Tim Marshall looks at the likely developments for the war in Ukraine
The lights are going out across Ukraine as Russia’s military attempts to destroy the critical infrastructure required to maintain even the basics of a decent standard of living. Russia has bombed electricity substations, hydroelectric plants and water supplies in an attempt to break the will of the civilian population. Ukraine struggles to make do and mend to prevent people from freezing to death in sub-zero temperatures, only to see Russia unleash another barrage at the same targets.
It’s a strategic decision by the Kremlin. Its military has been unable to beat the Ukrainian army, so it’s targeting Ukrainian civilians. Inflict enough suffering, the argument goes, and they will push their government to sue for peace – even peace on Russia’s terms. While the Kremlin waits, and the temperature drops, several hundred thousand more refugees will head westwards, putting further stress on the governments currently pushing Kyiv to call for a peace deal.
It’s unlikely to work. The Ukrainian people may be bitterly cold this winter, but they’re also bitterly angry at the invasion of their country and the conduct of the invading troops. At the time of writing, US president Joe Biden has indicated that he would meet Putin to discuss how to end the war, but Putin’s terms –
that the West must recognise the territories illegally annexed by Moscow as part of Russia – leave them far apart. Besides, Biden’s administration coined the phrase ‘nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine’ and for Kyiv, Russia’s terms are a non-starter.
So, the war goes on, at least until the summer and possibly well beyond. After withdrawing from the strategic southern port city of Kherson in November, Russia’s ground forces have dug in on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River and straightened their front lines over several hundred kilometres. It looks as though the strategy of the new overall commander of the invasion, Sergey Surovikin, is to hold on to what Russia has for the time being, harass Ukrainian forces where he can on the frozen ground, and grind down the civilian population over the winter with long-range missile and drone strikes.
In the spring, both sides are likely to try to go on the offensive. The Russians will have rested their experienced troops and trained their (often unwilling) new conscripts. The Ukrainians will have received even more weapons from NATO countries, including the long-range artillery that, more than anything, has levelled the ‘playing field’ for them. After their success in Kherson, they’re eyeing the approaches to Crimea.
If, by the summer, one or both sides are exhausted, or conclude they can’t gain an advantage, only then will the contours of the ceasefire first outlined in March–April reemerge. If the resolve of enough EU countries to continue backing Ukraine has weakened, they too will press for an end to the fighting. More important, however, is the backing of the USA and, to date, that remains strong.
But even looking to the summer as a potential end is optimistic. We’re a long way from 24 February 2022, when many analysts thought that the war would be over within days. Both sides have dug in, physically and ideologically.
On the Russian side, Putin knows a defeat would probably be the end of his presidency and possibly his freedom – even his life. Both he and the security hawks around him continue to deny the validity of Ukraine as an independent state. Having invested so much political capital and Russian lives in trying to destroy it, they will continue to throw more Russian soldiers into the hell of the front line and more missiles into civilian areas. From the Somme to Vietnam, ‘one more push’ has been the mantra for many a general and leader, and Putin has the manpower to keep pushing.
He wants to see how a long, hard, cold winter affects the Ukrainians and the EU countries. He wants to see if Donald Trump returns to power. Having gambled on a short war, he’s now betting on a long war. It’s bleak – the only positive is that there is always a spring.