Welcome back. US president Joe Biden, speaking in Warsaw on the eve of the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, said that Vladimir Putin “could end the war with a word”. But the Russian leader will take no such step, unless he can claim victory on terms utterly unacceptable to Ukraine and its western supporters — that seems clear from Putin’s defiant public speeches in Moscow this week. So what will happen next? I’m at

Predictions about the outcome of long, apparently evenly fought wars are fraught with risk. Who in November 1917 foresaw that, 12 months later, France, the UK, the US and their allies would achieve a comprehensive victory in the first world war over Germany and the other Central Powers?

Having spent this week sifting through an extensive range of commentaries on the Ukraine war, I have the impression that the consensus prediction is that neither side is heading for a decisive victory, no peace settlement is remotely in sight and even a ceasefire — temporary or otherwise — is unlikely any time soon.

A war of attrition

An outstanding analysis that sets out this argument comes from Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Moscow-based US diplomat. Writing for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Russia Matters website, Graham explains that the domestic politics of Russia, Ukraine and the US all point to the continuation of “the war of attrition”.

Here are Graham’s thoughts on Putin:

He has shown no interest in negotiating anything other than Ukraine’s capitulation . . . His hyperbolic rhetoric, likening the conflict to the great patriotic wars of survival against Hitler and Napoleon, limits his room for manoeuvre.

On Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy: “[He] has committed himself to total victory . . . [He] cannot trade land for peace and hope to survive politically.”

On Biden, the war and the 2024 US presidential election: “Having framed it as a historic contest between democracy and autocracy . . . Biden cannot afford to see Ukraine defeated and hope to be re-elected.”

The US president himself put it this way in Warsaw:

President Putin chose this war. Every day the war continues is his choice. He could end the war with a word. It’s simple. If Russia stopped invading Ukraine, it would end the war. If Ukraine stopped defending itself against Russia, it would be the end of Ukraine.

That last point is reinforced in an article by Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, for Project Syndicate appearing in the Korea Times. What would have happened, Bildt asks, if Russia had won the war quickly a year ago?

[Zelenskyy] most likely would have been murdered by Russian special forces or incarcerated after a swift trial. At best, he would be leading a government in exile from Warsaw or somewhere else . . . Ukraine as a political entity would have ceased to exist, returning to the status that it held under the Russian imperialism of the 19th century.

And so Ukraine fights on, despite high casualties, mass displacement of civilians and the war’s devastating impact on the economy, as set out in this IMF report in December.

Western military and financial support keeps Ukraine’s war effort going, even though — as the FT reports — the finance ministry in Kyiv appears to have received, up to December, only €31bn of €64bn promised by western countries since the invasion.

As the Kiel Institute’s chart above shows, the US provides the lion’s share of the west’s assistance, but for how long?

Felicia Schwartz, our Washington-based US foreign affairs and defence correspondent, writes that once rock-solid political and public support for supplying Ukraine with weapons and money is softening, and that it could come under still more pressure as the 2024 election approaches.

War aims

Any significant reduction of US support would surely shatter Ukraine’s hope of achieving all its war aims. These have hardened, as the conflict has intensified, into the complete restoration of government control over every territory seized by Russia since 2014, including Crimea and the south-eastern Donbas region.

Few western leaders dare to suggest in public that these war aims are too ambitious, but some think so in private. Russia’s atrocities in occupied zones and its deportations of Ukrainian civilians, including many thousands of children, make it especially difficult for western leaders to float the idea of leaving such areas under Moscow’s control — even as part of a ceasefire, let alone a long-term settlement.

However, it is no less true that Putin has studiously avoided spelling out Russia’s war aims in precise detail. Would he be satisfied with Crimea and four other regions of Ukraine which he declared in September to be annexed to Russia, even though they aren’t under Moscow’s full military control?

Putin and Russia’s historical destiny

In my view, it would be unwise to assume that. The destruction of the post-1991 independent Ukrainian state, and the absorption of Ukrainian identity into a Russian-led east Slav union, seem to me to be fundamental to Putin’s increasingly mystical conception of Russia’s destiny.

Few have described Putin’s obsessions more succinctly than the historian Thomas Otte, writing for the H-Diplo website almost a year ago:

Putin’s views . . . reflect his embrace of the fundamentally anti-western, anti-European concept of russky mir [the Russian world], a partly historical, partly ideological construct that draws on the idea of holy Rus’ of the 10th century — itself an “invention” of 19th-century historians.

It encompasses late tsarist ideas of an ethnocultural pan-Slav bond between the eastern Slavs, and it is fuelled by memories of victory over fascism in the Great Patriotic War.

Otte also underlines the importance for Putin of his grievance-filled contention that the west betrayed Russia after the cold war by accepting the newly free, former communist countries of central and eastern Europe into Nato. Mary Elise Sarotte, a leading authority on the diplomacy of that era, demolished this argument in the FT last weekend.

Yet, as Otte points out, Putin’s allegations of western bad faith have turned into the Russian equivalent of post-1918 Germany’s rightwing nationalist “stab in the back” myth, according to which Jews, socialists and other homegrown “traitors” caused the country to lose the first world war.

In short, Putin’s thirst for conquest, revenge and a revered place in the annals of Russian history remains unquenched. Former Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev, who resigned last year in protest at the attack on Ukraine, offers this insight into Putin and the officials who serve him:

He will always be a source of war, of aggression, of destabilisation . . . This war is his personal war because nobody around him wanted this war. And they don’t want it now. They just follow it because it is not their responsibility to think and decide.

What do you think? Will the fighting in Ukraine stop by the end of this year? Vote here.

More on this topic

How Russia’s war shattered global energy routes — an analysis by Benjamin Storrow and Sara Schonhardt for E&E News

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has embraced a more active role in public life as he seeks to shore up the Iranian regime’s authority after the most intense demonstrations since the Islamic revolution, the FT’s Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Tehran

  • Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has been on the back foot for most of the past three and a half years, but it still has a chance of retaining power after parliamentary elections set for later this year, says Aleks Szczerbiak, politics professor at the UK’s University of Sussex

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