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Ukraine 2023: Escalation What About an End State?


The year 2023 has begun on a grim note for the Ukrainian people with multiple missile and armed drone strikes interrupting the celebrations as the show went on despite the extremes of weather, hardship and victim of armed aggression.


This comes as a negotiated settlement between Ukraine and Russia is least likely as portends are clearly of a long drawn out war and not just confrontation.


Goals


Firstly goals of the two adversaries indicate that these are unlikely to be achieved in 2023, thus the end state will certainly be pushed forward to 2024 and beyond.


Ukraine’s goals are to retrieve lost territories including Crimea which was annexed by Russia in a relatively bloodless operation in 2014.


Doing so militarily is not feasible despite the extension of armed support by the United States and other western allies. One for much of the arms aid appears to be tokenism. While Germany is under fire by the West for not allowing transfer of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, UK which seeks to be in the forefront of supplies and is the second largest provider other than the United States is transferring 14 Chieftain tanks which is symbolic and Kyiv might as well do without the same given the training and logistics penalties to maintain the same.


Can Ukraine Achieve Goals with Additional Weapons


However, the sense in the United States defence community appears to be that provision of additional military aid will tilt the balance in the war in favour of Ukraine which will be able to win back lost territory.


There may be some grounds for this confidence at the same time Russia has reorganised and regrouped forces with additional mobilisation. Russian armed industry which is reported to be working on a 24/7 cycle may be churning out the required number of munitions and missiles meanwhile unlikely sources as North Korea are providing artillery shells this time to the Wagner group – the private military corporation closely aligned with Kremlin.


The quality of the newly mobilised Russian conscripts as well as the Wagner groups cohorts is difficult to assess but a break up in the near term may not be imminent.


More over Russia has overhauled the higher command with General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff being made the overall commander of operations in Ukraine.


This is not unusual in the history of the Russian or Soviet Armed forces to be more precise.


Marshal Zhukov then the head and senior most general of the Soviet military was pushed to the front line by Stalin as and when these collapsed during the Second World War.


Zhukov did deliver but whether Gerasimov can remains to be seen?


The sum total of the argument is that the Russian front may not collapse in 2023 as is hoped for by the United States and Ukraine. This implies that the war will extend to 2024.


Russia war objectives at the minimum level is capitulation of Kyiv to Moscow which again is unlikely given the resolve expressed by the Ukrainian people who are unlikely to accept a compromise by the leadership even if it is President Volodymyr Zelensky.


The amount of blood shed so far will mean that a compromise may not be acceptable at this stage of the war for the people of Ukraine.


Attrition to Exhaustion


Secondly the war of attrition that has developed over the last few months of 2022 has not led to exhaustion, thus both sides Russia and Ukraine seem to believe that they can achieve their aims through warfighting and diplomacy and negotiations are not necessary at this stage.


This again is not unusual given the loss of faith in the many dialogues held before the outbreak of hostilities in February last year and agreements such as the Minsk 1 and 2.


More over there is complete distrust between the leadership of Russia and Ukraine. Only a change at the top may bring about compromise and there are no signs that this is likely in 2023.


Ironically Presidential elections in Russia and Ukraine are due in 2024.


Arms Flow – Division in the West


Thirdly while arms flow to Ukraine is ongoing from the US and others there is a division which was clearly visible with hesitation in Germany providing Leopard tanks or allowing these to be transferred by those countries which hold them in their inventory.


Associated Press notes in a report on January 21 that 50 defence leaders who gathered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany failed to forge a consensus on provision of German made Leopard tanks to Ukraine.


The division would imply that arms aid to Ukraine will come in driblets. This may only lead to incremental success.


Even with surfeit of weapons and munitions, a breakthrough by Ukraine in an offensive at least in the first half of 2023 is unlikely as the process of acquisition, training and operational adaptation is a long one.


Nuclear Overhang


Fourthly there is a nuclear overhang that may come in if Crimea is threatened. A close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev has hinted as much in what many may call as loose talk but which should not be taken lightly.


Reuters quotes, "The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war," former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and deputy chairman of Russia’s security council based on a post on Telegram. "Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends," Medvedev said.


The belief that Russia may be using the N word to keep Ukraine’s allies from delivering arms aid to it may turn out to be facetious, just as the faith that Russia will not launch an operation in February 2022 had proved to be completely out of sync with Mr Putin’s objectives.


Essentials for 2023


Whatever be the operational situation that may develop through incremental escalation or otherwise, there is a need to impress upon Russia to stop targeting the civilian population in Ukraine – that should be a goal for 2023 – but there is not much international resolve towards the same either by the United Nations or others.


Clearly more pain lies ahead for the people of Ukraine as the War or Moscow’s nom de guerre “special military operation,” enters the twelfth month.

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