Expectations that the war in Ukraine will end soon are now over. What we are seeing instead is early phase of a long war that may continue for months if not years.
There are portends of this specter given stated political objectives of the adversaries – Russia and Ukraine, national morale and motivation of Ukraine [credible inputs of mood of the Russian people are unavailable], organization for a long war, present operational developments, international acceptance of the conflict as the new normal and ironically breakthrough in supply chains- energy and food.
There are contra-indicators as well that may lead to an early conclusion of this phase – exhaustion of resources to make war despite support to Ukraine by the United States and imminence of a nuclear catastrophe.
However if this happens it may only be an interregnum to the long war. Here is a review of these factors
Portends of a Long War
Firstly, there is a degree of clarity on the war objectives on both sides. Ukraine’s political objective is to regain sovereignty over lost territories including Crimea. This would no doubt entail sustained operations if these are at all deemed feasible. Never the less such an aim is important to drive national morale for Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky is utilizing the same to effect.
Russia’s aspirations seem to be to annex former Soviet territories which have a dominant Russian population and towards this end implanting self rule in areas that have been secured in Ukraine such as Luhansk and Donetsk as well as Kherson is ongoing.
A recent statement by Russian Foreign Minister amongst President Putin’s close circles that Russian aims go beyond Donbas are relevant.
These ambitions could lead to attempts at expansion and when contested by Ukraine amongst others a long war is inevitable.
Secondly, national morale and motivation in Ukraine to sustain the war is high leading to sustained support to the resistance, despite reports of penetration of some of the government organisations by Russian intelligence.
The number of Ukrainian voices willing to join the resistance is growing and some who had migrated to escape the fighting are returning. There is a determination to support the armed forces and the government which is evident.
While Russian public morale is difficult to assess, the nature of the Russian state and ability to mobilise support indicates limited resistance to a long war.
Ironically while Russian President Putin had remarked at the outset that Russian people can survive sanctions due to their resilience, this is as much applicable to the Ukrainians who are essentially from similar ethnicity with characteristics of doggedness against heavy odds.
Thirdly both sides are now preparing their forces for a long war. Ukraine is supported by the United States and several European countries which has led to upgrading of military capability both in the immediate and the short term. Effectiveness of American fire support such as HIMARS is providing an advantage to the Ukraine Armed Forces who are also learning fast to adapt to weapons and equipment being provided on the fly. Projects such as establishment of a drone factory by Turkey in the country is an indicator that the nation is preparing for a long haul.
Russia despite heavy losses has huge reserves of tanks, artillery, rockets and missiles. Where there is a short fall this is being made up by improvisation through unexpected sources as Iran which is said to be providing attack drones to Iran. Mobilization of manpower in Russia is evident as the Institute of Study of War, a Washington based think tank quotes Russian affiliated media source Kommersant of 40 volunteer battalions being formed by the Russian federal agencies or region. The mobilization will be supported materially by the regions, thus reducing the burden on the federal government.
Fourthly present operational developments denote a counter offensive by Ukraine in the south in Kherson after protracted skirmishing on other fronts. A shift from the defensive to a counter offensive by Ukraine could denote confidence of stabilization of defences in other areas ranging from Kharkiv in the North to Donbass. If this has not been achieved, the Kherson counter offensive could be a rash move with negative operational consequences for underestimating Russian determination to pursue attacks in other sectors is unwise.
Fifthly the international community seems to have resigned to a long war in Ukraine, efforts at peacemaking have reduced, the last one being by the Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo Chair of the G 20 forum.
Not much is cutting ice in restraining the two sides from war. The negative consequences of spinoffs in other zones of conflict as China-Taiwan or Armenia – Azerbaijan is not leading to concerns over the fighting in Ukraine.
Sixthly, with supply chain of grains restored at least partially and hopes of a smooth transition, as well as gas supplies to Europe also coming on stream economic impact of the war is reducing thus there is less inclination in Europe for seeking peace and a resignation towards the inevitability of the conflict.
Contraindicators to a Long War
Military resources are not infinite be it with the United States or Russia. The war in Ukraine has been an artillery and rocket duel seeing large expenditure of ammunition the stocks of which are not infinite. Reports of a crunch being felt even in the United States are evident, Russia is expected to face a major deficit particularly as replenishment of munitions which have components from other countries may be impacted. This may lead the two sides to cease fire at least temporarily.
Imminence of a nuclear catastrophe is another factor that may lead to restraint. Unfortunately, nuclear fears are also intermixed with false alarms and fake news which is dangerous. Despite assertions to the contrary possibility of nuclearization of the Ukraine war should not be underestimated.
As conflicts prolong, these tend to assume their own dynamics, with a level of saturation in public interest which expands away from the fighting front. For people in the frontline as well the fear of death and injury seems to recede thus the incentive to seek peace reduces. This is what is sadly happening in Ukraine lengthening the shadows of war.