In times of prolonged conflict, it’s only natural to question what the future holds. In the case of the ongoing war in Ukraine, now stretching into its 600th day, the query becomes even more pressing: When will it end, and what’s the endgame?
This enduring gloom and doom seems to intensify with each passing day, as the consequences of war continue to take a heavy toll. But what distinguishes a prolonged multi-year conflict from a shorter, several-month war?
One might recall Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” arguably one of the most renowned books about World War I. The novel aptly encapsulates a stage of conflict characterized by the title itself – a stage where both belligerents find themselves equally matched, entrenched in the long-winded and seemingly pointless trench warfare.
In this trench-bound impasse, the armies inch forward at the cost of thousands of lives, only to regress a month later. The only notable development in this stage is the loss of personnel. Every day becomes a living hell, but there’s nothing new to report as the battlefield is locked in a stalemate.
As history moves into an interwar period, war theorists grapple with a question: How can we avoid a new Battle of Verdun? How can we avert the inevitable stalemate that two large armies get locked into, as they engage in a back-and-forth tussle for control of a pile of rubble until both sides run out of personnel?
This harrowing stage of conflict, marked by the constant attrition of personnel and materiel, invokes the law of large numbers. No tactical move, no new armament, and no advancement can significantly alter the big picture. We all came to realize this several months ago.
Recently, an interview with Gen. Valery Zaluzhny in The Economist confirmed the grim reality: the war has indeed reached a stalemate, with neither side able to achieve a significant advantage. However, General Zaluzhny’s interview is not merely a venting of frustrations to the media. It serves a practical purpose – to exert pressure on Western allies, expedite supplies, and ramp up military aid. Thus, while we cannot rule out exaggerated statements, the general’s assessments align well with the battlefield’s grim updates.
Neither belligerent possesses, or is likely to obtain, sufficient personnel, materiel, or ammunition to launch a large-scale offensive. Instead, they are equipped and motivated to continue fighting defensively and drag the conflict on.
Putin cannot declare a full-scale mobilization, but he is exploring alternative solutions, such as keeping available troops on the ground and recruiting convicts and fringe elements. Combat action is promoted as a way to repay debts and escape annoying bailiffs.
The scale of this behind-the-scenes recruitment effort remains unknown, but it’s safe to say it’s not as significant as what Putin and Shoigu may suggest. Yet, it seems sufficient to compensate for casualties and maintain positions.
From a political standpoint, Ukraine finds it relatively easier to replenish its personnel, given the country’s involvement in a liberation effort with clear goals. However, there is a limit to the number of people Ukraine can muster, and it is unlikely to assemble an army large enough to decisively outnumber its rival.
Both belligerents face challenges in acquiring new equipment, hardware, and ammunition. No military industry is capable of sustaining such a protracted war. In one day, both sides expend more ammunition than U.S. factories produce in a month, and in one month, both sides lose more equipment than a decent European nation has at its disposal.
Considering the current circumstances, the only conceivable endgame is likely to be political, potentially involving negotiations. The sides may not necessarily hammer out a peace deal, but they may reach a truce. However, the stalemate in negotiations mirrors the trench warfare, as both sides find themselves in a weak bargaining position.
Beyond territorial considerations, there’s a deeper issue at play – the challenge of changing the long-standing status quo. Reclaiming the active combat zone is one thing, but regaining control of territories accustomed to self-government and peaceful life is an entirely different challenge.
The world may not formally recognize the new borders drawn in blood, but over time, the occupied provinces could approach a status akin to that of Crimea – neither recognized nor disputed. Yet, the most significant obstacle to negotiations is Vladimir Putin himself.
Putin attained his coveted status quo by annexing Crimea and transforming Donetsk and Luhansk into lawless wastelands, starting a hot war after eight years of a deadlock that had become the norm.
Despite international expectations that change would only come when Putin stepped aside, he used his newly acquired peninsula as a launchpad for further conflict. Ukrainian citizens from peaceful cities were conscripted into the Russian army and sent to kill fellow Ukrainians or get killed in the process.
Some argue for appeasement and an end to the killing, but history shows that negotiation with dictators seldom leads to positive outcomes. To a dictator, negotiations signify an enemy’s weakness, and any concessions are considered a win. Ending hostilities and cementing frontlines means merely postponing the war for a future date when Putin can rebuild his arsenal and military.
This prediction is not speculative but rather a grim reality. Historically, victims have never succeeded in buying their way into peaceful solutions with aggressors. Aggressors rarely settle for a chunk of the prey unless the victim offers significant resistance.
