When will the Ukrainian war end?

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 4 Oct 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said sets out the terms of the issue


No question is more pressing today, not just for analysts and observers but also for people around the world, than the one in the title. The reasons are obvious. After the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone had begun to look forward to a period of recovery and economic growth. World markets would revive and the newly bustling activities of trade and commerce would bring relief and joy. Sadly, that was not to be. Even as the pandemic receded, another blight emerged: a vicious war involving world powers and bristling with nuclear weapons. 

Initially, the Ukrainian question looked like nothing more than a particularly nasty spat between Russia and NATO in which Russian amassed troops at Ukrainian borders as a means to pressure NATO into conceding that it must not put its own forces in a country right so close to Russia. Most observers, including myself, did not believe that Russia would act on the threat, not even when US intelligence sources said they were certain Russia planned to invade. Indeed, on 24 February, Russian forces launched a three-pronged offensive across the border. Events since then have proven expectations, the first of which is that countries bent on war may know how to start one but never how to end one until, perhaps, they reach a certain threshold of fatigue. 

Predictions of victory arise when the balance of power is read in such a way as to conclude, firstly, that victory is possible and, secondly, that it will happen soon, after which things will go back to normal. In every war since World War II, from the Korean and Vietnamese wars to the Russian and American wars in Afghanistan, and the American invasion of Iraq, predictions of victory were wrong and the protraction of hostilities led to unforgivable sins. The current war in Ukraine is no exception. The Russian leadership knew when to start it – they even factored in many of the economic measures the West would take in response – but then their calculations began to show flaws with regard to the strength of Ukrainian resolve, the efficacy of Western arms, the stamina of their own forces and the state of supply lines over long distances. 

The war has already gone through many stages in its relatively short lifetime. At first, the main theatre was the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. After Kyiv repelled the Russian siege, that theatre shifted to the Ukrainian east and south. Recently, the war entered a new phase with the Ukrainian counteroffensive liberating towns and strategic sites and compelling Russia to declare a general mobilisation to recruit 300,000 more troops and conduct annexation referendums in parts of the Donbas. The results – more than 98 per cent in favour – have been true to the old Soviet formula of referendums. With annexation, Russia turns its invasion of another country into a battle to liberate Russian territory, ostensibly sanctioning the use of nuclear arms. 

Against this backdrop of military escalation, no one can offer a frank answer to the question of when the war will end. Bear in mind that two kinds of escalation are at work here. The first is the Russian one, described above which, with the mobilisation of new troops, transforms the so called special military operation into an all-out war between two countries. The second is the Ukrainian escalation of its war aims from the liberation of the Donbas region, which had been virtually occupied before the invasion of 24 February, to the Russian withdrawal from the Crimea and more punitive sanctions against Moscow. In his address to the UN General Assembly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “I rule out that the settlement can happen on a different basis than the Ukrainian peace formula.”

What we have here is a locked in conflict syndrome. Russia can not end it while it is mustering troops which have yet to be sent to a front where Ukraine is still basking in the triumph of its counteroffensive. Ukraine can not end it with its troops still scoring advances at the theatre of operations, its General Assembly members giving a standing ovation to Zelensky and the winds in its sails as the world grows angrier at the war Russia started and Putin is cast as one of history’s great pariahs. Under such circumstances, another round seems necessary to both sides. The Russians, in particular, want to prove that the balance of power on the ground is still in their favour.

In normal times, Russia might have heeded the advice of friends such as China whose foreign minister said that “the regional sovereignty and integrity of all nations must be respected,” and India whose foreign minister said that the actions of the Russian forces were undertaken in broad daylight and “should not go unpunished.” But these are not normal times. Conflict dynamics reign, so Russia thinks it has to prove them wrong. 

Modern wars are not limited to the foreign fronts where a threat leads to hostilities. After some time, they can extend to domestic fronts where support for political leadership at the height of a national plight might decline as the costs of military operations mount. America’s war in Vietnam, Russia’s war in Afghanistan, America’s wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq eventually engendered conflicts of a different sort in American or Russian societies, among the political elites and even the upper echelons of power. The first war in Afghanistan has been cited as one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Today, Western states – the US above all – are gripped by division as a consequence of the human, material and economic cost of war. European contributions to the war in Ukraine have opened the doors to the European far right to come to power – in fascist strains, no less. With their last elections, Italy and Sweden joined Bulgaria and Hungary as supporters of the view that the Ukrainian war has become too costly not just for the present but for their future too. The drain on European resources from taking in Ukrainian refugees and from ensuring ongoing military and economic support for Ukraine has rendered the Ukrainian resolve to keep fighting a heavy burden. The consequences are even felt across the Atlantic, in the US, where the midterm Congressional election campaigns are heating up and Republican support for filling the Ukrainian war chest is declining. 

These conflict dynamics have also made it clear that wars totally paralyse mechanisms for resolving disputes and promoting stability in the world. No sooner do military hostilities begin than the belligerents entrench themselves in hardline positions and, caught in the frenzy of war, they await the results of round after round.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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