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The long war: Why peace is unlikely to come to Ukraine this year

Local residents carry the body of a 20-year-old man killed in Russian shelling in Kherson, Ukraine, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/LIBKOS) Illustration by Julia Terbrock iSTOCK; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The long war: Why peace is unlikely to come to Ukraine this year

Jamie McIntyre

January 05, 09:58 PM January 05, 09:58 PM

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As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears the one-year mark, all signs point to a protracted war, with misery aplenty for both sides in 2023.

While Ukraine’s success on the battlefield against what was once generally considered a superior military power is nothing short of stunning, and its rock star President Volodymyr Zelensky is often compared to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as the new year dawns, the war itself has settled into a deadly stasis in which neither side is able to make major gains.

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For now, the momentum remains in favor of Ukraine. Its routing of Russian forces in the northern city of Kharkiv and the liberation of what’s left of the southern city of Kherson has forced Russia’s beleaguered, largely conscripted army to dig miles of trenches — all in a desperate attempt to hold the line against the Western-equipped and highly motivated Ukrainian forces.

“This war is rapidly evolving into a World War I kind of trench warfare,” said former NATO commander and retired Gen. Wes Clark. “I think it’s going to be difficult to break through the Russian defenses that are there without significantly more U.S. military assistance.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dreams of a rapid, total victory quickly evaporated in the face of Ukraine’s stalwart resistance, and his fallback plan now is to inflict maximum damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with drone and missile strikes in a bid to break the will of the Ukrainian people and the Western countries backing them.

“It’s part of trying to discourage the West from supporting Ukraine and making people in the West say, ‘Oh, it’s hopeless. It’s a never-ending war,’” said Clark on CNN last month.

The main obstacle to peace is that both sides are locked into mutually exclusive goals, which would require total capitulation from the other side.

Zelensky believes, as do most Ukrainians, that agreeing to any ceasefire or land-for-peace deal would be a fatal mistake, allowing Putin to regroup, rebuild, and attack again in the future, having learned from past mistakes.

Putin has painted himself into a corner, having gambled everything (his standing on the world stage, his popularity at home, his legacy) on his irredentist fantasy that Ukraine is not a real country and must be reunited with Mother Russia.

For him, failure could be fatal not just politically, but literally, and the assessment of most Kremlin watchers is that Putin believes he cannot afford to be seen as backing down.

“He is willing to accept a lot of casualties — up to 300,000, according to what one NATO member is now telling allies,” said Anton Troianovski, the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, in an interview last month. “The way Putin looks at it is that the Soviet Union lost 27 million people in World War II, and he’s convinced that the Russian people are prepared to suffer — more than people in the West.”

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In his historic speech to Congress in December, Zelensky argued that 2023 could be a “turning point” in the war — that is, if he can get the weapons he needs to mount a full-on assault on the Russian troops who are now on their back foot.

“Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender,” he told U.S. lawmakers just days before Congress passed a $1.7 trillion spending bill with $45 billion for Ukraine and NATO allies. “Your support is crucial, not just to stand in the fight but to get to the turning point to win on the battlefield. We have artillery, yes. Thank you. We have it. Is it enough? Honestly, not really.”

So far, just over $20 billion have been spent by the U.S. arming and supporting Ukraine. But it’s not just the dollar amount that matters, but the kind of weaponry that’s supplied.

“My criticism of this administration was before the invasion, we wouldn’t put weapons in, and since the invasion, we slow-walked this process,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the incoming House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, right after the midterm elections gave the Republicans control of the chamber.

“We give them what they need, they win. If we don’t, it’s going to be a long, protracted war,” he said on ABC’s This Week.

Along with longer-range munitions, tanks, and armored vehicles, Ukraine’s biggest need is a more formidable air force, one with loitering attack drones and modern jet fighters, argues retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who was a principal architect of the air campaign for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

“Western combat airpower could fundamentally alter the calculus in this fight,” Deptula wrote in Forbes last summer. “The Russian military is optimized to slug it out on the ground. By fighting from the air, Ukraine can turn that advantage around.”

Ukraine’s fleet of Soviet-era MiGs is slowly shrinking due to heavy use and a shortage of spare parts.

Zelensky has pleaded for combat aircraft from day one, and he dismisses the idea that U.S. warplanes are too advanced for Ukrainian pilots.

“Ukraine never asked the American soldiers to fight on our land instead of us,” the president of Ukraine said in his Dec. 21 speech. “I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves.”

Deptula agrees, noting that “the U.S. has a ready inventory of excess aircraft that can rapidly tilt the balance of power,” given it’s in the process of retiring nearly 100 F-15s and F-16s, along with 21 A-10 ground attack planes.

“Ukrainian pilots with ample fighter experience could quickly adapt to F-15s and F-16s,” he writes. “If the U.S. acts quickly.”

The war has taken a terrible toll on both sides, adding to the urgency to end the conflict in the coming year, if possible.

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At a November event at the Economic Club of New York, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley put the number of Russian military dead and wounded at 100,000 and said Ukrainian casualty figures are likely in the same neighborhood, along with another 40,000 Ukrainian civilians killed and between 10 million and 30 million people forced from their homes.

But the mind-numbing level of suffering and human misery has added another psychological barrier to any compromise peace deal: the “sunk cost fallacy,” the idea that stopping short of total victory would mean the tens of thousands of lives already lost would have been in vain.

Milley cited the example of World War I, when in the first few months, casualties topped 1 million in a war that many in positions of power knew was not winnable.

The debate was between the “cut your losses and negotiate” camp and the “fight on to win” camp.

“The side that said, ‘Fight on to win,’ they’re the ones who won the argument,” said Milley. “So the war goes on for 1915, ‘16, ‘17, ‘18. And that 1 million people killed from August to December turned into 20 million killed by 1918.”

That argument doesn’t quite ring true to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who, like U.S. President Joe Biden, argues the war is not just about Ukraine.

Allies are ready to support Ukraine because they realize that if Putin wins, it will be a tragedy for Ukrainians, but it will also be extremely serious for all of us. It will make NATO allies more vulnerable and the world more dangerous, and therefore, we cannot allow President Putin to win,” Stoltenberg said last month.

“Most wars, and most likely also this war, will end at the negotiating table. But we know that what happens around that table is absolutely dependent on the situation on the battlefield,” Stoltenberg said. “If the aggressor wins, that will not give us a lasting peace. So the paradox is that the more we want a peaceful, negotiated solution ensuring that Ukraine prevails, the more urgent it is that we provide military support for Ukraine to create the conditions for a just, lasting peace.”

A recent assessment by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War predicted that nothing short of major battlefield reverses will force Putin to consider a “meaningful, peaceful resolution.”

“Putin is unlikely to accept any lesser outcome unless Ukraine, with the help of its Western supporters, can inflict additional large-scale defeats on Russian forces and liberate considerably more of its occupied land,” concluded ISW analysts.

That cannot be accomplished quickly, said retired U.S. Central Command leader and former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus.

“It’s very clear that there are months, if not years, of tough fighting ahead before the very crucial calculation is made in the Kremlin, which is the realization that this war is unsustainable for Russia in the same way that Afghanistan was unsustainable for the Soviet Union,” he said in a CNN interview.

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