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What next after two years of war?

Ongoing issues on the front line mean that Ukraine is now increasingly facing a crossroads in the war against Russian aggression. While discussion continues regarding possible negotiations, it is clear that only the decisive defeat of Moscow will ensure a lasting peace.

February 23, 2024 - Valerii Pekar - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Nadya1986 / Shutterstock

Two years have passed since the beginning of Europe’s great war in Ukraine. What can we say about the possible scenarios concerning further events?

We should start with some statements which seem to be clear at the moment.

  1. A positional war does not lead to a significant change on the front line. The defensive capability of each side exceeds the offensive capability of the other side. Despite Ukraine’s significant successes in the air and at sea (Russia lost a significant part of the striking power of its fleet and was unable to break through air defence), the main front of the war is land, and there gains and losses are minor with the current level of weaponry.
  1. Putin has chosen a strategy of a war of attrition, in which authoritarian Russia has a better chance than Ukraine, because Kyiv depends on democratic allies, whose positions can change after elections. Russia will certainly intensively interfere in these countries to protect its own interests.
  1. At the moment, the majority of western policy makers do not consider Russian defeat as acceptable, with all the consequences regarding the quantity and quality of arms supplies, the severity of sanctions, etc. The fears and misconceptions of the West are detailed in this article.

Thus, three main scenarios of the war exist following from these points.

1. War of attrition: Ukraine and the West’s defeat

This is the worst case scenario, and so far things are moving along this trajectory. The democratic changes of power in western countries gradually lead to a decrease in support to the point where Ukraine will not be able to continue the war and will be forced to negotiate peace on Russia’s terms. Even if declared political support remains at current levels, there are two other factors. First, the number of flash points in the world will grow, distracting from Ukraine (Russia intensively invests in an increase of uncertainty). Secondly, the ability of the West to provide weapons will begin to be exhausted, while American and European policy makers will refuse to militarize parts of their economies: private manufacturers of weapons and military equipment would invest in expanding production only in the case of significant state guarantees, which no western government will give them today. This makes Ukraine and Europe very vulnerable to any escalation of the Russian threat.

In fact, this scenario means the defeat of Ukraine and the West. The hostilities will immediately be transferred to wider European territory, as it was described in the fictional but very convincing book War with Russia by General Sir Richard Shirreff. This could first happen in the Baltic states as the less protected NATO wing that Putin and many Russians consider a part of their empire. But it looks much more probable at the moment that the next target will be Poland, which was mentioned 36 times in Putin’s interview with Tucker Carlson. It seems like Putin already has made his choice. But this invasion will not be similar neither to the invasion of Ukraine two years ago nor to the apocalyptic visions of the Cold War era. Putin needs no armies of tanks. He will combine missile and drone attacks with cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure with internal groups of radical leftists and rightists bolstered by Russian money. At the same time, private military companies without identification marks will also be used as well as a sharp domestic political confrontation through social media. In the Baltic case, Russia will use local Russian-speaking radical minorities compactly living in Latvia and Estonia as described in the aforementioned book. Thus, if you cannot see Russian tanks near NATO borders, this does not mean that Putin is not ready. Today, his forces and attention are focused on Ukraine, but if Ukraine falls, in the following weeks he will knock at your door, considering the West weak and disunited.

A detail to add here is that in this scenario, millions of Ukrainians will be forcibly mobilized into the Russian army, just as it was the case with the inhabitants of the earlier occupied parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Putin does not need the military defeat of Europe, although Russian propagandist TV regularly describes anticipated pictures of ruined European cities from Warsaw to London. All he wants is to split the West, topple governments in some key countries, bring right-wing and left-wing radicals to power, undermine economies and make Europe once again dependent on Russian resources, thus ensuring unlimited dominance in the regions of his interests.

To finish considering this failure scenario, it is necessary to mention a stalemate as a sort of “sub-scenario”: a decrease in fighting intensity due to low capability on both sides, then a resumption of high intensity when at least one side is ready. This is the same war of attrition with the same consequences.

2. Freezing the war: a short truce

This scenario gives the West a way out of the current trap when the defeat of Ukraine, the defeat of Russia and the prolonging of the war are equally unacceptable due to aforementioned misconceptions. Noting the impossibility of achieving success, the western allies could push Ukraine to negotiate a freeze to the conflict, while at the same time putting strong pressure on Putin. The initiator of possible negotiations in spring 2025 could be the winner of the American elections.

