Russia’s expanded war in Ukraine is entering its eighth month with no clear end in sight. Although it’s unwise in the heat of battle to make predictions about outcomes, there are some indications as to what the future could hold for the combatants and the world.
What we know for certain are these hard, cold facts: tens of thousands have been killed, entire communities destroyed, millions forced to flee (many of whom will never return) and hundreds of billions in damage and losses to Ukraine’s infrastructure and the world economy. Russia, the invader and erstwhile occupier of Ukraine, has also suffered tremendous and un-recoupable losses in lives, money and prestige. All of this should be enough to say that this is a war that never should have been fought and that no one will win. And it didn’t have to be.
In the months before the Russian assault, US President Joe Biden repeatedly warned European leaders of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions. In hindsight, had European allies heeded these warnings and mounted an aggressive campaign of support for Ukraine coupled with smart diplomacy, Mr Putin might have been deterred. But US allies did not act, leaving Mr Putin to assume that he might have an open road to neutralise what he perceived as the growing threat posed by a Ukraine increasingly wedded to and armed by the West.
In the early weeks of the conflict, there was a sense that Ukraine might be doomed. Ukrainian forces were seen as no match for the Russians; there was uncertainty that Ukraine’s TV comedian-turned-president could provide wartime leadership or that he had enough support from the Ukrainian people to engage in a prolonged struggle; and there was hesitancy in Europe to commit the resources that would be needed to defend against Russian threats.
Russia initially appeared to face little difficulty in seizing areas of eastern Ukraine. It launched aerial bombardments of major Ukrainian cities, damaged the country’s infrastructure and threatened its nuclear power plants. Millions of Ukrainians fled the country, becoming refugees seeking haven in neighbouring European countries.
In the face of these developments, the US was able to mobilise western sanctions against Russian oligarchs, financial institutions and exports. In response, Russian diplomacy appeared to secure the backing of China, with most other nations from Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Arab world steering clear from taking sides.
That was in the beginning, when Mr Putin appeared to be winning.
Recent events, however, point to a change in fortunes for both Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proved to be not only an effective campaigner winning substantial support for his country from the West, but also emerging as a national hero who inspired his people to fight back. The Ukrainians who remained in country – including men of a fighting age who were not allowed to leave – have demonstrated national resolve. The advanced weaponry, training and financial support Ukraine has received, mainly from the US, has allowed its forces to stop the Russian advances in some areas. It also helped Kyiv re-capture significant amounts of territory in the north-east of the country.
As the war drags on, Mr Putin has come under pressure. At a recent summit, he received subtle cautions from the leaders of both China and India.
With the Russian military overstretched, Mr Putin was forced to issue a call for national mobilisation, which resulted in protests and more than 250,000 young men fleeing the country. He also engineered a controversially administered referendum in Ukraine’s eastern region, using the results to announce its annexation as Russian territory. Ominously, he has threatened more aggressive bombardments, even hinting at the use of tactical nuclear weapons, as a way to regain the upper hand.
It does appear that the tide is turning, but before assuming that these developments foretell the end of the war, it’s important to consider the following points.
In the first place, while it’s true that the Russian military is taking an unexpected beating and that Mr Putin is facing some domestic opposition, Russia still has considerable assets to put into play. And while there are signs of some dissent, these are offset by hardliners committed to Russia. The fighting will continue, with a warning – desperation can make a foe more, not less, dangerous.
On Monday, multiple Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, were rocked by explosions, leading to mass casualties.
While Europe is now largely unified in support of Ukraine, it remains to be seen how, as the cold of winter sets in, shortages of fuel will impact the ordinary Europeans' attitudes – maybe not so much with regard to Ukraine but with their own governments’ inability to meet domestic needs. And the longer the war continues, the greater the danger that economic and social pressures created by the presence of 7 million Ukrainian refugees – who were welcomed as Arab and African refugees were not – can become a concern.
There is, at present, remarkable bipartisan support for Ukraine in the US, with Congress approving this year alone more than $66 billion in military and economic aid. Should the war continue for another year or more, it remains to be seen whether that level of commitment remains firm.
Russia’s early successes may have bolstered the Kremlin’s hope of assuming an anti-West leadership role, especially among those countries who had previously formed the Cold War’s non-aligned movement. But prospects for that outcome have faded as the war has dragged on with Russia struggling and appearing cut down to size.
Should Ukraine achieve victory, although it’s difficult to define exactly what that would look like, other challenges will emerge.
One, given the downturn in the world’s economy, especially in western Europe, who will help foot the bill for Ukraine’s construction? Two, as the West and the rest of the world scrambled to find replacements to offset the loss of Russian gas, they took their eyes off the very real imminent challenges posed by climate change. How quickly can we re-focus on that threat? Three, if Russia is defeated, will it necessarily be less of a concern to its neighbours in the future? And as that country’s hard power has been diminished by the extended use of its military, what will happen in Syria? Four, with Europe‘s renewed dependence on the US, what about China? At present Beijing is sitting pretty, expanding its influence in the Pacific, the Americas, Asia and the Arab world.
The bottom line is that this is a war that never should have been, and no matter how it ends, if indeed it does end, its impact will be as unsettling for the world as the debacle of Iraq was two decades ago.