Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/Flickr

The war in Ukraine: is an end in sight?

Life in Kyiv seems normal in the summer of 2023. Adults rush to their work with a cup of coffee in the morning, while children enjoy their holiday playing in parks. People discuss Barbie and Oppenheimer like they do in other parts of the world. Everything seems normal, but the Ukrainian war has not ended. The war has been going on for over a year and seven months. What has changed in the second year, what is the future of this seemingly everlasting war?   


On 8 June 2023, Ukraine’s troops formally started their counteroffensive. It takes place along the 600-mile front in southern and eastern Ukraine which has been controlled by Russia since last year. In the first phase of the counteroffensive, Ukraine’s armies made slow progress because of the vast minefields and defensive trenches laid by Russian troops. After a tactic change, Ukraine began to make a noticeable breakthrough and breached Russia’s first defensive line. Until 11 September, it had regained a third of the nearly 42 square miles of territory conquered by Russia since the counteroffensive started. 


Military support from the West has played a crucial role in the counteroffensive. 60,000 Ukrainian troops have been trained and equipped by the US and other European countries. More heavy weapons like Leopard 1 tanks, missiles, and artillery will arrive in Ukraine after September too. Monitoring the development of the battle, the US Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that Ukrainian troops will break through all of Russia’s defensive lines in southern Ukraine by the end of 2023. 


Ukraine’s Western allies are not always that optimistic. Ukraine’s progress in breaking through Russian defensive lines has been slower than expected, which raised doubt among the Western governments. Political pressure in Washington over donating weapons to Ukraine has risen, and Berlin is growingly hesitant to send missiles. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister urged Berlin to “speed up a decision” on missile deliveries in September. The continuous military aid has brought most Western countries a considerable burden. The top five donor countries, namely the US, Germany, the UK, Norway, and Denmark, have provided military assistance totaling up to over 73 billion euros. The cost-effectiveness of supporting Ukraine has been more critical for them, especially when most European countries are facing various socio-economic challenges like the cost of living crisis and the influx of refugees. 


As the Ukrainian government confessed, it has largely depended on Western weapons in the war. Therefore, the development of the counteroffensive for the rest of the year is a key to the battle. Ukraine must attain remarkable progress to prove to the Western world that Ukraine can win and that it is supportable. Nobody knows when the war will end, and Ukraine can hardly increase its military strength and achieve military independence quickly. It will also need international aid money to help rebuild cities and provide humanitarian support. It must secure prolonged aid from the West.    


The Western public’s declining support for sending Ukraine weaponry in recent opinion polls has shown their growing fatigue with the war too.

A drastic breakthrough in the war will also help Ukraine boost its visibility in global media. Back in February 2022 when the war broke out, information about the war flooded everyone’s news feed and social media page. There were countless articles about how to make donations to Ukraine and heartbreaking photos of little kids separated from their fathers. In 2023, international media coverage of the war had massively shrunk. The public tends to be more interested in local news directly related to them, and it is difficult for such a long war to stand in the present 24-hour news cycle. The Western public’s declining support for sending Ukraine weaponry in recent opinion polls has shown their growing fatigue with the war too. The war has also become less important in Western governments’ agenda due to the rise of far-right political leaders in European countries like Italy and France. A significant breakthrough in the counteroffensive may help Ukraine gain international attention in both media and high politics.


In fact, Russia is also struggling in the battle. From a military perspective, Russia revealed its weaknesses last year as its troops underperformed and suffered from a severe loss of weapons. It has lost 80,000 more soldiers than Ukraine since the war started, and it will further launch a massive recruitment of soldiers in September, which highlights its shortage of personnel. 


From a diplomatic perspective, 2023 particularly illuminates how Russia is isolated in the international community. In March 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow. Russia merely “welcomes China’s readiness to play a positive role” in ending the Ukrainian war, and China has never openly declared support for Russia. Despite being the most active trading partner of Russia, China’s top-tier technology companies like Huawei have stopped supplying base stations for Russian mobile operators and closed their Russian offices to avoid Western sanctions. China remains pro-Russian neutrality to maintain its trade with the West. 


On 4 September, Putin met another old ally, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan no longer firmly supports Putin as he did before he won the presidential election in May. In the meeting, he convinced Putin to allow the sales of Ukrainian grain in the international market by reviving the Black Sea grain deal which Putin quit last year. Turkey permitted Ukrainian commanders captured by Russia to return home In July and backed Ukraine’s entry into NATO too. The shared keenness to challenge Western dominance between Putin and Erdogan has been gradually eradicated by the latter’s attempt to endorse the West in recent months. 


Then, who are Putin’s friends now? Nine days after meeting Erdogan, Putin met North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un. Kim promised his support for Russia’s “sacred fight” against the West, and the two men exchanged model rifles as gifts. Putin hinted that he would potentially assist Kim with his recently failed space and satellite program, but no detail about their arms deal was revealed. The White House had intelligence suspecting that Moscow would provide Pyongyang with food in return for munitions. Regardless of their actual deal, Putin’s meeting with Kim discloses his desperation. North Korea is one of the poorest, most autocratic, and isolated countries in the world. It seems unlikely for Putin to seek help from Kim unless he is in an unbearable lack of weapons and foreign support. 


Veterans and convicted criminals who have fought under Wagner’s banner remain a political threat to Putin, who may face more uprisings from military leaders like Wagner in the future.


In addition to military and diplomatic weaknesses, Putin needs to handle internal political instability. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner Group, a Russian state-funded private military company that fights in the Ukrainian war, staged a mutiny against Putin in late June. He halted the rebellion on the same day, but on 24 August he died in a plane crash. The truth of the plane crash is unknown, and so far the Wagner Group’s troops have not taken any action regarding their leader’s mysterious death. Yet, many political analysts believe that Putin’s authority is fragile. Veterans and convicted criminals who have fought under Wagner’s banner remain a political threat to Putin, who may face more uprisings from military leaders like Wagner in the future. For Russia, political instability on the home front may add insult to injury in the Ukrainian war.


There is no signal that the military and diplomatic difficulties of Ukraine and Russia will lead to the end of the fighting, so they are likely going to fight their second Winter war. Autumn rains and winter cold are expected to make the fighting harder. US military officer Gen Mark Milley envisaged that Ukraine has around 30 days left of fighting before the weather hits its counteroffensive. While a strategic change may help armies overcome the tough weather, Ukrainian civilians are very likely to suffer. Last Winter, Russia carried out at least 92 attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and damaged half of its overall power-generating capacity. Most parts of the country, including the capital, could not use heating at night. Russian armies may repeat the tactics this Winter to weaken Ukraine’s manufacturing and the morale of the people.   


The war has been going on for over a year and seven months. While governments of both sides are trying to handle the diplomatic and military challenges to sustain the long war, what can the people do? Soldiers are left with no choice but to keep fighting on the frontlines exhaustedly, and most Ukrainians have gotten used to the vibrations of explosive waves and sudden blasts. At the end of the day, life must go on.  


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