The war in Ukraine conjures up a strong sense of historical déjà vu. Though recorded in 21st-century fashion through up-close-and-personal shots from mobile phone cameras and high-definition drone footage, the images being captured – of artillery duels and trench warfare – have a distinctly last-century feel to them.
Like Stalin’s invasion of Finland in the Winter War of 1939, the Russian army is bogged down and bloodied by a much smaller, outgunned enemy.
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Both sides are now digging in as Moscow’s “special military operation”, which was intended to last a matter of days, grinds into another year of attritional warfare. Russia is throwing waves of recruits and mercenaries into close-quarters battles around towns like Bakhmut and Vuhledar.
Meanwhile, Western powers have pledged coveted battle tanks to Ukraine, and there is much talk of a new Russian spring offensive. “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never,” United States President Joe Biden said in Poland last week, a day after a previously unannounced visit to Kyiv.
It is the kind of conflict that Margaret Macmillan, war historian and emeritus professor at the University of Oxford, said “we didn’t think we’d see” again. Now, as the bombardment of Ukraine enters another year, what do past conflicts, especially those of the modern era, tell us about how the war might end?
The short answer: While each conflict is unique and tends to defy history, a clear-cut defeat of either side in this war is unlikely, said experts. A more likely scenario is protracted fighting leaving both sides exhausted but unwilling to admit defeat, resulting in a frozen conflict or an eventual uneasy truce. The likelihood of a quick end to hostilities is remote.
Russia is no Iran or Serbia
The war in Ukraine assumed international dimensions the moment Russian armoured columns rolled across the border in February 2022. A conflict where a major nuclear power and energy exporter violated the sovereignty of a country that is a keystone of global food security was never going to be contained to just two countries.
The US and its allies were quick to provide aid that has been vital to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself.
Previous wars, like the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, too have hinged on such external assistance. At different times in this conflict Russia has resembled Iran’s position, and Ukraine has mirrored Iraq’s in that war — if only incompletely — said Jeremy Morris, professor of global studies at Aarhus University in Denmark.
That conflict, also between neighbours, was fundamentally fought over territory and resources. Western weapons helped Iraq achieve early battlefield successes against the much larger Iran, which had to resort to costlier tactics like human wave attacks, where artillery columns charged towards Iraqi formations, risking heavy casualties in the hope of overwhelming the enemy. “And there was a proxy war overlaid onto it,” Morris told Al Jazeera, referring to the US support for Iraq in furtherance of its own interests in the Middle East.
There is a key difference, of course: Iraq, unlike Ukraine, started that war.
Still, Western arms — even though supplied in an incremental, cautious manner — in Ukraine have similarly been key to halting Russian advances. In theory, that gives the West influence over the direction of the war. The West could — as Ukraine has sought — supply even more sophisticated weapons, faster, in the hope of convincing Russia that it cannot win.
Macmillan pointed out that indeed, sometimes the most important factor in ending open conflict and getting warring sides to talk is outside pressure.
“Serbia’s war against Kosovo was ended because outside powers got involved,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to NATO’s bombardment of Serbia in 1999. “The civil war in Northern Ireland ended partly because outside powers [the US in particular] put a lot of pressure and helped to build a framework [for peace]”.
But the calculus in Ukraine does not lend itself to straightforward solutions from the outside.
Russia, unlike Iran and Serbia, is a nuclear power. It has a homegrown war machine and enormous reserves of manpower and resources, and Morris believes there is a good chance Russia can sustain the conflict for years to come.
The war and Western sanctions have damaged Russia’s society and economy, but Moscow has blunted the worst effects and is unlikely to be left so weak as to be unable to pursue the war. Russia’s economy contracted by only a little more than 2 percent last year – far less than expected.
“Russia was already isolated because of its intervention in Donbas in eastern Ukraine in 2014, so it is prepared for being isolated,” Morris said. “Russian standards of living could fall precipitously but they’re never going to be in a position like North Korea — and even North Koreans have put up with conditions they live in for more than 50 years.”
Unlike in the case of Serbia, experts do not foresee a scenario in which the US-led Western alliance would actively attack Russia.
“Serbia was weak in comparison to NATO,” said Dan Reiter, a professor of political science at Emory University and author of the book How Wars End. “There is no way that NATO will engage in unprovoked action against Russia.”
‘Ukrainians will decide’
Equally, Ukraine’s dependence on their weapons gives Western powers a say in how Kyiv plots its strategy. In theory, they could threaten to curtail support if they grow weary of the war or if Ukraine, encouraged by its military advances, crosses a threshold that could spark an escalation unacceptable to the West.
But the idea that Ukraine can be pressured into some kind of peace is “incorrect” and “denies Ukraine their agency”, said Branislav Slantchev, a professor of politics at the University of California, San Diego, and a specialist in war negotiations and how conflicts end.
He said there is little the West can do to stop Ukrainians from trying to take back all of their country’s territory currently held by Russia — including parts that Moscow has formally, though illegally, annexed.
“It adopts the view that the West can control Ukrainians … We cannot pressure the Ukrainians really,” he said.
