Thousands of troops have died, billions of dollars in military hardware wasted and entire cities subjected to relentless bombardment – and more than four months on, Russia’s fierce military campaign in Ukraine continues unabated.
Forecasts on when the war will end differ widely. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has warned it could last for years, while Western intelligence agencies have reportedly said Russia’s combat capabilities could be depleted in the coming months.
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After shifting its focus to Ukraine’s east, Russia has captured nearly all of the Luhansk province and is likely to continue its efforts until it takes the rest of the Donetsk province – together, these two areas make up the Donbas region. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there was “no use in setting an end date” to what Russia calls “special military operation in Ukraine”, adding that its objective to “liberate” Donbas had not changed.
“After failing to enter Kyiv and the strategic redeployment of the Russian forces and putting the centre of gravity to eastern Ukraine, the Russians generals decided to go slowly but firmly,” Konstantinos Loukopoulos, a former Greek and NATO lieutenant-general, told Al Jazeera.
Last week, Ukraine ordered its forces to withdraw from the key city of Severodonetsk, which had been the target of an intense Russian offensive for weeks. While its forces are pushing to also seize the nearby city of Lysychansk, Russia on Thursday announced the withdrawal of its troops from the strategically important Snake Island. Moscow called it a “gesture of goodwill” aimed at showing it backed efforts to restart food exports from Ukrainian ports, but Kyiv hailed it as a victory, saying it had forced the Russians to retreat.
So as the war grinds on, what is the most likely scenario about how long it will last?
“Α war comes to an end either when one side manages to impose its will on the other first on the field and then at the negotiating table, or when both sides want a compromise rather than fighting as the cost constantly outweighs any concessions for to find the so-called ‘common ground’,” Loukopoulos said.
“[Perhaps] the latter is not very far.”
Nonetheless, an immediate end seems inconceivable, Loukopoulos said.
“I am fully convinced that the end of the war is not imminent,” he added, pointing to “one crucial factor”” Russia, he said, has “the political-strategic and operational-tactical initiative, while Ukraine and the Western alliance react”.
The current situation also suggests a prolonged fight, given the significant loss of territory Ukraine has suffered in recent weeks in the east – half of the Donetsk region and almost all of the Luhansk region – alongside Russia’s early gains in the south. Some analysts say Kyiv would lack leverage if it entered peace negotiations now, with the result likely being “peace” as dictated exclusively by Moscow.
“Russia probably believes that it has the advantage for the time being and is advancing in the Donbas, albeit slowly,” Jamie Shea, a professor of strategy and security at the University of Exeter, told Al Jazeera.
Moreover, such a scenario would not be politically justifiable for Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy. That would make him the president who not only lost the war but also large parts of his country.
“Ukraine cannot afford to stop now because it would lose one-fifth of its territory to Russia, including vital Black Sea trading ports, the industrial and mining area of the Donbas, and important tracts of agricultural land. This would make a future Ukrainian state less functional and prosperous,” said Shea, who is also a former deputy assistant secretary-general for emerging security challenges at NATO.
In addition, the Ukrainian government anticipates that it will continue to receive Western military support – and ideally, at even greater volume than now.
“The Ukrainians are also hoping that new deliveries of US and Western heavy weapons, particularly long-range artillery, will help them to turn the tide against the Russian army and regain some territory,” Shea said.
“For the time being, political support for Ukraine remains strong in the US and Europe, and the EU can hardly abandon a country to which it has just granted EU candidate status,” Shea said.
However, the continuous push for more weapons is countered by concerns in some Western circles of being drawn into a war with Russia. As some experts have suggested, Putin has the upper hand in being able to escalate the war. In fact, the longer the fighting lasts, the more likely it is that Western support will soften, according to Loukopoulos.
“The united Western alliance which supports Ukraine in this war is getting less united and cohesive all the time. They change the narrative, and the discussion on the need for a ceasefire and negotiations has started,” he said.
For Shea, there are two likely scenarios going forward.
“Either Ukraine keeps fighting with sustained Western support and eventually forces Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine entirely, with the possible exception of Crimea,” he said, referring to the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. He noted, however that this would pre-suppose a Russian military collapse and a change in the country’s leadership – something that could take “a long time to achieve and would necessitate considerably greater military capabilities” than Ukraine currently possesses.
Or, Shea added, both sides reach a stalemate “where they dig in behind heavily fortified lines that remain fixed for years with a low-intensity conflict across [a] no man’s land”.
He continued: “Russia would proceed with the ‘russification’ of the territories it occupies and may try to incorporate some of them into Russia. The long and fruitless negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow and with international mediators that we are witnessed in the past, over things like ceasefires, troop and weapons withdrawals and defining a new status for the occupied territories, would be resumed.”
It would not be the first time Russia has employed such a strategy of attrition, turning an active conflict into a frozen one for lack of a better solution. In Syria, where it has been propping up President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has used a cycle of offensives followed by ceasefires to slowly split and crush the opposition.
Accordingly, the second scenario is the more probable, according to Shea.
“Ukraine would need a major buildup of its forces to take back the occupied territories. Russia knows it cannot conquer all of Ukraine, so it will probably focus on maintaining control of the Donbas and turning the Ukraine war back into a frozen conflict.”
For Loukopoulos, a war that would last for year is less likely. “Neither Ukraine and the West nor Moscow could stand so long,” he said.
Even though the end of the war is not yet in sight, he says he can envision a scenario for which a precedent exists.
“An armistice like in Korea in 1953 with a line and demilitarised zone it is something that some capitals have as a temporary end state,” Loukopoulos said.