Espreso. Global

The prospect of freezing the war?

4 March, 2024 Monday

In my analysis of the scenarios for 2024-2025, I observed that the inertial scenario—essentially, the current trajectory—is the worst-case scenario for Ukraine. This scenario entails a war of attrition accompanied by the erosion of Western support, leading, consequently, to a significant diminution of Ukraine's capacity to resist

However, I did not identify this inertial scenario as the most probable outcome, which is a departure from the norm since the inertial scenario usually stands as the most likely. The deviation in this case arises because there are significant forces at work aiming to disrupt the current trajectory and shift towards a more favorable scenario. This is exactly what we have now.

I identified the second scenario, the freezing of the conflict, as the most likely one, a prospect that seemed entirely implausible last year. This is because both Ukrainian society and Putin, who opted for the first scenario of a war of attrition, were opposed to the idea of freezing the war.

Three months on, and the scent of the second scenario—the freezing of the conflict—starts to permeate the atmosphere. It remains an unpalatable option for both Ukrainian society and the Russian leadership. Yet, it is something America and Europe are increasingly finding necessary. The European industry requires it to bolster its defense mechanisms. European leaders see it as essential for preparing their societies for impending changes. For Biden, it's pivotal to approach the polls with the image of a peacemaker. Trump, on the other hand, sees it as an opportunity to fault Biden for his shortcomings and to bridge the divide created by internal party conflicts. For all Ukrainian politicians, this scenario presents a chance to conduct elections and secure victories, with each harboring hopes of winning.

Yet, even the two principal opponents of this scenario cannot claim to have an unwavering stance. Broadly speaking, Ukrainian society has not reconciled itself with the absolute necessity for mobilization. Politicians are procrastinating over passing the law, and there's a noticeable absence of public demand to expedite the process. The people serving on the front lines are neither immortal nor invulnerable, yet, surprisingly, even the voices of their millions of relatives seem to fade into the background, drowned out by television broadcasts.

Similarly, Putin, while continuing his aggressive rhetoric, sends rather mixed signals. We do not know what is disguised and what is real, because we do not know the real state of the Russian economy. We don't know whether the Kremlin believes that time is playing against them or against us. We are not even sure who time is playing for.

China is behind all this. Despite having a strategy that positions it to benefit from either the continuation or cessation of the war, it's not clear if China views the advantages of a truce as outweighing other outcomes. It is quite plausible that it does, given that China faces economic challenges which the ongoing war only exacerbates.

Let me remind you that the scenario of freezing the war envisages a second phase of aggression in 3-5-7 years after Russia has restored its capabilities and learned from the mistakes of the first phase. This means that the destructive impact of the second phase may be greater. To this end, Russia and Ukraine must intensively prepare for this phase - Ukraine with the help of the West, Russia with the help of China.

However, the success of Ukraine's preparations hinges significantly on the electoral outcomes: should modernizers secure a victory, it would likely lead to the accelerated modernization of both the military and state institutions, potentially averting a second phase of the war. Conversely, if populists come to power, it could result in inadequate preparations and jeopardize Ukrainian statehood, aligning with Putin's strategic objective.

So, it is very likely that in the near future we will be urged from different sides to freeze, appease, ceasefire, etc.

This means that Ukrainian society urgently needs an open and honest dialog on three key issues:

1. Is a ceasefire acceptable when, on one hand, Ukraine faces a shortage of weapons, a slowdown in mobilization, and there is an opportunity for holding elections, while on the other hand, Russia remains poised to breach the truce at any moment? Additionally, there's the risk of people with intentions to disarm Ukraine and Europe gaining power in the United States. In essence, the question is: does time favor us or our enemies?

2. If the answer to the first question is yes, then what are the red lines that cannot be crossed under any circumstances? Obviously, the list of red lines includes the inadmissibility of

  • any "demilitarization" because it is an invitation to continue aggression
  • giving up European and Euro-Atlantic integration, as this would mean that 10 years have passed in vain
  • recognizing the change in the political status of the occupied territories, as this is a violation of the Constitution.

Simultaneously, certain concessions will be necessary, and the delineation of societal red lines requires thorough and high-quality discussions.

3. If the answer to the first question is negative, as a society, what steps should we take to ensure that the refusal to negotiate and the persistence of the war do not result in the loss of lives and eventual defeat, but instead propel us towards victory?

And this public dialog should begin with an exploration of the definitions of victory and defeat. This isn't a binary scenario but rather a spectrum encompassing partial victories and defeats, as well as instances of neither. What do the words we use every day mean? Do all segments of society understand them in the same way? Where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable?

This is what we need to talk about in the near future.


About the author. Valeriy Pekar, lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

The editors do not always share the opinions expressed by the blog authors.

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