While the West could warn Kyiv that it would stop supplies of weapons or financial support if Ukraine were to insist on defying the US or Europe, “this kind of threat is not credible”, Slantchev told Al Jazeera. That, he said, is “because the Ukrainians know” that it is in Western interests “to not let them collapse”.
Slantchev said the West knows that any cracks in its unity against Russian aggression would only embolden the Kremlin.
“Essentially once the West made a decision that Ukraine is important … it had to support them to the end, and that means the Ukrainians are the ones who will decide when they’re going to stop,” he said.
At the moment, there is little evidence that either side is willing to negotiate.
“For fighting to stop, both sides need to want to do this,” said Slantchev. “Both sides have to expect to gain more from peace than from continuing to fight.”
As things stand, Putin, despite crushing setbacks on the battlefield, appears to be prepared for a long fight and believes Russia will win. Russia’s allies like China – which has been a lukewarm friend to Putin in his war against Ukraine – have also been unable, or unwilling, to force him to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Russian demands for Ukraine’s demilitarisation and neutrality are a “non-starter”, according to Slantchev. Polls in Ukraine show that the public overwhelmingly rejects concessions to Russia.
Emory University’s Reiter listed two main reasons for the lack of appetite in Ukraine for any negotiations that would mean accepting the loss of territory. “The war has been so absolutely brutal that they’re fearful of what will happen in territories handed over to Russia,” he said.
Ukrainians also just do not trust Moscow, Reiter said. “Even if they were willing to give up on the Donbas region for example, they cannot be confident that that would be the end of it, and that Russia would not come back and demand more,” he said, referring to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia agreed to respect Ukrainian borders.
Why Putin won’t back down
In many ways, the same man who started the conflict could end it — if he chooses to. The problem, according to experts: he does not have an incentive to do so.
This is “Putin’s war”, said Macmillan, the Oxford professor. The Russian president has “staked his prestige on it, and the more losses, the more difficult [it is for him] to pull back”.
Putin’s presidency began with the second Chechen war in 1999, when separatist rebels sought independence from Russia. The war, which ended with the Chechen capital razed to the ground and Chechen resistance largely stamped out, left a lasting imprint on Putin’s approach to regions seeking to break away from Russian influence, according to analysts.
Experts see Putin’s grandiose vision – set out in his lengthy historical treatises and brutally enforced in places like Chechnya – as what led him into Ukraine. But they argue that the roots of Putin’s world view lie in earlier events: the end of the Cold War.
Wars are rarely neatly bookended by the first and last shots. There was, for example, a thread of continuity between the first and second world wars. To be sure, a lot happened in the intervening years that could have changed the direction of what followed. But, said Macmillan, “the first world war laid the groundwork that made the second possible”. The danger lay in a humiliating peace treaty imposed on defeated Germany.
Experts see a similar link between the end of the Cold War and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Putin and the Russian elite have harboured a deep sense of humiliation from the break-up of the Soviet Union. The years that followed were “dreadful for a lot of Russians”, said Macmillan. “The country looked weak, its economy was in chaos, there was resentment that the West didn’t do enough, didn’t offer a Marshall Plan, and condescended.”
Maria Popova, associate professor of comparative politics at McGill University argued that Putin is motivated by a desire to restore Russia’s imperial prestige and correct perceived historical wrongs.
The Russian ruling elite saw the Soviet Union’s collapse merely as a reconfiguration in which former Soviet countries would “continue to be together in some way”, Popova told Al Jazeera, whereas Ukraine saw it as an opportunity to be fully independent.
For Ukraine, it was a “civilised divorce”, for Russia a “rewriting of vows”, said Popova. That difference in how the two nations saw the end of the Cold War is now playing out through blood and bullets.
A forever war?
For both sides, there is something existential at stake in this conflict, which makes it all the more intractable.
Some observers have suggested that continued defeats on the battlefield might result in Putin’s downfall. After all, Russian defeats in the Crimean War in the 19th century, and losses to Japan and in Afghanistan in the 20th century, all catalysed profound domestic changes. A protracted and costly World War I helped usher in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
But to analysts, like Morris, the prospect of Putin being removed is extremely unlikely — and the chances that whoever replaces him will be less hawkish are even more remote. “There isn’t really any source of alternative power to coalesce around while Putin is healthy and alive,” said Morris.
And that has direct consequences for the future of the war in Ukraine.
“I don’t think this can end while Putin is in power,” said Slanchev. “Even if Ukrainians push the Russians to the borders, if he’s still in power I don’t think he will negotiate.”
Prolonged, slow-burn conflicts have helped Russia establish breakaway, pro-Kremlin enclaves in Ukraine (the Donbas), Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), Moldova (Transnistria) and Azerbaijan (Artsakh).
The current war is different, with Western support helping Ukraine regain large parts of the territory Russia grabbed in the early weeks after last year’s invasion.
Still, if Slanchev is right, the two sides face a forever war.
That could end up looking something like the Korean peninsula, with a demilitarised zone between Ukrainian and Russian-controlled territory, or a grinding perpetual conflict that flares up and down, eventually resulting in an uneasy truce.
Either way, one thing is certain: much more pain, for Ukraine, Russia and the rest of the world.