500 days plus and counting with thousands of casualties on both sides, seizure of large tracts of Ukrainian territory with partial control by Russia, a shift in the dynamics of the War from the defensive to a counter offensive phase by Ukraine, sustained support to Kyiv by NATO principally the United States and some half baked proposals for peace by so called neutral observers as China–the shadow of a long war between Russia and Ukraine looms large.
While the portends of the same were evident in the first few months of the War given lack of clear success by Russian forces march to Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities in the North East and the long drawn out fighting in areas as Bakhmut and Azov, these have become more pronounced given the status of the Ukrainian counter offensive launched in eastern Donetsk and south-eastern Zaporizhzhia regions and around the city of Bakhmut.
Extensive layered defences by Russia has prevented a breakthrough for the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the fighting has settled into a slow grind.
Until both sides – Russia and Ukraine recognise futility of use of military force to settle the core issues – territorial, socio-cultural and geopolitical – fighting with heavy casualties on both sides can be expected to continue.
Operational Limitations and Prospects of Counter Offensive
While Ukraine has today the advantage of Western tanks and munitions, the employment of these forces for launching attacks on narrow frontages against defence in depth organised by the Russians means that unless the Russian resistance collapses the slow grind is expected to continue.
The Wagner rebellion may have provided a ‘false,’ hope of the likelihood of Russian military collapse but measures taken by Kremlin and the Russian General Staff after the brief security blip indicate that the Russian armed forces will continue to give stiff resistance.
Yet over reliance of Russia on special forces and what is seen as more effective elements such as the Chechen and at one time the Wagner indicates that the possibility of a breakup of the frontline may not be that elusive. However the possibility remains a chance rather than providing any estimation of certainty.
Given the maximalist war aims by both sides – Ukraine supported by the West and Russia relying on lack of any resistance to the ongoing war fighting by non western partners such as China and India and the gaps in sanctions providing requisite economic cum technology leeway implies that even beyond the collapse of the Russian front, there is unlikely to be any move by Moscow to negotiate.
More over Russia’s new foreign policy defines war in Ukraine as a subset of the larger conflict with the US and the West – ironically mirror imaging the view from Washington as well, where undermining Russia as a major global player implies that continuance of the fighting contributes to the larger objectives.
Ukraine cannot achieve the objectives of regaining areas annexed by Russia by military force alone as the spectre of use of a tactical nuclear weapons by Moscow cannot be ruled out particularly in the context of Crimea.
Unless there is a degree of “exhaustion,” the fighting can be expected to continue.
Grey Zone Operations
Meanwhile grey zone operations have gained precedence with Russia frequently accusing Ukraine of launching drone strikes deep inside Russian territory.
Moscow continues sporadic missile and Iranian one way drone attacks. How this may impact the larger war is unclear so far as the schemes are too limited to make a major difference.
But any stray incident that may go out of hand should be a concern.
Change of Regime
A change of regime in Moscow or Kyiv or post Presidential elections in the United States in 2024 also appears to be a long shot. Even if a new President in the US changes tack on Ukraine that will be at least 18 months away, till then the slow grind is expected to continue.
While there is much speculation of a weakened President Putin, portends of a change in the Kremlin leadership for a compromise in Ukraine certainly is in the realm of speculation.
Reduced Global Attention Span of War in Ukraine
Finally, there appears to be a reduction in the global attention on the war in Ukraine with a sense of inevitability and countries adjusting face the economic, energy and in some cases the humanitarian crisis.
Indeed the impact on the developing world or the global South continues to be deleterious but as it lacks the voice in international forums the same will remain a whimper.
The war in Ukraine is not one in the developing world such as India and Pakistan where the militaries have limited staying power but between states who seem to be having virtually inexhaustible resources for fighting and a strong will on the part of Ukrainian people and leadership to accept losses. The portends are a long war ahead.