On the eve of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the idea that this ferocious and absurd war is going to drag on indefinitely is getting stronger. Moscow’s aggression has left a large European country in ruins and caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people, possibly hundreds of thousands, with millions more displaced. Russia is destroying the Ukraine of today and the Ukraine of tomorrow, attacking the civilian population and essential infrastructure while the Kremlin’s forces torture, steal, expropriate cultural heritage and deport Ukrainian children to be indoctrinated and adopted in Russia.
Vladimir Putin’s determination to continue pursuing the war at whatever cost and with no concern for human life – Ukrainian and those of his own citizens drafted into the Russian military – is opposed by the bravery of Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian people to defend their sovereignty with the aid of weapons provided by the West. Neither side has sufficient military strength to secure a decisive victory on the battlefield, if such an outcome can even be described as such.
NATO has discovered to its alarm that the arsenals of its member states are insufficient to sustain the rhythm with which Ukraine is using them and Moscow has found that much of its armaments are obsolete and has sought the help of countries such as Iran, with which the Kremlin is working on the joint-production of combat drones. Both sides are increasing or are preparing to increase the capacity of their respective war industries.
The front lines are constantly moving. Russian forces have retreated into territory they had previously occupied, and Ukraine is defending the ground it controls in Donbas inch by inch. This is not blitzkrieg – as Putin assumed when he ordered the invasion to “de-Nazify and demilitarize” a country he refuses to recognize – but a grueling slog.
Russia is still attempting to annihilate Ukraine as an independent nation while Kyiv wants to repel the invader and regain the territorial integrity of the entire country, which held firm until Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014. Meanwhile, Washington and NATO are attempting to tread a fine line to prevent an escalation by Moscow, and the potential for conventional war to turn into a nuclear conflict. This danger is ever-present, although it is impossible to determine the correlation between events on the battlefield and the likelihood that Putin will push the button. As long as Russia has conventional weapons and manpower at its disposal, Putin is unlikely to move to the last resort. Some believe that the Russian leader would not be capable of ordering a nuclear strike, while others, based on his own rhetoric, see him as perfectly willing to destroy himself and everybody else before admitting defeat. Based on these impressions, some accept the risk and others do not. The uncertainty has everyone on edge.
The optimism that followed successful Ukrainian counter-offensives last year was contagious, but premature. Western sanctions are squeezing Moscow, but not suffocating it. In a global world, the Kremlin has been able to find ways to mock such measures. Putin is for now relying on a supportive, submissive, confused or scared population, who either back the war or are resigned to it. Between a million and a million and a half Russians, according to the data, have fled the country to avoid the mobilization and those who remain and speak out against the war can face longer prison sentences than convicted killers, as the activist Ilya Yashin discovered when he was handed eight and a half years for his political stance.
Russia appears to have embarked on a journey back in time to an inquisitorial world. The regime’s repression is increasingly severe and the paranoia of its officials has reached absurd extremes, such as avoiding using the word “peace” in New Year’s greetings.
Avoiding a nuclear escalation
In terms of the evolution of the war, there are several schools of thought. Some say that Ukraine should be supported for as long as necessary to “defeat” Russia and expel the Kremlin’s forces from its soil. Others state that Kyiv will have to accept territorial losses in exchange for peace. The latter option is presented with analogies such as the division of Korea or Germany, but Moscow is claiming more than the areas it already occupies and has added Ukrainian territories that it does not even control into its Constitution.
An analysis by US-based think tank Rand Corporation on US interests in the Ukraine war titled “Avoiding a Long War. US Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict” states that “For the United States, avoiding a long war is a higher priority than providing significantly more territorial control to Ukraine.” The document also notes that Washington’s priorities are to avoid an escalation that could lead to “possible Russian use of nuclear weapons and possible escalation to a Russia-NATO conflict.”
Russian politician and economist Grigory Yavlinski, one of the founders of the social-liberal Yabloko party and a presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000 – when he ran against Putin – recently published an article in which he stated: “The conflict cannot be brought to an end on the battlefield, as some people dream.”
“Putin’s state will stop at nothing,” Yavlinski wrote, adding the Russia will “remain one of the two great nuclear powers in the world,” after the conflict. Ukraine, on the other hand, is in danger of being unable to overcome the “economic consequences,” of the war. Yavlinski proposes a ceasefire as a “political demand to save lives,” noting that this does not require a peace agreement or full-scale dialogue. “Attempting this option is possible only if Putin, Zelenskiy, Biden, the EU leadership and NATO want it,” he concludes.
Yabloko is the only legal party in Russia that has openly taken a stand against the war. While it is not represented in the Russian State Duma, it has deputies in several regional and municipal parliaments. Around 100 of its members are in prison or have been prosecuted and fined for their political positions, according to a party spokesman.
Seeking a ceasefire in Ukraine would require an intermediary structure made up of people or countries who are not implicated in the war or in sanctions on Moscow. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has suggested the formation of a group of neutral states to mediate. Brazil and Russia are both members of the BRICS group of economies, together with India, China and South Africa. Behind the scenes, diplomatic maneuvering is already taking place between various nations. Alberto Fernández, the president of Argentina, has adopted Lula’s line and both countries refuse to sell arms to Ukraine.
A Russian intellectual who prefers to remain anonymous tries to explain the issues surrounding a potential mediation with the following analogy. “What do you do if an armed terrorist attacks a bank, takes hostages and threatens them with a gun: confront him and place the lives of his captives at risk, or take coordinated action involving specially trained policemen, psychologists and people the terrorist trusts, who will patiently seek to calm him down and convince him that his wishes will be indulged only if he stops pointing his gun at the hostages and hands it over?”
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