Today marks both Ukraine’s Independence Day and the six-month point in the Russian invasion – six months that have been devastating for Ukraine and its people, in which no clear winner has emerged and during which the whole world has paid a high cost.
State of Play
Since February, the contours of the war have had complex dimensions but clear overall trends. Russia’s original plan for a lightning-strike invasion failed on a spectacular scale. Ukrainian forces proved more resilient than expected and Western allies more supportive. Ukraine gradually began to push Russian forces back, then withstood a Russian counterattack before recently launching, in a limited fashion, their own offensives. This has left Russia weakened, unable to dramatically expand the territory it controls in the short term but embedded in a territory bigger than pre-invasion. Ukraine, in communications terms, is seen as being on top in the war, after repelling the initial invasion. But in practical terms it has lost more of its territory and looks unlikely to be able to take it back anytime soon. Russa’s military campaign is largely written off as a catastrophe, but it now has control of a sizeable portion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
The past six months of conflict have been complex for Ukraine. On one level, the military efforts to repel Russia have been deeply impressive. Kyiv has managed the conflict in communications terms extremely effectively and garnered considerable international support – in both practical ways, through the supply of weapons, and in vocal solidarity – for their efforts to resist the invasion.
But the six-month milestone of the invasion provides a necessary opportunity to reflect on the reality of the situation. As we state above, Ukraine is worse off now than pre-invasion; Russia has control of a sizeable chunk of Ukrainian territory; and for all the forceful rhetoric, it seems unlikely and unrealistic that Ukraine will take back this territory, at least in the foreseeable future.
As the conflict becomes more protracted, the Ukrainian government must enter a new phase of its economic strategy to ensure long-term macroeconomic stability. Short-term crisis management was appropriate to manage immediate prices, but the risk of hyperinflation and a decrease of foreign currency reserves looms. Ukraine is currently experiencing a monthly budget shortfall of $5 billion, meaning that further international support is vital to avoid economic catastrophe.
Ukraine is likely to remain in receipt of considerable materiel support, but this will most likely prevent further loss of territory rather than allow it to retake territory currently in Russian control, at least to any great extent. To garner more foreign support, President Zelensky has framed the invasion as a wider conflict between Russia and Europe. This narrative framework –of a wider struggle between democracy and autocracy– provides a new opportunity for the West to renew its international relevance and strategy to project and protect its values globally.
The broad international consensus is that Russia’s invasion has been a disaster in both planning and in execution. On many levels this is hard to argue with. The initial lightning-strike invasion was an unmitigated disaster. The state of the Russian military has proved to be vastly inferior not only to international expectations but also the Kremlin’s. After the initial ground invasion, Ukraine’s military has been able to push Russian forces back to a considerable degree, to the point where Kyiv has been largely untroubled for a number of months.
The invasion has also had severe consequences for Russia in terms of international relations. Sweden and Finland look set to join NATO. The alliance is more relevant than at any time for a decade. The Western alliance is more united. And the international community has put in place an unprecedented sanctions regime against Russia that is having profound impact on the country now, with worse to follow.
Despite all of this, though, we should again be clear-eyed on the state of the conflict. Russia remains a military superpower. It now controls a bigger and more significant portion of Ukraine’s territory than in February. There is no immediate prospect of it losing that territory, and it is under no pressure, at the moment, to negotiate to end its direct presence in Ukraine. The status quo is not a good outcome for Russia, nowhere near it, but the prospect of enduring control of Crimea with a corridor to eastern Ukraine is far from a disaster.
The international context of the war is also complex and requires deeper examination. One could argue that much of the world has rallied to Ukraine’s defence, has united behind that cause and has been effective in doing so. To an extent this is true. But, again, a sense of realism is needed. Russia is in control of a portion of Ukraine it would have been very happy with in recent years. It is under no immediate pressure to negotiate an end to the war. Economic sanctions have bitten the country’s economy but as yet not crippled it. And Russia, which is by no means winning the war but is arguably in the better position, retains alliances around the world that are important to Moscow and costly to the West. Europe faces a difficult winter due to a reliance on Russian natural gas, which threatens Western resolve. While Russia would be harmed by removing European gas exports, its diversification of exports towards China may help to soften the blow and bolster its geopolitical position. Ultimately, in our judgement, the West should take great solace from how united it has been over Ukraine, but it is important that this is maintained throughout a winter plagued by a potential energy crisis. The EU, NATO and the transatlantic alliance have all been given new relevance. But this strategic opportunity for a revitalised and refocused West is far from being realised. Russia is weakened to some degree, the West is strengthened, again to a degree, but this is not set in stone.
Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Gennady Gatilov, recently said it was impossible to estimate how long the war would last. Based on present trends this is true. The most realistic outcome, on current trajectories, is a frozen conflict with some dispute over pockets of territory but with consolidated Russian control over a broader area of the Donbas. This is a costly position for Ukraine to end up in, costly too for Russia, having to administer a bigger area of Ukraine than pre-invasion with a less buoyant economy, and costly too for the international community, which continues to pay the price for the war each day.