In a few weeks, on 22 February, the Russia-Ukraine war will reach its first anniversary. It is still difficult to predict the consequences of this war, because there is no prospect of a military win for either side in the light of their declared goals.
Russia wants primarily to tighten its control over the four regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, but its parallel moves on the ground indicate that it is also preparing for other possible scenarios.
Most notable for now is unification with Belarus, or at least the control of a broad regional platform to put pressure on Kyiv. Russia may also employ Belarusian forces in the conflict.
Russian reports indicate that Minsk has asked Moscow to restore nuclear capabilities to Belarus, and last week Russia conducted manoeuvres to test the defences of its capital Moscow in preparation for a worst case scenario.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is still adamant about its need to acquire German-made Leopard 2 tanks to continue the conflict. After a meeting at the US Ramstein airbase in Germany failed to approve the supply of these tanks, Ukraine said it would not abandon this strategic demand.
Poland is also putting pressure on Germany to supply the tanks and has already begun training Ukrainian fighters in using the Leopard 2.
However, it seems likely that Germany will dig its heels in under the pretext that delivering these strategic tanks to Kyiv would mean German involvement in the war. Germany is a member of NATO and it cannot become involved without involving the wider alliance. It cannot supply the tanks, it says, in order to avoid provoking Russia.
Germany also understands that sacrificing the tanks would impact its own defence capabilities, as it develops these according to plans set out by Chancellor Olaf Scholz over the coming decade.
Ukraine’s request of 300 tanks, around ten military battalions, is also large. How will the tanks be used and maintained? The head of the German tank manufacturing company Rheinmetall indicated that it would be difficult to deliver new tanks to the German army before one year and that maintenance requires a separate contract with the government.
Ukraine has already received a substantial amount of weapons from the West. In addition to massive support from the US, including Bradley armoured vehicles, Stryker personnel carriers, and MRAP and Humvee vehicles, Britain has also provided extensive support with the provision of Challenger 2 tanks, Apache aircraft, and other weapons.
A surprise has come from Bulgaria, whose President Rumen Radev has said that continuing to provide Western military support to Ukraine will mean that the war will continue without an end in view and perhaps even evolve into a world war.
Overall, the most notable shift resulting from Ukraine’s acquisition of Western arms has been that Ukraine is gradually transforming into a Western military power, as the Soviet-made weapons that were supplied to Ukraine in the past are replaced.
It is no longer possible to acquire more of them or maintain them, and Moscow says that Ukraine’s armament by the West is exacerbating the crisis, an allegation made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a recent visit to South Africa.
Meanwhile, developments on the ground for both Russia and Ukraine have been disorienting.
Russia has not yet emerged from the Battle of Bakhmut, and reports by the US information service the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) indicate inconsistencies in the management of the battle, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is once again relying on regular forces and giving commanders Valery Gerasimov and Sergei Surovkin another chance to win.
Other analysis indicates that the Russian army is concerned about competition from the Russian paramilitary company the Wagner Group, which has been boasting of its role in the Battle of Soledar, a key win before Bakhmut.
The Wagner Group cannot manage battles over large areas because that would require the leadership of a greater military network than it can deploy.
Meanwhile, it is facing its own challenges since the US listed it as a transnational criminal organisation on 20 January, which means Washington will not go after it in Ukraine alone.
Before the listing, and during a UN Security Council meeting on 11 January, the US accused the Kremlin of using the Wagner Group as a tool to intervene in the internal affairs of the African countries and “increasing the likelihood that violent extremism will grow” in the Sahel region, which is facing increasing attacks and deteriorating security.
A few days ago, a US official advised Ukrainian fighters not to waste their energy and military capabilities in Bakhmut, but rather to redeploy to other hotspots. This could be translated politically as a belief that Russia may win the battle of Donbas, though at a great cost, and that it will be possible to negotiate the borders of the post-Bakhmut frontline.
On Friday, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said the war was very difficult and that the frontline was currently “static” with the exception of the fighting around Bakhmut.
However, Ukrainian forces are not redeploying in preparation for Russia’s expansion in Kherson to the south. According to US reports, Russian forces are conducting a logistical operation in Kherson to rebuild bridges.
But it is still unclear where Moscow will go next. It may head northeast and return to Kharkiv, especially since winning in Bakhmut would mean retaking the railways and the international highway, giving Moscow better opportunities for supplies and movement.
At the same time, Russia’s moves with Belarus may lead to another scenario: moving towards a siege of Kyiv. A third scenario could be for Russia to head towards Kherson to secure the Crimea flank.
Overall, Russia needs to achieve victory in the first year of the war regardless of the exorbitant cost it has incurred, and it will continue its urban or scorched-earth warfare in Ukraine to achieve this goal.
On the other hand, Ukraine is adamant about its resistance and its standing up to Russia, inflicting more losses on it to sabotage any victory that Moscow may claim in the war. Between the two sides, Europe continues to mobilise and to supply the weapons to Ukraine that are allowing the war to continue.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.