Despite the potential for negotiations, it’s a futile endeavor with Putin at the helm. Polls indicate that Ukrainians are open to negotiations with Russia but not under Putin’s leadership. It’s not just because Putin is perceived as a bad actor, but also because negotiating with him seems pointless at best and suicidal at worst.
There might be a hope that Putin is seeking negotiations as an off-ramp. The war has become unpopular, and the public is willing to accept peace on almost any terms. However, there is a flaw in this logic. Putin, like Ukraine, finds it challenging to pursue a truce.
The biggest problem is that all those sent to die in the war will eventually return. Hundreds of thousands of individuals who endured months in the trenches have experienced the Russian government’s treatment of its army, including corruption, deception, and brainwashing.
These individuals will include those initially ordered to capture Avdiivka, a city with a population of 30,000, only to have the order retracted. Their lives have been irrevocably changed, and their newly acquired skills are likely to be redundant.
They will return to a country that may not want to acknowledge the horrors they’ve endured and may not be willing to provide adequate support. If someone was loading trucks for $200 a month before the war, they are likely to return to the same job at the same pay rate once the war is over. The freezing cold of a trench is not considered relevant work experience on a resume.
War veterans will face poverty and social deprivation. The prevailing sentiment in the Russian army is no secret, as pro-war social media accounts have consistently channeled it. As long as these individuals occupy the trenches and engage in brutal assaults, the government remains secure, and their complaints can be conveniently ignored.
However, bringing these individuals back to society is a disastrous idea from the dictator’s perspective. Returning a war-experienced, but winless army is equally problematic. It would entail sending back hundreds of thousands of individuals who were deceived with promises of guard jobs at depots, only to be thrust into the frontline.
They have spent a year in the cold trenches and will likely find work as security guards for meager pay that won’t cover their medical expenses. This experiment carries lethal potential. Putin and his inner circle are aware of this, and they hope those who went to fight in this war will not return.
This is why the war must persist. The dictator’s best hope is that Ukrainians will keep slaughtering this army to avoid dealing with their return.
The war’s continuation is imperative, regardless of whether it involves trench warfare or brutal assaults. How long will this state of affairs persist? The system, notorious for its lack of forward planning, seems indifferent to the future. They will keep fighting today and tomorrow, but a year from now is a topic best avoided and tabooed.
The army’s withdrawal is just one facet of a more extensive problem. Ending the war, or even pausing it, implies an end to the constant fear and chaos that has become a part of life. People will undoubtedly celebrate when the war is finally over, but once the initial elation subsides, they will be confronted with a multitude of problems.
The state budget, which has been stretched to accommodate wartime costs, will no longer be sustainable. The high-paying jobs in the defense industry will become unmanageable. Factories that have produced more underwear in a year than they have in two decades will find themselves with unnecessary inventory. The government has been allocating exorbitant amounts of money against diminishing revenues for too long, and budget cuts will follow.
From a political perspective, the war has served as a shield and justification for numerous actions. But once the war ends and people return to their senses, they will realize that the pre-February 24th problems still persist, exacerbated by new challenges.
The war has been a distorted reality for both its supporters and opponents, as well as those who have chosen not to take sides. When this distorted reality ends, everyone will awaken to the staggering costs in terms of lives and finances. Life will have changed, but it remains uncertain how society will adapt to this new normal.
The post-war era will bring an overwhelming sense of reality and challenges that are impossible to ignore. For Putin, who has skillfully manipulated time and managed to extend his rule, the scoreboard becomes irrelevant as long as he can control the clock. Putin believes that his regime has adapted to this war, and as long as it persists, he can rule indefinitely.
But no war is devoid of unknowns and uncertainties, and the future remains a tabooed topic within the system. Going back to February 23, 2022, is not an option, but extending the era that commenced on February 24 for as long as possible seems to be the plan.
The conclusion that emerges is disheartening. The war is unlikely to end militarily, as neither side has the upper hand to halt it. Politically, it is improbable that it will come to a close while Putin is in power, as both sides lack the means to do so. This conclusion is far from novel, but it is now glaringly evident.
Regardless of what Ukraine’s Western allies may contemplate and how public opinion on both sides may sway, there can only be talks with a Russian government that offers a chance for a life without war and fulfills its obligations. Both elements of this equation exclude Putin.
Clearly, Russian elites may desire an end to the war while maintaining the status quo, free from the war, sanctions, and isolation. However, it will likely take time for them to realize they can return to a life without these burdens, but not under Putin’s leadership.