The Unwinnable War In Ukraine – OpEd


The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 added another chapter to the annals of war history as one of the most brutal conflicts in the post-World War II era. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, along with the new membership arrangements of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the frontlines were drawn closer to Russia, making them vulnerable as a regional power. Russia considered NATO’s eastward expansion to threaten its dominance in the region.

Against this backdrop, Russia developed a playbook that included diplomatic, political, and military actions to maintain Russian influence and dominance in Eastern Europe and prevent further expansion. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia utilized its diplomatic and political leverage to contain expansion towards its borders. However, these efforts proved futile as many Eastern European and Baltic states joined NATO, disregarding warnings of potential consequences. Consequently, Russia was determined to fully implement its playbook, including untested military action, such as a full-scale invasion of another country, to prevent further expansion towards its borders. The Russian military buildup was noticeable many months before the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian invasion was predictable, given the security developments in Eastern Europe. However, as events unfolded in the region, it became evident that neither Ukraine nor NATO were prepared to handle the situation effectively. To make matters worse, the international community failed to recognize the severity of the deteriorating security situation or to address simmering security concerns through diplomacy to prevent an imminent catastrophe.

 At the beginning of 2022, the Ukrainian military was unprepared and under-equipped to face a powerful military like the Russian military. Despite being at a disadvantage, the Ukrainian military forces displayed sheer courage. They acted as a formidable force against the Russian military, preventing the much-anticipated rapid victory by Russia over Ukraine. However, the ground situation, with escalating military actions, dramatically changed the dynamics of the conflict since the early stages, resulting in significant losses in terms of human lives and infrastructure and disrupting the normalcy enjoyed by the people in the region.

Further escalation of military actions, coupled with unwarranted and short-sighted rhetoric from political figures in the region, only serves to create conditions that could trigger the use of nuclear arsenals and potentially lead to another world war.

 In every situation, diplomacy is crucial in mitigating unwarranted effects while enhancing desired outcomes beneficial to all parties involved. In this context, negotiations are the first step in finding desirable solutions to complex issues such as international security. However, there were missed opportunities for negotiations that have prolonged the conflict to its current level even after the Russian invasion.

As one may recall, Russian and Ukrainian officials convened in Belarus to initiate peace negotiations from late February to late March 2022. The initial negotiation process in Belarus, with Russian and Ukrainian delegations and Belarus and Turkey serving as facilitators, resulted in drafting a framework known as the Istanbul Communique. The negotiations and the outlined framework aimed to lay the groundwork for a potential settlement between Russia and Ukraine, thus ending the conflict and establishing peace.

It is a known fact that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators based their discussions on the principles enumerated in the draft Istanbul Communique, making significant progress toward achieving an acceptable milestone in the negotiations. However, the Istanbul negotiations process in the spring of 2022 encountered a stumbling block due to the complexities and the unwillingness of both parties, as well as the influence of the West in meeting demands, resulting in a deadlock.

For Ukraine, it was a decisive moment in its history, in which it struggled to assert itself as a sovereign nation and make decisions based on the available national resources and the stark reality of the battlefield. Furthermore, President Zelensky’s desire to leverage Western influence as a bargaining chip to achieve a complete victory in the war added another layer of complexity, moving away from a negotiated settlement through diplomacy.

 Currently, Ukraine lacks absolute decision-making power in executing its national security strategy as it depends on external military support and the direct involvement of external influential parties. As such, the Ukrainian balance of power hangs on the Western support it receives in implementing its national security strategy. It is now clear that Ukraine has utilized all available means to resist the Russian invasion, including leveraging international propaganda to advance its military objectives. However, as the defender, Ukraine faces the enormous challenge of preventing further losses on the battlefield rather than declaring a clear victory.

In contrast, Russia makes decisions under President Putin’s rule without any constraints. Despite facing economic sanctions, increased international isolation, and mounting domestic pressure, Russia has not shown any signs of slowing down its momentum on the battlefield.

 From the outset, the external influence and constraints imposed upon Ukraine by the West have only served to lead Ukraine into this chaotic situation. Ukraine was initially prepared for negotiations at the start of the invasion and showed great enthusiasm to achieve a meaningful outcome through diplomacy. At one point, President Zelensky stated, “I think, without negotiations, we cannot end this war,” and “I think we have to utilize any format, any opportunity to have a chance to negotiate, to have a chance to talk to Putin.” However, President Zelensky’s stance towards negotiation changed when the West pledged unwavering support to counter the Russian threat. Initially, the promises of support were encouraging, and challenges emerged due to military setbacks, economic impacts, and political realities.  The lack of foresight among decision-makers and heavy dependence on external support led Ukraine to become entrenched in what seemed like an unwinnable war.

Both sides have suffered significant losses in terms of human lives, equipment, and infrastructure due to the innovation of military technology capable of causing unimaginable destruction. In the process, President Zelensky appears to have lost his ability to make decisions as the nation’s leader due to influence by the West and is now facing increased vulnerability. Despite a united front in support of Ukraine against Russia, Russia continues its offensive operations against the Ukrainian military, capturing more territories.

In this context, Ukraine’s security is in a precarious situation. It relies heavily on external support as a pillar of strength while adopting a prolonged defensive posture against the Russian military. Ukraine is evidently unable to pursue military offensive actions that could potentially shift the tide in its favor.

