Preparing for a Longer War
Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine has failed and is now a protracted war of attrition. Russia has adapted to this situation and prepared for a longer war. The legitimization of the Putin system is increasingly built around the war. As long as Ukraine has no security guarantees, a ceasefire is not realistic from either side. Therefore, the focus should be on protecting the territory Ukraine controls and defining together with the Western partners how security can be provided and what victory means.
Since the Kremlin has no interest in a ceasefire agreement on acceptable terms for Ukraine, the West needs to support Ukraine so that time is no longer on Russia’s side. That means closing sanctions gaps, securing long term funding, and bringing Ukraine closer to NATO.
Ukraine winning all territories back next year is unlikely. Therefore, the focus should be on protecting the territory controlled by Kyiv and preparing a new Ukrainian offensive in 2025 through an increase of production of ammunition and weapons by the West in 2024.
Domestic resilience is crucial for Ukraine. EU integration brings the opportunity for fundamental political changes in the country. With the war, the EU has more leverage to demand reforms in areas like fighting corruption, rule of law, and administrative reforms.
|Only security guarantees by Western countries can open the path for a ceasefire agreement and the acceptance of temporary territorial losses. If the West is really serious about an end to the war, it needs to come to an agreement on security guarantees for Ukraine.
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Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine since February 2022, planned as a Blitzkrieg, has failed. It is now a protracted war of attrition. After the Russian offensive in winter 2022/23 and with the Ukrainian counter-offensive winding down, it is becoming obvious that neither Russia nor Ukraine can expect a decisive breakthrough in the medium term without technological innovation on either side. At the same time, the military and civilian losses are enormous. According to latest assessment by US sources and numbers Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned in his annual press conference Russia had lost 315,000-360,000 military personnel, killed and wounded combined, while Ukrainian losses are not known. The United Nations has officially tallied nearly 27,500 civilian casualties, but the number of civilian and military casualties are much higher. Moreover, the second war winter has begun and is expected to be even more difficult for Ukrainian society than last year, with more Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Despite ongoing Western military and economic support for Ukraine and comprehensive sanctions against Russia, the Russian political and economic system is stable and has adapted to the war. At the same time, there are growing voices in Europe and the US demanding more efforts to reach a ceasefire agreement. The increasing role of right-wing populists in European politics as a reaction to an ongoing economic crisis, budget cuts, migration inflows, and the overstretch of European and US politics battling too many crises in different parts of the world, will further increase demands to end the war. Furthermore, key Western leaders like US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are skeptical about the ability to win a war against Russia and fear a nuclear escalation. Ahead of the upcoming European Parliament elections in June 2024 and the US presidential election in November 2024, a changing, less supportive political constellation for Ukraine in the West and a growing societal demand for a ceasefire, especially in the EU, are likely in 2024. The gap between the rhetoric of support for a victory and the real military and financial support for Ukraine by Western governments is only expanding.
At a workshop in September 2023 in Berlin, a group of experts discussed how likely and reasonable a ceasefire agreement would be by the end of 2024. Against this backdrop, this paper discusses not only the current likelihood of a ceasefire, but also the costs of a ceasefire and possible alternatives. The main result of this analysis is that a ceasefire will not happen anytime soon. There is no momentum, as neither conflict party would benefit from one in the foreseeable future. Ukraine needs a stronger position for negotiations with Russia, and Ukrainian society would not accept any concession towards the Russian aggressor at this point. The Russian leadership has used the war to consolidate its power position and its society is under control. Its economy has adapted and can sustain itself at the current level for some years. Stopping the war at this point could lead to conflicts within the regime and could create a shock for the economy. Therefore, all trajectories in Russia lead to a longer war. Russia would only agree to a ceasefire with conditions that are unacceptable for Ukraine. Moscow could even use a ceasefire as a break to restore troops and military equipment, only to attack Ukraine again. Instead of discussing a ceasefire that is removed from the current reality, the West should prepare for a longer war in terms of military production, training for Ukrainian soldiers, and funding the Ukrainian state to keep it functioning and communicating openly with its own society. Preparing for a longer war also means further integration of Ukraine into the EU, especially deeper economic, societal, and institutional integration and security guarantees in the NATO framework in the medium term. Only if the Kremlin realizes that the West is prepared for a long war and is willing to support Ukraine in winning (not only in not losing), might it rethink its current approach.
This report is based on a workshop held with experts from Ukraine, Russia, and Europe in September 2023 at the German Council on Foreign relations in Berlin. The arguments used here are part of a joint discussion, but the paper is the solely responsibility of the authors. We would like to thank all participants in the workshop for their contributions.
Bibliographic dataMeister, Stefan, András Rácz, and Judith Heckenthaler. “Preparing for a Longer War.” December 2023.
DGAP Analysis No. 6, December 20, 2023, 19 pp.