiations. Russia meanwhile cannot afford to settle for anything that could be interpreted as a defeat: the Kremlin needs something meaningful to show the Russian population, such as control over territory linking the Donbas and Crimea.

Even if the two sides eventually reach a peace agreement, this is unlikely to lead to a stable settlement. The failure of the 2014 Minsk protocols, which sought to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in the Donbas, is salutary. The protocols temporarily halted the fighting, but low-level clashes continued for years afterwards. Similarly, a deal to end the current war might simply mark a temporary pause before the start of a new phase. If wars are the pursuit of policy by other means, Russia is likely to continue to pursue its objectives until the Ukrainian question is resolved to its satisfaction.

The war in Ukraine is not just a regional conflict: it has become a much larger confrontation between the West and Russia. In this sense, it has some of the characteristics of a proxy war, with the West standing four-square behind Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Western leaders have said that they will not become directly involved in the war, but their provision of military aid and intelligence to Ukraine carries the risk of their being drawn inadvertently into the conflict. The longer the war drags on, the greater the risk of the West being pulled in, either as a result of a military miscalculation by either side or of the war accidentally spilling over into a NATO member state. Such an unplanned event would pose the risk of a much more serious global conflict.

Even if such a scenario is avoided, the war marks a geopolitical watershed. It will result in Russia’s exclusion from the Western economic and political order. Sanctions will remain in place indefinitely, and Russia will become a no-go area for Western businesses. The Kremlin will come to rely increasingly on China and the developing world. The West will have to reorganise its global supply chains, including for commodities supplied by Russia. Ukraine and the wider region will remain a zone of instability for many years to come.

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