Weekend Essay: A year after the war in Ukraine began, what is the endgame?

The conflict appears to be stuck at a crossroads - but a conclusion could come at any time

Getty/ Nick Donaldson
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On February 24 last year Russian troops entered Ukraine in what Moscow called a special military operation designed to remove the leadership in Kyiv and pre-empt Ukraine’s integration into Nato. A year on, not only Russia’s apparent plan for a swift victory, but practically every other calculation made by anyone has turned out to be wrong.

Russia appears to have gambled on Ukraine’s capitulation or an easy victory. Neither happened. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rejected a US offer of exile, choosing to stay and fight, with the immortal line: “Give me ammunition, not a ride.” That the US offered exile at all reflects its own miscalculation that a lightning war would succeed, leaving the US and its allies facing a fait accompli and reluctant to risk a war.

Few believed that Ukraine had a chance of holding Russia at bay, but that is what happened in the early months. Western military planners had not envisaged the return of state-to-state land warfare to Europe, but Russia and Ukraine proved them wrong. Once the fighting began, there seemed to be high hopes on both sides for negotiations that began almost immediately, first on the Belarus border and then in Istanbul. But the talks came to nothing, because – according to observers such as Donald Trump’s Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, the US and UK now wanted Ukraine to fight on in the hope of debilitating Russia.

There have been more changes in Zelenskyy’s camp in recent weeks

A conflict fully expected to be over in weeks if not days is now one year old, and the eventual outcome seems less predictable than ever. In many ways, it seems stuck at a crossroads.

Both Russia and Ukraine are said to be planning major spring offensives, although there has been no sign of either yet. After Russia’s prize Kerch Bridge to Crimea was attacked, Moscow started targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, but the feared emergency of whole cities without heat or power in winter has not happened yet.

For their part, the US, EU and UK all imposed swingeing sanctions on Russia, and Germany drastically cut its reliance on Russian gas. But again, the effects are mixed and have decided nothing. Russia has found other markets for its energy, including China; its balance of payments has rarely been better, and Russia has mostly found domestic substitutes to offset the departure of western business. Supporters of sanctions insist that Russia will suffer in the long term, both financially and from a dearth of imported high-tech. As a means of forcing Russia to change policy in the here and now, however, there is little evidence they have worked.

Meanwhile, forecasts of a cold, dark winter in Europe, as a result of scaling back imports of Russian energy, have so far not borne out either. Germany and other countries managed to replenish their gas storage facilities more quickly than expected. Most governments introduced measures to mitigate the effects of high prices, while Germany and some others imposed restrictions on energy use. Widespread power cuts and bankruptcies have so far been avoided, as has large-scale public unrest, with one beneficiary being the booming US LNG industry.

Forecasts of a cold, dark winter in Europe, as a result of scaling back imports of Russian energy, have so far not borne out either

Nor, after a spate of anti-war sentiment early on, and after the announcement in September of a new mobilisation, has the conflict fuelled serious opposition in Russia. By allowing those who could to leave the country, Moscow may have strengthened acceptance of the war at home. In the West, the conflict has given the Nato alliance the new purpose it had sought ever since the collapse of the USSR.

One reason opposition to the war has been muted, both in Russia and in those countries making sacrifices to back Ukraine, may be the limits that both sides seem to have placed on their conduct of hostilities. While Ukraine’s western backers have gradually acceded to Mr Zelenskyy’s pleas for more and heavier weapons, there is a gap between what is promised and what is delivered.

Russia, too, for whatever reason, also appears to be holding back. It has consolidated its gains on the east bank of the Dnieper River, but it appears no longer to be looking to advance further west, if ever it had that intention. For all the accusations that Russia deliberately targets civilians, civilian casualties from Russian air strikes can often be counted on the fingers of one hand, and at least some of them – as Ukraine's defence ministry spokesman was sacked for saying – result from Ukraine’s air defences deflecting the missiles.

There have also been small pieces of progress that hint at more mutual communication than is admitted. There are regular prisoner exchanges. The agreement, brokered by Turkey, for Ukraine to export grain by sea – in return for safe passage for Russian ships, too – has generally held, as has a deal for IAEA inspectors to have access to Ukraine’s nuclear power stations located in Russian-occupied territory.

Perhaps most significant of all was the speedy US clarification that a Russian-made missile that landed in Poland had been fired not by Russia but by Ukraine. The US thus ensured that the incident did not become a pretext for Nato allies joining the war as combatants. This was a crucial signal from the US of how much it was, and was not, prepared to support Ukraine, and this was acknowledged by Russia.

The question now is how and when the current logjam in the war might be broken. Any signs that the patience of Ukraine’s backers is being exhausted are still few and far between. The US has cleared more military support for Ukraine, while Germany finally agreed to send Leopard tanks – though how soon is not yet known.

And despite western reports of high Russian casualties, there is little sign of Russia running out of troops or weapons. Still less is there any evidence of Ukraine having any interest in talks. The conditions it has set – a return to the border as it was before 2014 (when Russia took control of Crimea – amount to a statement of determination to continue the fight.

Yet an end to the war could come sooner than many think, and from quarters other than the battlefield. There have been more changes in Mr Zelenskyy’s camp in recent weeks, and more signs of dissent, than in the whole of the war to date. How secure are his policies, or even his position?

At the same time, the earthquake in Turkey and Syria could change the calculus of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has convened talks on Ukraine in the past and is one of few people with open channels to both Russia and Ukraine. What shifts might the earthquake precipitate in the Black Sea region?

It is often said that the world changed on February 24 last year. But that is not quite true. Some of the world changed: specifically, the Europeans reviewed their security arrangements and the US renewed its commitment to Europe’s defence. But much of the world decided that Ukraine was none of its business, and carried on much as before, leaving Russia less isolated than it might have been.

The result is a war that too few have an interest in ending – which means that there could, alas, be a second anniversary to be analysed and commemorated this time next year – when the background will be additionally complicated by presidential elections in the US, as well as Russia and Ukraine.

Published: February 17, 2023, 6:00 PM