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Six Questions about the Six-Month-Old War in Ukraine

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On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, moving to violently achieve a goal of pulling the former Soviet republic back into alignment with the Russian government and away from the West, including the European Union and NATO. More than six months later, the conflict rages on, with Ukrainian forces fighting back with unexpected skill and persistence, achieving rapid reclamation of Russian-occupied cities and areas in a counteroffensive that began in mid-August. With all the rapid changes in this ongoing war, we asked SIS professor Keith Darden to answer a few current questions about the war and the possibilities for ending it.  

How has the war evolved since Russia invaded Ukraine six months ago in terms of the main challenges each side is facing?
In some ways, both Russia and Ukraine are facing the same challenge as the war drags on, and they find themselves fighting a long war along a vast front for which neither of them were initially prepared. How do you train and equip enough infantry to seize, hold, and/or defend territory? How do you prevent the enemy from supplying its frontline units? Logistics, supply, and management are mundane, but vital, and the Ukrainian state has shown a remarkable ability to climb the learning curve to be very effective. But there is a deeper challenge here for Russia as an invader and occupier. The Russians need to justify their actions—to motivate and mobilize their forces to fight, to get local collaboration in governing territories they control—and they have failed terribly at doing that. The Ukrainians have a clear goal: to drive the occupiers from their territory. They also have a leader in Zelensky who is gifted at articulating that goal. The Russian ranks seem to lack a sense of why they are there or what they are doing, except trying not to lose a war that they should not have started.
Russia has reportedly made a deal with North Korea to receive rockets and artillery shells. Is this deal unprecedented? What does it say about the current state of Russia’s military resources?
The Russians were not prepared for a long war against an enemy that would have the sustained support of the US and NATO. They are depleting their stocks of rockets, cruise missiles, and artillery at a far faster rate than they can produce and re-supply. Ukraine is getting state-of-the-art weaponry, training, intelligence, and supply from the most powerful military and the most productive economies in the world. Russia is making up for shortages in supply by turning to other heavily sanctioned and unproductive states. If I were in the Kremlin, I'd be very concerned about the long-term trend lines.
With energy and food crises looming and cold weather fast approaching, how is the war affecting the rest of Europe?
In some ways, the European productive model—or the German productive model, to be more precise—relied on relatively cheap energy from Russia. The rise in energy costs is going to affect them well beyond home heating bills, which are extremely high in Europe as a result of the sanctions. I think the country to watch is Germany, which for historical reasons is very sensitive to inflation, but I would put my money on the European project—and support for Ukraine—surviving the significant political disruptions we can expect for the next couple of years.
How might the lightning-quick advances of Ukraine over the past weekend and the debate they have sparked within Russia—even on state-controlled media in Russia—affect the actions and rhetoric of other European nations and the US?
Back in February, Putin took personal ownership of the invasion in a very public way. The dramatic collapse of the front in Kharkiv and the utter failure of the Russian military to even take Sloviansk and Kramatorsk (let alone Kharkiv or Kyiv!) has sparked some optimism in the West that the failure of the war could cause Putin's personal authority to dissipate, and the Russian regime could fall. At a minimum, the Ukrainian military has shown that it can take territory and that the massive resources the US, UK, and some European countries are devoting to this conflict can produce results.
Is there a diplomatic/political solution to this war? What could that look like? Currently, is there a stronger incentive for Ukraine to pursue such a solution to end the conflict as quickly as possible or to keep pressing ahead with its military advances?
Diplomatic solutions are more likely when neither side believes that they can achieve their goals through continued fighting. I think that the recent Ukrainian success on the battlefield has led them to believe that their goal to return to their 1991 boundaries, including the reincorporation of Crimea, can be achieved through force of arms and Western backing. The current Russian government considers Crimea to be Russian territory and would presumably use its nuclear arsenal to prevent its loss. So diplomatic settlement is difficult, and the risks for not achieving one are potentially great. A diplomatic solution that involved Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory except for Crimea might be possible, and we should continue to pursue the diplomatic path, but we do not appear to be close to a diplomatic solution at the moment.
Have the end goals of Russia changed as Ukraine has continued to fight back—with increasing success—for this long?
The Ukrainian military has shown that Russia's initial goals of regime change in Kyiv and the reunion of the "peoples of Rus" are unattainable. But Russia has struggled to articulate a revised set of meaningful and attainable national goals, and this is a huge problem for them. Even the modest "liberation" of the Donbas seems to be beyond their capabilities. Nothing that Russia could actually achieve through force (including the total destruction of Ukraine with the use of weapons of mass destruction) has been presented as a meaningful goal worthy of sacrifice—so they don't know why they are fighting or what they are trying to achieve. The Ukrainian military's ability to foil all of Russia's plans has left the Russians in an existential crisis that is, in turn, taking its toll on their morale and battlefield performance. If the end result of Ukraine's sacrifices and the West's support is that Russia revises its goals in a way that is compatible with peace in the region and leads them to abandon the use of force, this would be a major accomplishment. Sometimes "waging peace" requires effectively waging war to tame an expansionist power.