 Given the ground realities, including the underprepared state of the Ukrainian military and external factors such as the elections in the United States and simmering security situations in the most vulnerable regions like the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and the Middle East, it is doubtful to anticipate any major offensive operations against Russia in the foreseeable future. This situation is further compounded by the drained Western support, which has only increased the vulnerability of Ukraine’s defensive posture, adding fuel to the fire. Unfortunately, Ukraine has little control over external support and must rely on hope for a better outcome while navigating uncharted waters.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has significantly altered the security dynamics in the region like never before. The Russian military’s failure to achieve decisive rapid results as planned has weakened Russian military capabilities and exposed previously untested weaknesses on the battlefield. In contrast, NATO has bolstered its membership by welcoming previously non-member states, including Finland in 2023 and Sweden in 2024. French President Macron also signaled a willingness to consider sending troops to Ukraine. In response, Russia has openly expressed its displeasure and warned that any deployment of French forces to Ukraine would be regarded as legitimate targets. Such a move by a NATO member state carries significant risks and could further escalate the already precarious situation in the region.

It is doubtful that there will be widespread support for the deployment of troops from NATO member states to Ukraine due to the high risks involved and the reluctance of the United States to endorse such actions. The lack of timely actions by the West in support of Ukraine has only emboldened Russia’s military efforts in the region. Any further escalation would bring about more suffering and destruction to Ukraine that cannot be compensated for by financial aid. As the battle unfolds, it is not the time to escalate tensions but to seek a meaningful resolution to end the conflict.

 Furthermore, the deployment of French troops into Ukraine will not reverse the security situation in favor of Ukraine, nor will it equate or fill the gap created by the inactivity in fulfilling pledges by major power players of NATO, such as France and Britain. Despite the domestic political environment, the United States continues to support Ukraine while avoiding any further escalation that could potentially trigger a nuclear Armageddon.

In reality, Russia and Ukraine have experienced the most horrendous events with unimaginable losses in terms of human lives and properties in this endless war. Both Russia and Ukraine need peace, and the continuation of this war will add more misery, taking it to a point of no return. Prolonged fighting in Ukraine has tested the battle efficiency of both states with the most destructive armaments that were not seen in the recent past.

President Putin expected a rapid victory in Ukraine; however, he has now been embroiled in a long-drawn war that strained Russian resources in terms of men and materials. So far, there has been no diplomatic breakthrough that could end this conflict. On the other hand, no favorable situation would enable a Russian withdrawal, like the Russian intervention and timely withdrawal in Syria in 2015.

Regarding Ukraine, President Zelensky is in a quandary and unable to take a stand on his own. Ukrainian strategy is based not on available resources and ground realities but on anticipated support from the alliance. No country can wage a long-drawn war based on anticipation while expecting a hypothetical outcome. However, this is the reality with Ukraine, whose plans were made based on promises from the West supporting the war and not according to the ground realities. Ukraine’s primary goal must be to fight to ensure its security and avoid being dragged into a proxy war. As highlighted above, Ukraine has no control over pledges made by friendly states or decision-making authority regarding foreign or external support. In many instances, pledges were merely confined to paper. Unfortunately, this is the stark reality for Ukraine.

According to the ground realities, negotiations are the only solution, as Ukraine faces an uphill battle to restore lost territories amidst a deteriorating security situation and waning external support. On the other hand, resorting to negotiations will end the war for the betterment of both countries, separating only losers from winners. Unlike in different wars, there will be no winners in this conflict. Ukraine and Russia will have to accept defeat in some form while the facilitators and spectators claim victory.

 In the best-case scenario for Russia, this may involve giving up captured areas while creating conditions to establish the independence of the self-proclaimed separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east. For Ukraine, this will be a painful situation as they must relinquish those two provinces, in addition to accepting the already lost territory of Crimea as part of Russia. In addition, a security arrangement must prevent future conflict in the region facilitated by the United States and China. In the end, it will demonstrate that diplomacy can still work if both parties to the conflict open avenues for negotiations despite external influences. If this materializes, this would be a costly lesson learned for states and could serve as a textbook example for future conflict resolutions.

 In retrospect, this war needs to end through negotiations before the end of 2024 to prevent another catastrophe in the region. Even after the war ends, Ukraine will face the daunting task of rebuilding the nation as a sovereign country as a result of this conflict. Consequently, Ukraine may be compelled to adhere to external influence in managing internal affairs, potentially triggering unrest in the community. Paying attention to the post-war environment in managing these challenges is crucial.

 No war has been won without a clear strategy. The strategy must be based on available resources and not on hypothetical scenarios. Given the ground realities, Ukraine needs to formulate a strategy to contain the worsening situation while creating conditions for pursuing negotiations. Taking any step in the right direction will help prevent further deterioration of the situation and disappointment. The old saying “save your soul before saving others” highly applies to Ukraine. It is time to rethink and realign its strategy to benefit Ukraine rather than its neighbors.

 At this point, Ukraine needs to prioritize its interests over trying to portray itself as protecting Europe and making decisions in its favor. One certainty is that Russia will remain a Ukrainian geographical neighbor, whereas political leadership and relationships change over time. Therefore, any future decision needs to be based on realities rather than fallacies.

Suminda Jayasundera

Suminda Jayasundera is a retired military officer & a researcher. During his military career, Jayasundera has held many important appointments including, a tour of duty in the United Nations. After his retirement, he entered the corporate sector, where he excelled in crisis management, global security management, and business continuity management. He holds a master’s degree in Defense Management and is a graduate of Army Command & General Staff College, Ft Leavenworth, Kansas. He acquired further education from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Emergency Management & Business Continuity.

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