The stalemate in Ukraine won’tlast forever

Mark Galeotti

Six months in, is the war any closer to ending?

24 August 2022, THE SPECTATOR

The stalemate in Ukraine won't last forever

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Addressing the vexed question of who is winning the war in Ukraine, six months on, is a task to challenge military strategists, geopolitical analysts – and semanticists, because so much depends on what ‘winning’ means. On one level, after all, one could suggest everyone is losing.

That said, we cannot escape the fact that both Moscow and the West had essentially written Ukraine off at the start of the war. The conventional wisdom was that it would take perhaps a fortnight for Vladimir Putin’s much-vaunted war machine, the product of two decades of heightened military spending, to defeat its Ukrainian counterpart. 

Instead, the Ukrainians proved determined and disciplined in the defence, and imaginative and impassioned in the attack. Putin’s initial stab at Kyiv was foiled and he was forced to scale down his goals from a quick seizure of the whole country to a campaign to take and hold the south-eastern Donbas region and the ‘land bridge’ along the northern coast of the Azov Sea to Crimea.

This was undoubtedly a triumph for Ukraine, but a tactical one. It redefined the nature of the war, but it did not end it.

Today, Ukraine can rightly feel pride at its achievements, but the costs are hard to overstate. It is on a full wartime footing, with men between the ages of 18 and 60 banned from leaving as they are needed for the struggle. Its economy is on life support and is only kept afloat by foreign assistance. This year could see its GDP shrink by as much as half.One would be foolish to consider Russia a spent force

It has lost substantial swathes of territory, and while it is holding the Russians at bay, not least thanks to extensive western military aid, it has not yet been able to launch a much-heralded counter-attack to retake the city of Kherson or other lands in the south.

Not that Russia has any reason to feel confident. It lost many of its best troops and most advanced kit in its blundered initial attack, and is even having to recruit convicts from prison and arm them with 1960s-vintage equipment dragged out of dusty stockpiles.

On the battlefield, Russia appears to have stalled and the prospects of it being able to mount another major offensive this year look slim. The territories it has taken are devastated and their people are increasingly turning to acts of resistance, from passing on information about Russian troop movements to assassinating quisling local leaders.

At home, its economy is surviving but at the cost of progressive retrenchment. Although GDP is set to fall by only 4 to 5 per cent, this masks the serious damage being done already to sectors depending on foreign components or markets and the long-term scarring. This will have political consequences, and although the regime remains secure for now, the track record for Russian governments which lose wars is not a comfortable one. 

Of course, this is not one war but two: a military one in Ukraine, and a political-economic one between Russia and the West. As fuel bills hurtle skywards, and budgets come under pressure, the question is not whether the West will stop supporting Ukraine but rather how much pain its politicians and publics are willing to accept in its name. If we ever turn back to offering thoughts and prayers rather than cash and weapons, then Ukraine is frankly doomed.

This, then, is where we are, six months on. It looks like a miserable stalemate, with tens of thousands dead and everyone’s economy suffering. 

Yet no stalemate lasts forever. One would be foolish to consider Russia a spent force. Putin is clearly hoping to outlast Ukraine’s capacity to resist or the West’s willingness to underwrite it. Were there some unexpected collapse in Kyiv’s defences, he might well revisit his more ambitious dreams of conquest.

At the same time, Ukraine has demonstrated a striking capacity to adapt and innovate. Unable or unwilling to roll into a heavily-defended Kherson, they have instead begun degrading Russian capabilities by pecking away at their supply lines, communications hubs and headquarters. They may be unable to match the Russians in sheer scale, especially if Putin opts for a full mobilisation, but wars are not always determined by numbers alone. One would be foolish to rule out a Ukrainian surprise.

The weakest link? That’s us: the West. We were unexpectedly united and ferocious at the start of the war, but perhaps became over-excited by our own resolve. Sanctions were never going to make an autocrat like Putin change his mind in and of themselves, only to influence his calculus and undermine his war machine. The answer is not more or different sanctions so much as strategic patience and a determination to pay the price of economic war.

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It is a victory for Ukraine still to be fighting the Russian army, just as it is a victory for the West still – mainly – to be resisting Russian economic pressure. But not the final victory. Six months on, it is still all to play for. 

WRITTEN BYMark Galeotti

Professor Mark Galeotti is the author of 24 books about Russia. The latest is ‘A Short History of Russia’ (2021).

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