Tuesday marked the 300th day of the Ukraine war, with as much uncertainty remaining over the course of the conflict as there was during most of 2022.
While there remain many key unknowns, there are also fundamentals that are most likely to continue to hold true during much of the first quarter of 2023, before which time the war is likely to be conducted at a subdued level owing to the freezing weather on the battlefield. These forces will shape the landscape in the coming weeks prior to what may be a full resumption of battlefield hostilities in the spring.
One fundamental is that it seems neither side will win a decisive victory imminently. Historically, wars have tended to end in one of two ways: When one side imposes its will on the other on the battlefield, then at the negotiating table; or when both sides embrace a compromise they deem preferable to fighting. Unless something big changes early in 2023, neither of these outcomes is likely in Ukraine for now, especially as both sides are prepared to expend massive resources in the conflict.
The US alone has already committed well over $50 billion to Ukraine, which is more than the entire annual Australian defense budget. Meanwhile, Western intelligence estimates that more than 100,000 Russian soldiers have already either died or been injured on the battlefield.
What is largely unknown in the West is what the impact of these losses is in terms of the unpopularity of the conflict in Russia. One intriguing signal came last month from Meduza, a website reporting Russian news from Latvia, which says it obtained a confidential opinion survey conducted by the Federal Protection Service, the organization in charge of guarding the Kremlin and providing security to top government officials. The survey, apparently commissioned by the Kremlin, found that 55 percent of respondents backed peace talks with Ukraine, while only 25 percent wanted the war to go on. Therefore, unless Russia achieves major battlefield successes early in the new year, maintaining even tacit approval of the war among the population may be increasingly difficult for the Kremlin.
Nonetheless, the most likely scenario in the coming weeks is probably a continued war of attrition. Indeed, it is possible that the conflict will last well into 2023 and potentially beyond, barring significant changes.
A second fundamental is that, even if the war continues at a subdued level during the cold winter months, the level and range of risks remain exceptionally high and this is why the outcome remains so unpredictable. In part, this is because President Vladimir Putin’s exit strategy remains unclear and he may yet miscalculate, including the possibility of chemical or nuclear weapons being used by pro-Russian forces if Ukraine continues to chalk up conventional battlefield wins.
Moreover, it is also important to highlight that the announced strategy of the Western alliance led by the US is to try to inflict a defeat on Russia. In the history of NATO in the post-Second World War era, this is a very important difference from before and raises the stakes if Western resolve is maintained.
On the latter issue, while there will probably be further intra-Western tensions over the strategy toward Russia in 2023, the most likely scenario is that the alliance will stick together over the difficult winter to come. In part, this is because of US leadership, which will corral the partners together, including the disparate EU27.
US President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party in November defied US pollsters to retain control of the Senate and minimize losses in the House of Representatives. This means that Biden, while far from sure of reelection himself in 2024, currently has more political capital than expected.
Pessimistic as this central scenario of a continued war of attrition may seem, with the human cost — including for millions of refugees — largest of all, it is not the worst-case outcome. That future is most likely to be realized if the conflict escalates beyond Ukraine to involve NATO countries, as remains a significant possibility.
While this still seems highly unlikely to many, it cannot be dismissed, such is the volatility of the situation. Although NATO is doing what it can to support Ukraine without getting itself entangled in a direct military confrontation with Russia, a miscalculation by one or both sides is a real concern.
This could be a genuine catastrophe for many and the use of nuclear or chemical weapons could not be ruled out. Moreover, not only would the regime of sanctions and counter-sanctions grow, but there would also be a wider economic collapse, expediting the impulse toward deglobalization.
- Andrew Hammond