We are into the fifth month of war between Russia and Ukraine after the former’s military launched an invasion on 24 February.
One of the main catalysts of the war, Ukraine's possible NATO membership, is now off the table, and has been since March when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy withdrew his country's pitch for membership. NATO membership is not even a talking point anymore. But the war still continues.
While Russia was expected to quickly win the war and occupy the capital within a week of its 'blitzkrieg', what has been seen is a slow, grinding war where victory for neither looks imminent.
As Russian forces were pushed back from the suburbs of Kyiv in late March and the fighting became concentrated in the eastern part of the country, the situation right now is what experts call a “war of attrition”.
Attritional warfare only ends when one side is drained of its supply of people, weapons, or morale. The question here then becomes, which side will give up first?
There are three main reasons why the war reached this phase.
Western Support to Ukraine
The West is doing everything it can to stop Ukraine from falling without directly getting involved in a war against Russia.
Western countries have provided all sorts of advanced weapons systems and heavy weaponry like tanks, Howitzers, and anti-tank missiles, along with intel, military training, and billions of dollars in financial support.
Even nations like Germany, Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden, which have remained neutral for decades, have deviated from traditional policy and delivered military aid to Ukraine.
The problem is that while this kind of aid prevents a decisive Russian victory, the lack of direct participation, like refusing to impose a no-fly zone, prevents a Ukrainian triumph as well, leading to the stalemate in the war that observers are currently witnessing.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged this in early June when he said, "Wars are by nature unpredictable and therefore we just have to be prepared for the long haul."
The only way in which this factor ceases to be important is when the West terminates military and financial aid to Ukraine. Given that Ukraine was recently given candidate status in the EU, such a situation is highly unlikely.
No Scope for Negotiations
So, what happened to the negotiations that began after the invasion? Not only did they not materialise, but the prospect of a negotiated peace seems quite a utopian ending to the war.
There are two reasons why Ukraine is not as enthusiastic about negotiations as it might have been before. Firstly, the brutality of Russia's war has made it unthinkable for Ukraine to even consider surrendering territory. Zelenskyy has repeatedly made this clear, asserting that there is no scope for negotiations if Russian troops don't withdraw from occupied Ukrainian land.
And secondly, after the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kyiv, Ukraine believes that with more western aid, it can actually win the war.
On the other hand, Russia cannot afford to settle for anything that could be perceived as a defeat for its domestic audience. Indeed, experts say that that is one reason why the Russians shifted their focus entirely on the east so that they can take the Donbas region and declare a meaningful victory at home.
Additionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin does not seem to be paying a great price, whether in energy revenues or in domestic support for his war. The energy business is on his side because even though Russia’s oil production has gone down, global prices have spiked. That is why, over the weekend, G7 leaders were proposing a price cap on Russian oil. Nevertheless, Putin is sustaining this war. He has no reason to pursue peace.
Russia Is Stronger but Ukraine Has Everything to Lose
There is undoubtedly a drastic military asymmetry between Russia and Ukraine. But here's the thing.
Ukraine is facing an existential threat. It is fighting for its right to self-determination, for its national sovereignty. The morale of the people is not only high, but they are also well aware that they don't have much of a choice, other than to fight or flee.
On the other hand, the Russian military, definitely stronger than Ukraine's, is facing a morale issue. Heavy casualties, poor leadership, lack of supplies, and logistical issues, combined with a lack of understanding of why they are fighting on Ukrainian soil in the first place, have even contributed to several mutinies within the military.
Additionally, the Russian war machine turned out to be a 'Potemkin' military, that is, something which looks impressive from the outside, but is actually quite ordinary in reality. Heavy Russian losses have proved that the sheer size of its military does not mean that that advantage is being put to use in the battlefield.
Contrastingly, Ukraine's military appears to be well-led and, as mentioned earlier, is receiving considerable intelligence and military aid from the West, keeping its morale and hopes high enough to deliver hammer blows to the Russians.
The morale factor, to an extent, reduces the Russian military advantage over Ukraine.
The War Is Not Ending Anytime Soon
The question regarding which side can prevail depends on which side can gradually keep the manpower, equipment, and ammunition coming.
Putin is not initiating a nationwide mobilisation of reservists and conscripts as of now, but the country’s defence ministry is reportedly trying to get men with military experience back into the battlefield.
In Ukraine's case, the problem is not a lack of will, but a lack of trained personnel. In fact, the waiting list for would-be recruits to be inducted into the Ukrainian armed forces is pretty long.
At the same time, Russia completely outmatches Ukraine with respect to heavy artillery, which has long been central to Russian military doctrine –Josef Stalin once called it “the god of war”. That heavy artillery seems to be working well for Russia in the east.
So, where does the war go from here? All we can predict is that it is not going to end anytime soon.
Earlier this week, however, a Russian missile strike on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk that killed at least 15 civilians and left many injured, and rocket attacks in Kyiv, gives the indication that war might be returning to central Ukraine.