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Prof. ST Hsieh

Director, US-China Energy Industry Forum

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January 2, 2024

Mr. Lawrence Freedman is a close watcher of the proxy war in Ukraine and has published extensively about the war. The attached report, truncated for brevity, lists some key issues. But it really did not reasonable answer the good question “How will the war in Ukraine end?”

It may be very useful to reflect how the proxy war in Ukraine started: the US and allies had set the goal of the war is to degrade the Russian’s, or Putin’s strength to the extent that the west does not have to be concerned with Russia anymore. The US and allies bankrolled the war in Ukraine and implemented unprecedented sanctions against Russia. Thus, until the US and allies reach the conclusion that the war must come to an end, then the war will continue.

As a matter of fact, the carnage, and destructions in Ukraine as well in some part of Russia, are not the deciding factors. Ukraine does not disclose the losses for the sake of national security and flooded the media with exaggerated Russian loses. The general public in the US does not have a strong “real feeling” about how bad or how well is the war. Still, the public is already tired of supporting the war after two years because there is no realistic exit strategy for how and when the war will be over.

The Ukrainians must take responsibility for getting into the proxy war, because they elected Zelenskyy as their President. The answer to “how will the war in Ukraine end?” must be that the Ukrainians find another leader who has the leadership and capacity to negotiate an end of the war.

Finally, Ukrainians must realize that the war must end soon, no matter how! They cannot depend on the US and allies to keep funding the war, they also must realize that they have to directly deal with Russia and/or Putin.

How will the war in Ukraine end?

Intense diplomatic activity could be a feature of 2024 after a year of disappointment for both sides.

By Lawrence Freedman

This is the time for annual self-assessments, and this is mine. Although I have written about the Gaza War here and here, and will return to that early in the new year, this piece focuses on the Russo-Ukraine War. This is not only because of the amount I have written on the topic, but also because the question of the expectations surrounding this war has become an issue in itself. Has an optimism bias pervaded the commentariat? Did pro-Ukrainian sympathies lead it to play down Russia’s inherent strengths and fail to appreciate Ukraine’s vulnerabilities?

Commenting on an ongoing war is difficult, especially for someone not close to the front lines. This is why, as I noted in last year’s assessment, my preference is “to talk about trends, possibilities, and developments coming into view.” Wars pass through stages, as fortunes shift, and the challenges of supply and reinforcement change. Over time some possibilities become impossible, some quite likely, and new ones emerge. Of these the most unlikely, such as peace negotiations, can be worth discussing to understand why they are unlikely or what would need to change to make them likely. So my self-assessment question is not whether my predictions are right, because I made few that were firm, but whether much happened that would surprise a regular reader of these posts.

And strategies make a difference. Few outcomes in war are inevitable. Armies can be caught out by sudden changes in the weather, spectacular acts of incompetence (a large force being conspicuously gathered in a way that can be easily targeted), or just the push and pull of competing military and political priorities. Perhaps the Ukrainian army could have achieved more with better choices, including by its international supporters, although the alternatives always seem much clearer in retrospect. Perhaps what it was trying to do was just too difficult. The Russian army put even more effort into its offensives and achieved even more meagre results in its efforts to occupy more territory. Both sides have struggled to mount offensives against well-defended positions. In which case how does this war end?

The Ukrainian counteroffensive 

As a guide to what was to come this was, I’m afraid to say, pretty poor, not least because of the starting assumption that Ukrainian commanders would be aware that frontal assaults normally end badly and so would avoid. This was my own effort at expectation management.

My initial reaction to the offensive when it began in early June, in the Sunday Times, was cautious. The stakes were high and it was too early to say how events would unfold. But I noted, as the main thrust of the Ukrainian offensive came out of Zaporizhzhia, that:

“The Russian general staff looked at the same maps and prepared its defences accordingly. If this is indeed the main focus of the Ukrainian offensive then they are taking on Russian defences at their strongest, with layers of mines, anti-tank traps and barriers, trenches and artillery that all need to be overcome. Even without this level of fortification, defence has been the stronger form of warfare in this war.”

As we learnt more it also became apparent that the demands of close coordination of complex operations in tough conditions were beyond fresh units that had not quite enough training. They had lots of new equipment but it came in many different types.

“‘Attrition’ describes what regularly happens in war. It is not really a type of war or a distinctive strategy. Even the cleverest manoeuvres do not preclude attrition in the short-term. And if they fail to achieve decisive victories the likely consequence is attrition in the long-term.”

In practice the problem was that the Ukrainians had been encouraged to embrace a western manoeuvre concept but without the capacity to make it work, which left them too dependent on the Russian army being in a weakened and demoralised state. The Ukrainians reverted to the sort of smaller-scale operations that they understood better. This meant however that progress was slow, giving the Russians time to reinforce areas coming under threat. Without improved coordination between units it was difficult to scale up the effects and take advantage of any breakthroughs.

