The Russian war in Ukraine has certainly loomed longer than experts could have predicted a year ago, when US intelligence and Western media were already warning of an imminent Russian invasion. If at the beginning it seemed that the Ukrainian resistance could last at most a few weeks (a bit like the Polish resistance in September 1939) , if not a few days, the stubbornness of the Ukrainian defence has far exceeded the expectations not only by Western analysts but also probably by Russian military planners.
At the moment the conflict seems to have reached a relative stalemate for some weeks, in particular after the Russian retreat from Kherson, with fierce fighting going on around Bakhmut and on the entire front line in the Donbass but without major changes in the positions of the fighters. Now to understand what the developments of the coming weeks and months might be, it is necessary to bear in mind at least four aspects.
1)The Ukrainian resistance has proved to be effective and tenacious, but it must be recognized that it probably could have done little without the profusion of Western weapons. Total Western aid to Ukraine (to date quantifiable as over $ 100 billion) is higher than Russia’s annual defence budget. Now if someone predicted that the unanimous will of the West to assist Ukraine would soon wane in the face of a very serious and imminent economic crisis caused by inflation, for the moment these two issues still seem manageable. The West has made it clear that as far as Ukraine is concerned it is not willing to give up. Since last spring the possibility of reaching an agreement with Russia has practically been excluded and no one in the West seems to have the intention of playing the role of the one who “gives in” to Putin.
2) The impending Russian offensive. We have been hearing it for a year now: a probable and massive Russian attack is strongly linked to the conditions of the terrain. According to many experts the frozen ground would favour the movement of large quantities of military equipment on the vast Ukrainian plains. It may have been the mild temperatures of last winter that made the Russian leadership wait until February 24 for the start of operations; according to revelations by Ukrainian intelligence (which publicly, however, tried to minimize the danger publicly denounced by the US secret services) the invasion was postponed on three occasions last year. This year as well, therefore, the rumours that want a Russian offensive in the coming weeks with the arrival of the frost and the traditional Russian ally, the general winter, are becoming more and more insistent. But even if a massive Russian operation succeeds, the chances of the West accepting the status quo are decidedly low. A signal of fatigue from the West would above all threaten the moral unity of the European front: countries like Poland or the Baltic countries, also thanks to the traditional support they enjoy from Washington, would hardly resign themselves to “compliant” positions.
3) Little chance of reaching a compromise. After the official annexation of the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhie, as well as those of Donetsk and Luhansk, by Russia it seems difficult to imagine, in the light of the current military situation, the political will on the part of Russia to want to cede those territories, to unless it suffers a heavy military defeat. Equally impossible to imagine from a Ukraine that does not seem in any way inclined to accept the loss of a part of its territory. On the contrary, in Ukraine, where the “Croatian option” (the Croatian offensive in the ethnically Serb Kraijna in 1995, which in fact put an end to the war in Croatia) has been talked about for years, one even thinks of the Crimea. Here, however, the Russians have been entrenched for 8 years and few people seem eager to be “liberated” by Ukraine. It is therefore a very difficult knot to untie. If the war is to end, eventually someone will have to compromise on something, but at the moment it’s impossible to say who.
4) Lack of political will to reach a peace agreement. The Western leadership, as noted above, shows no intention of wanting to “forgive Russia”. Zelensky, the new Churchill, the “hero of the free world”, also made it clear: there is no chance of negotiating with Putin, he will speak to Russia only after a regime change. It is a line more or less openly discussed in the United States and that Europe, despite the occasional verbal openings to the pragmatism of some European politicians (an example, Macron), is forced to follow.
On the basis of the above considerations, the conclusions that can be drawn are decidedly not optimistic. Barring a radical alteration of the balance at the military level (and the decisive phase will be between now and the end of March), 2023 will be another year of suffering for Ukraine, under the banner of a war for which it is hard to not see a realistic way out. The war in Ukraine began in 2014, 2022 was just the start of a new phase and of massive Russian intervention: it now risks becoming a ten-year war. Ukraine is not Transnistria or South Ossetia and to imagine a frozen conflict on such a territory extended is naive. Sooner or later, whether one likes it or not, Russia and Ukraine will be “condemned” to live side by side in a certain peaceful equilibrium: technical progress has not yet managed to overcome the primordial forces of geography.