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After a year of war in Ukraine, all signs point to more misery with no end in sight

  • By Scott Neuman/NPR

Nearly a year since Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, there are no real signs of a way out of the conflict. Neither side appears primed for an outright military victory, and progress at the negotiating table seems just as unlikely.

Neither side has released figures lately, but analysts estimate that about 200,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the war so far. By comparison, Ukraine has seen some 100,000 killed or wounded in action, and 30,000 civilian deaths.

Meanwhile, neither Russian leader Vladimir Putin nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shows any signs of backing down and abandoning one of the largest military conflicts since the end of World War II. For the civilians caught in the crossfire, that means the bloodshed and suffering brought on by the war has no discernible end.

“Animosity between Russia and Ukraine could sustain this conflict for a long time,” says Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp.

Within days of its initial assault one year ago this Friday, Russia’s apparent strategy of a swift capture of Kyiv and toppling of Zelenskyy’s government came face to face with an inconvenient reality: Ukrainian resistance was much stronger than anticipated, thanks in part to years of Western training and arms. Moscow’s forces were unequal to the task. A 40-mile-long stalled Russian convoy along a main highway leading into the capital became symbolic of the Kremlin’s military failure.

Russia then shifted its offensive to the south, where its forces captured the city of Mariupol after a devastating siege in an effort to secure a corridor along the Black Sea coast linking the Crimean peninsula and the Donbas region, areas Moscow invaded and annexed in 2014.

By late summer and into the fall, however, Ukrainian forces had struck back in a dramatic counteroffensive, routing Russian forces from parts of the south and east and liberating the key city of Kherson.

Since then, neither side has been able to make substantive advances. Russia has kept up pressure by using missiles and drones to target Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure. It has also engaged in a months-long campaign to capture the eastern city of Bakhmut, but that has made little difference on the tactical map. Last week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that an anticipated Russian spring offensive had already begun. Ukraine is also expected to mount a counteroffensive in the coming weeks.

A negotiated settlement is probably off the table

Analysts broadly agree that a diplomatic deal to end the conflict looks like a non-starter. Putin, already chagrined by his military’s poor performance in what he’s billed as a “special military operation,” cannot afford to be seen as backing out of a fight that he started and by his own estimates should have been able to easily win.

For Zelenskyy, the stakes are at least as high. A survey of Ukrainians in September showed they are steadfast in rejecting territorial concessions to Russia. “Any sort of cease-fire without Russian military defeat basically means regrouping,” says Mikhail Alexseev, a political science professor at San Diego State University whose research is currently focused on the war in Ukraine. That would result in “further attacks down the line,” he says.

Alexseev says Kyiv views any settlement that includes territorial concessions to Moscow as “an existential threat.”

“It’s difficult for Ukrainians to adopt a position that would sacrifice the territorial integrity of the country,” says Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard University professor of Ukrainian history.

Neither can Putin politically afford to sign a negotiated deal if it means giving up any territory, according to Vladislav Zubok, a history professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“Putin staked his whole political career on the annexation of Crimea” and isn’t about to let it go easily, Zubok says.

A total military victory seems unlikely for either side

A military solution looks just as unlikely, despite seemingly spectacular gains by Ukraine on the battlefield resulting in heavy losses of Russian soldiers and armor.

Kyiv may be feeling confident about a successful counteroffensive that retook large swaths of territory — a stunning blitz to win back the cities of Kharkiv and Kherson. However, there are no easy victories on the horizon for either side, Charap says.

“I don’t think [Ukraine has] the ability to completely eliminate the Russian military’s capacity to pose a threat to their country,” he says.

Zelenskyy has publicly said that his country’s forces will retake Crimea, a move the Ukrainian leadership believes would precipitate a coup against Putin and ultimately secure Ukraine’s borders. Most analysts agree.

They believe that “not only Putin would go down, but some kind of second collapse would happen similar to the Soviet collapse” in 1991, Zubok says. “I’d say it’s a hell of a game. A very, very dangerous game.”

As Russia’s conventional military has lost credibility, Putin has hinted at the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, a move that President Biden has said would be a “serious mistake.”

But while the nightmarish threat is real, Harvard’s Plokhy doesn’t think Putin would ever follow through, given the likelihood of a full military response from the West.

“Putin is not suicidal. The war is there to preserve his position in power,” he says.

Where does that leave things?

Russia’s heavy losses of military equipment and ammunition have been widely reported, and the Kremlin has been forced to turn to North Korea for rockets and artillery and to Iran for drones.

“Russia is significantly diminished,” says Plokhy, the author of several books, including The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History, due for release in May.

However, the idea that Russia is simply running out of what it needs to wage war is mostly “wishful thinking,” according to Alexseev. “In Russia, defense factories are working in three or four shifts.”

Despite Western sanctions choking off Russian supplies of microchips needed in high-tech weapons, the Kremlin’s forces still pack a powerful punch, he says.

“Even if Russia lacks more advanced parts, it still has tremendous supplies of low-grade — and still very lethal — weaponry,” he says.

Alexseev says it’s important to note that “Russia is not just staying put.”

“They have adjusted their strategy [and] learned from their defeats,” he says, and now Russia has a fresh infusion of some 300,000 troops after a major mobilization in the fall.

Meanwhile, the flow of sophisticated weapons from the U.S. and other NATO allies that has until now kept Ukraine in the fight could be running low. There are already signs that Western arsenals are straining under the demands of the Ukrainian battlefield. Zelenskyy’s army is quickly using up inventories of artillery shells, anti-tank weapons such as the Javelin and NLAW, and surface-to-air missiles needed to shoot down Russian planes and missiles, says Jack Watling, a senior researcher for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank.

“They are burning through ammunition very quickly, faster than we’re manufacturing it,” Watling recently told NPR. During an address at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany on Friday, Zelenskyy expressed the possibility of “fatigue” among his Western military aid donors.

So far, though, morale has been high among Ukrainian forces — defense of their homeland is a strong motivator, Plokhy says.

Meanwhile in Russia, Putin has “complete control over the media,” he says. “He can turn anything he wants into a victory.”

Still, there are signs of growing discontent inside Russia. The Levada-Center, a Russian nongovernmental opinion pollster, conducted a survey in November. It showed a slight increase in support for Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, but at the same time a majority of those surveyed (53%) said it was time to start negotiations.

If Ukraine mounts a serious threat to Crimea, however, it could harden the resolve of Russians, according to Charap of the Rand Corp. A fight over Crimea would likely be a bitter one, he says, adding that Ukraine’s ability to capture it “is highly unlikely.”

Instead, an outcome that would satisfy no one seems the most likely. SDSU’s Alexseev calls it Mariupol 2.o, after the slow, devastating siege of that city in the early months of the war. “But on the scale of the entire Ukraine,” he says.

“It may take not even months, but years for Russia to grind down Ukraine,” he says.

Charap agrees that the conflict could drag out indefinitely. “There’s a scenario whereby the [war’s] … defining feature is that it does not come to an end in a conceivable short-term time frame,” he says. “A conflict that goes on for years and years.”

“The West’s ability and willingness to sustain Ukraine’s economy and military are up against Russia’s capacity, willingness and ability to continue to sustain its operation,” he says. “It’s very difficult to predict how long that will last.”

NPR’s Frank Langfitt in Brussels contributed to this report.

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