Ukraine has been unable to put itself in a position to force a decision on Russia. But even if the offensive had made more progress it would have been a tall order to put the Russians sufficiently in a corner that their choice was only between battlefield humiliation and a negotiated withdrawal. We also need to keep in mind that there have been some successes, including pushing back the Black Sea Fleet through the effective use of naval drones.

Back to Putin

While it has become de rigueur to mention Ukraine’s military disappointments it seems to be assumed that Russia’s difficulties mean very little because it ultimately has the size and resources to keep going, and because it has acquired Ukrainian territory which Ukraine is struggling to retrieve.

According to the New York Times this battle illustrated the “big advantage” of Moscow:

This may be the only way Moscow knows how to win but this is only an advisable strategy in extremis – supplies of cannon fodder are not infinite, and those of equipment and officers are more limited, and so far one grinding attack has led to no more than the start of another, with the interim “prize” another battered and depopulated town. (It is hard to dismiss entirely comparisons with King Pyrrhus’s victories over the Romans in 279 BCE which left the King lamenting that their cost was leading to utter ruination.)

The main reason for the assessment that it suits Putin to hang in there is that over time western support for Ukraine will drift away. Indeed, Putin was quite explicit about this in his press conference of 14 December.

“They’re [the Ukrainians] getting everything as freebies. But these freebies can run out at some point, and it looks like they’re already starting to run out.”

There have been much publicised problems with the next large tranches of EU and US support. The problem with the EU lies with Hungary’s veto of any funds to Ukraine, but either this will soon be overcome or, even if not, there are workarounds that will lead eventually to the desired result. The problem in the US reflects Republican efforts to tie support for overseas causes to action to stop immigrants coming in from Mexico. There is enough money left for one more military aid package, but then it depends on a new deal.

There is no point dismissing the challenges faced by Kyiv. Ukraine is more than holding its own, but it wanted to have liberated another chunk of its territory during 2023 and that has not happened. In addition to being willing to accept huge losses, the Russians have shown themselves to be adept at defensive operations and have improved their use of drones and electronic warfare capabilities. They might yet make their artillery advantage tell. So far Ukraine has managed this season’s attacks on its cities and critical infrastructure by drones and missiles, and the Russian high command will be worried that so many of its aircraft have been caught out recently by Ukrainian air defence (with five reportedly shot down in recent days). Nonetheless not all areas that need protection can be covered. There is also the extremely tricky issue of mobilisation which is now being addressed but requires up to 500,000 recruits.

This is why, as I argued in my last piece on the topic, in late November that instead of:

“pushing for a quick victory while Russia waits for its support to wane in the West, Ukraine needs to show patience and concentrate on strengthening its position for the longer term. A dash for a quick victory would exhaust scarce resources and, if it failed, lead to further demoralisation.”

According to Politico , encouraged by the Biden administration, this is the shift in posture currently underway, bolstering air defences, strengthening positions in eastern Ukraine, and making it harder for Russian forces to attack from Belarus. The suggestion is that this is to prepare for eventual negotiations, although the main need is simply for Ukraine to show that it can play a long game.

Peace negotiations

A Christmas Eve story in the New York Times claimed that Putin might be trying to find a way out. He was reported to have sent messages through “multiple channels” since September that he was prepared to do a deal, including freezing the fighting along the current front lines. This has generally been viewed with scepticism. There have been a number of proposals in circulation, from China’s last February and those later from the BRICS countries. They are problematic for Putin because if taken seriously they would demand far more of Russia than Ukraine (as Zelensky was quick to notice). This is because they have stuck with the UN Charter which precludes the sort of territorial annexations expected by Putin. At any rate none of these proposals has led to anything.

Suppose that nothing much has changed. The money is coming through and Kyiv is still holding steady, battered and bruised but determined to resist Russian aggression. Putin can’t keep his forces on the offensive all year long and now has to keep an eye out for new Ukrainian strikes on assets not only in Crimea (such as the recent hit on a large landing ship in the Black Sea port of Feodosia in occupied Crimea) but also in Russia proper. Having to rely on Donald Trump both winning the November US election (the next major landmark event) and then doing what he wants is not wholly comfortable.

There is a difference between keeping options open, perhaps seeing what response tentative, private probes might get, and going public with a concrete proposal. Most likely a new diplomatic effort would start with a third party initiative. Anything that generated any momentum would certainly change the context. Then both sides would have to show they cared about peace, even while reserving their positions. Military moves would start to be judged by how they affected prospective talks. But it would not necessarily bring the war to an end. Even if there was a sudden interest in peace negotiations these could well be played for time and propaganda effect without much expectation that they would lead to an agreement.

All one can say is that intense diplomatic activity can generate its own dynamic and could be a feature of 2024 largely absent from 2023. After a year in which both sides looked forward to military advances and were disappointed, this new year starts with expectations so low that the only way we can possibly be surprised is by developments that get us closer to a resolution.

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