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"Is the war in Ukraine doomed to become chronic?

December 27, 2022

Published in

The Conversation

Salvador Sánchez Tapia

Professor of International Office of the University of Navarra

"It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future," said Yogi Berra, an American baseball player with the New York Yankees. A touch of humor to highlight the inherent difficulty of any forecasting exercise, which is heightened in an international scenario such as the current one, full of variables.

Among the issues worthy of attention on the international scene in 2023, the war in Ukraine is in the spotlight. A year into the conflict, many questions remain unanswered: Will a frozen conflict undermine Western bloc support for Ukraine? Is there room to negotiate a ceasefire? What role will China play?

Having just begun the northern winter, the tactical status is at a standstill, with a stabilized front in which no significant changes have been recorded since the Ukrainian offensive in the Kherson and Kharkov sectors was eventually contained by Russian forces.

Russia has resumed a limited-range offensive effort in the Donbas sector and intensified its deep-fire actions with the use of a variety of means including drones, conventional artillery or theater missiles.

The symbolic value of Patriot missiles 

Meanwhile, Ukraine is preparing to receive from the United States a first battery of Patriot missiles which, without being the panacea that will decide the war in its favor, has a high symbolic value, in addition to reinforcing Ukraine's air defense capability.

The rigors of winter will bring, foreseeably, a limitation to the capacity of maneuver of the contenders and an increase in the actions of fire. Both sides will take the opportunity to reorganize, improve their positions, rearm and plan their next steps.

It is difficult to predict who this relative pause in operational tempo will favor; it can be ventured that, all things being equal and under current circumstances, the West's imposing economic and industrial base may tip the balance in favor of Ukraine, against an increasingly pressured and isolated Russia.

On the other hand, Russia could be trying to prolong the conflict in order to drive a wedge between Ukraine and a Western bloc that supports it, but in which some fissures appear, as has been proven during the negotiations to agree a ceiling on the price of Russian gas, and which could give in to fatigue, given the negative impact that the war is having on their economies. Perhaps Putin would take advantage of the winter to prepare a new offensive on Kiev that would allow him to proclaim Russian victory in the war, although this option seems unlikely right now.

A negotiated exit?

An optimistic view points to an alignment towards a negotiated solution or, at the very least, towards a stable cease-fire. The recovery of the initiative on the battlefield, albeit timid, is helping Russia to recover from the discredit of having had to give ground in the face of the Ukrainian arms push. Ukraine does not seem to be able to penetrate beyond the lines reached in November. Europe is suffering the economic consequences of the war; even President Biden is privately urging Zelenski to show signs of being willing to negotiate directly with Putin. All this could serve to bring the parties closer to a negotiating table, perhaps over the winter.

A second and related focus for 2023 centers on the Indo-Pacific. It cannot be said that the war fully suits Beijing's interests, but it can be argued that China is the power that benefits most from the conflict and economic sanctions: it makes Russia more politically and economically dependent on it. It wears down the West militarily and economically, especially Europe; it allows China to gain first-hand information about Western conventional military capabilities; and it keeps NATO-and thus the United States-pending and tied to the conflict.

In these conditions, during 2023 it would be advisable not to lose sight of status in the South China Sea and, above all, in the Taiwan Strait and on the island of the same name, where we can expect a rise in tension with a China that sees the day when Taipei will be brought back under the control of the People's Republic as drawing ever closer.

The need for coordinated international action

The Ukrainian war is approaching its first anniversary and its outcome remains unclear. The possibility of the conflict becoming chronic and remaining alive, more or less entrenched for some years, is real and both sides are preparing for it. The possibility of a negotiated solution is timidly emerging. For it to become a reality, a coordinated international action is needed to exert its influence on the contenders, to propose a solution acceptable to both sides and not to legitimize a resource war of conquest that was thought to have been overcome. That is the magnitude of the challenge posed to the international community.