Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Where is the conflict in Ukraine headed?

The Signal

Where is the conflict in Ukraine headed? Chris Miller on the path dependencies, possible outcomes, and fraught psychology of a still-uncertain struggle.
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Despite attacking Ukraine with some 150,000 soldiers from the north, south, and east on February 24, Russian armed forces haven’t been able to oust its government, take its capital, or conquer any of its western territories. Yet despite its effective resistance, the Ukrainian military hasn’t managed a definitive victory either—with Russia now controlling significantly more Ukrainian territory now than it did before the war. As things stand, Russian troops occupy some of Ukraine’s South, including the city of Kherson, and they’ve taken more of the Donbas area in the Southeast than Moscow has held since 2014. Fighting in these two regions has bogged down in recent weeks, with both sides making only modest gains. Where is this all going?
Chris Miller is an assistant professor of international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the co-director of the school’s Russia and Eurasia Program. Neither country, Miller says, is likely to come out of the war with a straightforward triumph. The most likely outcome is a settlement that allows both sides to declare a kind of victory. After the many combat setbacks suffered by the Russian army, Moscow wants to show domestically that it’s won more territory than it controlled on February 24. And inspired by the Ukrainian military’s surprising early successes, Kyiv doesn’t want to accept any new Russian gains—despite the low probability that Ukraine can take back the parts of the Donbas that Russia controlled before the invasion. As Miller sees it, the next few months could be decisive, with both sides playing out a range of possible endgames—with a range of possible aftermaths, from the ambiguous to the catastrophic.
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Michael Bluhm: Could an end be close?
Chris Miller: It doesn’t seem so. The Ukrainians plausibly think they could take back a substantial spread of the territory that Russia has conquered, which is about 20 percent of the country. And although Moscow has rolled back the initial war aims that President Vladimir Putin articulated on February 24 before invading, it’s still trying to eke out something that looks like a victory—something that it can sell at home as a victory and that Putin can sell to himself as a victory. But that’s not coming soon. Neither is it clear, at this point, what Putin would need to feel satisfied that he had a victory.
As long as the Ukrainians want to continue pushing the Russians back, and the Russians aren’t willing to give up any territory or call things to a halt, this phase of the war could be protracted.
Bluhm: What do you see as realistic possible outcomes for Russia now?
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Miller: One scenario is that it achieves something that looks to everyone like a victory: It pushes back the Ukrainian army and captures all of the Donbas—Donetsk and Luhansk provinces—and holds the territory it’s got in the South. If Russia could do that, and force the Ukrainians to accept its effective control over those territories, then that will look like a victory. But everything we’ve learned about the Russian military over the past three months points to the conclusion that the Russian military is probably not going to succeed at that—even if we can’t entirely rule it out.
A second is an ongoing stalemate, which is in some sense what we’ve had for the past six weeks. In this scenario, Russia has acquired a big chunk of territory in the south of Ukraine around the city of Kherson, and it’s acquired a smaller chunk in the Donbas. But it’s unwilling to stop trying to take more territory in the Donbas, and the Ukrainians are unwilling to give up their efforts to roll the Russians back. That is where things stand right now—and there’s no reason to think that this type of stalemate couldn’t persist for a long time.
Then there’s a third set of scenarios that look like a Russian defeat. That could be Putin deciding later this year, or sometime next, that he’s had enough and is willing to cut a deal along the current lines of control—or even give up some territory—in exchange for a Ukrainian agreement to stop the conflict. There are several ways that Moscow could eventually be persuaded to accept a defeat. There’s also a version of defeat that involves Putin leaving the scene, but I don’t think we should expect that to happen anytime soon. We can’t rule out the prospect, though, that it happens at some point this year or next.
Bluhm: What about for Ukraine?
Miller: Ukrainian leaders tend to say they want a complete Russian exit from Ukrainian territory—including Crimea and the sections of the Donbas that Russia occupied before February 24. I don’t think many Ukrainian leaders really believe this is likely, so Kyiv would probably be willing to accept something less than that, as President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested. While he hasn’t been consistent on the point, he has indicated that a return to the February 24 line of control would be enough for Ukraine. But it would also be major improvement for Ukraine from where it stands today, because it’s lost territory since then.
Marjan Blan
Marjan Blan
More from Chris Miller at The Signal:
It’s deeply controversial within Ukraine to suggest additional losses of territory …. Given that Ukraine has been very successful over the past two months in rolling back the Russians from the territory that they’d seized north of Kyiv and around Kharkiv, there’s very little willingness in Ukraine to consider ceding any more territory to Russia, even without legal recognition. All the polling in Ukraine suggests that 80 to 90 percent of Ukrainians are unwilling to give up any territory in exchange for peace. But if we end up with a stalemate later this year or next, with ongoing military losses on both sides—and if it seems unlikely that Ukraine will be unable to take back the territory it lost—then it’s possible that the Ukrainians might begin to change their minds. The Russians are betting on and hoping for that.”
Russia isn’t likely to seize major Ukrainian cities, but it could keep taking territory in the Donbas—and Ukraine could also launch effective counterattacks. In the South, including the city of Kherson, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the sustainability of Russia’s position—and a lot of evidence of popular unrest from its occupation, so we can imagine Ukrainian advances there. It could go either way. Which is why the next couple of months will be so important in assessing both the Russians’ and the Ukrainians’ views on what they can gain from more fighting—because if either or both sides conclude that more months of fighting aren’t going to achieve much, then they might reassess this fall whether it’s worth it.”
If Russia is forced back to the February 24 borders, that’s undeniably a defeat. The Russians launched a major war, they suffered major costs, and if they end up with no additional territory, it’s impossible to script that as a victory. It’d be quite humiliating. But things get trickier to assess if Russia ends this phase of the war with some additional territory. Some would argue that the Russian military has been deeply embarrassed, in any case. No one knows the exact number, but the Russian military has had about 15,000 soldiers killed, three times that number wounded, and a massive amount of equipment destroyed. Worse than that, its military was embarrassed by the fact that it couldn’t beat a country one-third its size. Moscow has already faced substantial domestic costs from the war. Some will say this is a setback for Russia, even if it ends up with additional territory.”

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