Almost two years after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there are no signs of a military victory for either side. Nor are there clear prospects of a ceasefire, let alone a negotiated settlement. Neither Kyiv nor Moscow are willing to compromise on their stated war aims – but neither has a clear path to achieving them.
All that Russia and Ukraine can muster for now are the resources to prevent the other side from winning, at the cost of more human suffering, in particular in Ukraine.
At the end of 2022, momentum appeared to be on Ukraine’s side. A successful counteroffensive had delivered significant territorial gains around Kharkiv in the north and forced Russia to withdraw from Kherson in the south.
Over the following months, Russia made a number of symbolic gains, capturing Soledar in January 2023 and Bakhmut in May. Both came at a huge cost to Moscow, especially in terms of human lives. But they also demonstrated the Kremlin’s determination – and ability – to prevail.
A much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive began in June. But it took longer to get underway than had been planned and failed to replicate the successes of the previous year. As a result, Ukraine was able to make only small territorial gains by the end of the year – especially along the frontline in the Zaporizhia region in the south.
More successful, albeit less consequential for the overall war, were Ukraine’s successful efforts to diminish Russian naval capabilities in the Black Sea and forcing the Black Sea fleet to redeploy from Crimea to bases on the Russian mainland.
Over the past few weeks, some of the most intensive fighting has been focused on Donbas, where Russia has made small territorial gains in its effort to consolidate control of the Luhansk region and capture all of the Donetsk region. Apart from its superiority in manpower, Russia also benefits from Ukrainian shortages of artillery munitions, something likely to continue into 2024.
This will not only put future Ukrainian offensives at risk but potentially also increase the likelihood of a new Russian offensive. For now, the Kremlin’s offensive operations appear localised and there is no expectation of major breakthrough. However, this could change as Russia ramps up its own war economy and receives more imports from allies such as North Korea.
It is not surprising that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, insisted at his annual end-of-year press conference on December 14 that there will be no peace until Russia achieves its goals of “denazification, demilitarisation and a neutral status for Ukraine”.
This is hardly a basis for negotiations as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, made clear in his own press conference. Insisting that his own ten-point peace formula was the only way forward to a just and stable peace, Zelensky, however, also admitted that he could see no clear end to the conflict.
Both Zelensky’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, have been more upbeat in recent public pronouncements about the likelihood of a Ukrainian victory. And recent opinion polls confirm that almost three-quarters of Ukrainians are unwilling to make any territorial concessions to Russia in exchange for peace.
Yet, the prospect of another year of mostly attritional warfare is particularly worrying for Kyiv as doubts over the sustainability of western military and financial support persist.
Western rhetorical support of Ukraine’s war aims – the complete restoration of its sovereignty and territorial integrity – appears in stark contrast with the continuing hesitation to provide Ukraine with the resources needed to win on the battlefield.
Not only has this hampered Ukraine’s efforts to liberate territories illegally occupied by Russia, it has likely also emboldened the Kremlin to refuse to engage in any meaningful negotiations. Unless there is a significant step-change in the quantity and quality of western military support for Ukraine, this is unlikely to change.
Cause for optimism
But another year of stalemate, costly though it will be, could also provide an opportunity for Ukraine.
Focusing on defence against further Russian attempts to occupy more Ukrainian territory will be a more realistic and more attainable campaign goal for Kyiv. It will create opportunities for an urgently needed rethink and refresh of military and political strategies for how to end the war.
It will also give Kyiv’s European allies time to find a way out of the current impasse over funding for Ukraine. This would not only be an important lifeline for Ukraine’s economy but also a necessary contingency should US funding continue to be blocked in the run-up to, and possibly after, the 2024 election cycle.
At the same time, efforts in Ukraine to improve its own defence production and joint ventures with western defence companies could be important steps in creating a military-industrial complex in Ukraine.
Cumulatively, these individual steps could allow Ukraine not only to deny Russia further territorial gains in 2024 but also change Moscow’s overall calculus about what its own endgame in the war will be. Like most other wars, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will most likely also end at the negotiation table. Even if this does not happen in 2024, it does not mean that diplomatic efforts should be neglected.
While fighting may still be intense, yet inconclusive, in 2024, informal, unofficial, quiet diplomacy can explore the parameters of a future settlement that keeps Ukraine safe from future Russian aggression and deters the Kremlin from similar adventures in the Baltic states or Moldova.
To achieve this will require political and military leaders in Kyiv and in Ukraine’s western partner capitals to take a hard and honest look at what they really want, and can, achieve. If their aims remain victory in Ukraine and a renewed and stable European security order in the long term, they need to contemplate scaling down military objectives and scaling up diplomatic efforts in the short term.