Today, this scenario seems absolutely unlikely, because neither Ukrainian society nor Putin is ready for negotiations. Putin does not need negotiations, because he bets on the first scenario of a war of attrition and believes himself to be the winner. Also, Ukrainians are not ready to leave their relatives and friends under Russian occupation, where they are under permanent threat of murder, rape, torture, looting, kidnapping, hostage-taking and famine. Thus, this scenario is not probable, but it deserves consideration.

Unlike the first scenario, in this one the negotiations will be conducted not on Russian, but on western terms. But this is not the end but a new beginning. The empire would strike back as soon as it would be ready.

After freezing the war, Putin will begin to prepare for the next invasion. Russia will be strengthened by Chinese money and technology, which is not possible while the war remains hot. China pursues a balanced policy of undermining western political capacity, the goals of which are described in this article, and Russia plays the role of a junior aggressive partner in this regard.

Thus, to keep the balance the West will have to prepare Ukraine for the next invasion as well. The next war will possibly take place in five years, maximum seven years. That is how long Russia needs to restore its full military capacity.

During the preparations for the next war, Russia will learn from the mistakes of 2022, and Ukraine will have a chance to significantly modernize itself not only in technical, but also in its institutional, aspects.

3. Russian defeat: a way to sustainable peace

The only good scenario is to stop the war, not to suspend it and not to prolong. When policy makers accept the idea that stopping the war means stopping Russia, they will increase military support to Ukraine to the minimal required level described by General Zaluzhnyi in his article in The Economist. This makes it possible to successfully carry out a counteroffensive, liberate the south of the country and Crimea, and significantly shorten the front line (thus decreasing expenses, losses and the probability of a war of attrition). There would also be a freeze in the occupied part of the country’s eastern regions until better times, with any negotiations on Ukrainian terms. Losing Crimea will start an irreversible process in the Russian political system which is discussed below.

All these things are much easier to describe than to do. Among many important steps to reach the victory are three which deserve special attention. First, it looks like a Trump presidency will create unacceptable security risks for Europe, and this means not only more spending but also the need for a European coordination platform for defence industries. Some experts have compared this with Airbus in the civil aviation sector. Second, more decisive steps are necessary in dealing with frozen Russian assets, which can provide necessary funds for the resistance of Ukraine and the continent as a whole. Third and the most important is the fact that it is not possible to win without forcing Russian military production down. Today, Russia makes its missiles and drones from European and American components through bypassing sanctions. All the most modern components are available in huge amounts on the black market, making political efforts to end the war insignificant. Trading on blood must be stopped by western intelligence and financial monitoring bodies, not simply because of the moral aspect but because this challenges the efficiency of western support. Overall, it represents a senseless redirecting of money from the needs of taxpayers and increases the probability of Putin’s next attack against European countries.

Back to the future of Russia, any defeat will start irreversible processes in the Russian political system. To prevent risks, western policy makers have to take into account some better and worse scenarios and take steps towards the best way to avoid risks, namely the re-federalization of the Russian Federation and avoiding trajectories connected with unwanted consequences. For this reason, western diplomats should throw away their traditional Moscow-centrism and start speaking to regional elites outside Moscow. The lessons of 1991 packed in the book The Last Empire by Serhii Plokhy have to be learnt to ensure a sustainable peace.

Some final notes have to be added to these three scenarios.

First, there are possible “black swans” in the mix, such as the possibility of Trump’s decisive turn to a more proactive foreign policy. But it is obvious that betting on this is extremely risky.

Second, Putin could die. Indeed, he will die one day. But this will not bring peace because real power in Russia belongs to clans like the FSB, the army, Rostech (military industry), Rosgvardia, Kadyrov, etc. They are all currently controlled by Putin and will be led by his successor. All these clans are beneficiaries of the war, and they will assign “Putin 2.0” accordingly. Also, the war is supported by a large part of the Russian population due to the long-term influence of propaganda. A fast triumph of democracy in Russia is just a fantasy, as the way to democracy is long and complicated. We need peace now to implement the “7D plan” for a post-Putin Russia in order to ensure global security together with those Russian elites that would be the beneficiaries of peace (the re-federalization concept). Then we can make peace sustainable through justice mechanisms as described in detail in the Ukrainian Sustainable Peace Manifesto, and do our joint homework to make the next war in Europe impossible.

Finally, we have to thank the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as well as all partners, allies and supporters of Ukraine for the fact that we still have some different possible scenarios after two years of this great war in Europe, which was started by the second most powerful army in the world.

This text was already ready for publication when the sad news arrived about the murder of Alexei Navalny. This should finally convince western politicians that democracy in Russia is impossible without the defeat of Putin’s regime. I would like to call on our partners and allies to not recognize the elections in Russia and the legitimacy of Putin elected in these pseudo-elections as the first step towards inevitable changes in the Russian Federation.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.

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