Why should we expect anything different? War never conforms to humanity’s desire for the good guys to defeat the bad guys.
Indeed, great power politics grounded in realpolitik but shaped by mankind’s sense of morality is a mixture that yields tragic results. The demand for closure, clean endings to conflicts where the antagonists get punished, is rarely fulfilled.
Wars only have happy endings in the movies.
In fact, some wars never seem to end, as the combatants are left unfulfilled — or just haven’t been weakened enough. That’s why so many historians see World Wars One and Two as really the same war, just with smaller conflicts in between that broke up the course of tragic events.
Such a reading of history is surely a sign of what is to come in Ukraine. The likely culmination of thousands of people on both sides dead and wounded, dreams crushed, hopes dashes, and lives shattered, will be an imperfect peace that both sides will surely find fault with. It may even lead to a second Russia-Ukraine war just years down the road.
The state of play on the ground suggests that not a lot will change in the next few weeks or months. Due to a series of strategic mistakes by Russian president Vladimir Putin, Moscow’s forces won’t be able to get much further than they already have. Sure, Putin could artillery strike and vacuum bomb his way to something he might try and call victory, but with each bomb he drops, more and more sanctions will be slapped on Russia and military aid will flow to Ukraine. At some point — unless he is irrational and decides to use weapons of mass destruction — he will seek something resembling peace.
As for Ukraine, Kyiv has no way to win, though it’s also unlikely to be swallowed whole by the Russian bear. Ukraine has now over 22,000 anti-tank weapons — Russia has only 12,000 tanks in its entire army! — along with billions of dollars of advanced arms on the way. In the days and weeks ahead, Ukraine will be stocked with defensive arms like NLAWs, Stinger missiles, and potentially air defense systems that will make it very costly for Russia to take much more territory. However, Ukraine has few weapons that could allow it to go on the offensive and take back much ground.
All of this means more and more blood will be spilled until both parties see peace as the only way out. So what will peace look like? My prediction is that no one will like it, but everyone will live with it — for the time being.
In fact, the biggest concession has already been made: Ukraine has already stated that it sees no way it can join NATO. Kyiv also has no way to dislodge Russian forces from the territories it has captured. So Russia does get a win in these two key areas — a weakened Ukraine that can’t fully join the West.
But Putin should be careful what he wishes for. What is left of Ukraine will become an armed camp ready to fight Russia across all domains. There is talk of giving Ukraine perhaps thousands of tanks, the latest UAVs, missile defenses, and NATO training on a scale far beyond what it received in the past. And considering the present state of Russia’s military, Kyiv will be more than a match for Moscow in the years ahead.
Here is where many who want to see Russia pay for its sins won’t be happy. I suspect that another group, like what was crafted after Russia invaded Crimea, will be formed to hammer out some sort of truce and track ceasefire violations. The fighting will then stop.
There will be no peace treaty, no formal signing ceremony, and most importantly, no apologies from Mr. Putin. The peace will look like the aftermath of what was the state of play in Eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region — not exactly peace in the traditional sense of the word, but not all-out war and slaughter. Ukraine seems destined to become a giant frozen conflict, one that could get reignited at any moment, by accident or on purpose.
And of course, there will be wider ramifications, and here is where Putin pays the piper. The sanctions slapped on Russia will likely never come off, as the cries to see Putin get regime-changed will never go away. That means Moscow will become a giant vassal state of Beijing. China will buy every scrap of oil, gas, timber, and ordnance it can get its hands on.
There is, of course, a chance that none of this transpires, that Joe Biden caves to a no-fly zone, that World War III ensues and we are all dead. Then the survivors will only be able to wish for the most imperfect kind of peace.