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  • Dan Moskovitz

The Paths Forward in the Russo-Ukraine War

DAN MOSKOVITZ (HE/HIM)


26 months on, and the Russo-Ukrainian war looks no closer to ending. 


An initial successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in 2022 raised hope for a Ukrainian victory, but their 2023 follow-up offensive failed to make the front lines budge. Russia, meanwhile, has been making incremental progress across the front line, though Ukraine appears to be extracting a high price in blood for each step. It’s all very reminiscent of the First World War, where defensive trenches turned any attacking movements into bloodbaths for the offensive side. 


Still, there are warning signs for Ukraine. $60 billion of American aid has been held up in Congress by hard-line Republicans, while an EU promise to deliver a million shells failed to reach its goal. The result? Ukraine is short of ammunition, and weaker than it should be. 


The current front line extends across Ukraine’s four eastern oblasts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk. All four were controversially annexed by Russia (without even fully controlling them) via dubious referendums in 2022. As such, the Russian claim is not widely recognised.

These oblasts are the greatest sticking point to any peace deal, according to Jim Headley, an associate professor of politics at Otago who studies Russian foreign policy. Russia says they’re Russian, Ukraine (and everyone else) says they’re Ukrainian. 


While very clear that these are not predictions, Headley laid out some potential scenarios for how this war could end. The first would involve Ukraine surrendering the oblasts for peace.


“It’d be very difficult for Ukraine to drive Russia out of these territories, but equally difficult to accept losing these territories to Russia,” says Headley.

“But in any agreement, Russia would need to accept the rest of Ukraine as independent. But how can Ukraine trust that? You’d probably need a commitment from the west to defend Ukraine if Russia were to attack again. 


“I think it would take a long time to get there. It would require a lot of change in western politics around supporting Ukraine, and also changes in Ukrainian policy to accept that they’re not going to get them back.”


An equally realistic scenario according to Headley is the four oblasts mimicking the situation in Crimea before the war. Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula, was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. While not internationally recognised as Russian land, it has been controlled by Moscow since annexation. 


This scenario sees things reach either stalemate or cease-fire, but not true peace. 


But again, we’re a long way from this outcome too. Not only would it be difficult for the west and Ukraine to stomach, but Russia would also be far from happy. 


“Putin has ramped up the rhetoric about trying to take the whole of Ukraine, so it would take time for his propaganda machine to sell the idea that they’d been successful with just stalemate in the oblasts,” says Headley.


There is always the mythical revolt against Putin, but it’s unlikely. There’s very little sign of revolution, and even if one did spontaneously occur, any replacement would come from within the system.


“An alternative leader isn’t going to be someone who comes in and says the war was a big mistake, Putin was evil, and the West is our friend. There's just no constituency for that.”Rather, the bigger question for Ukraine is November’s presidential rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. 


“Ukraine is reliant on Western support. That’s expensive and depends on local politics. 


“If Trump gets in, who knows what's going to happen?”


After all, Ukraine’s struggles are already in part due to hard-line congressional Republicans preventing $60 billion in aid from reaching Ukraine. 


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