Someday this war will be over, but it will not be anytime soon. The victories and defeats that each side has suffered thus far has failed to bring the conflict anywhere closer to a conclusion. If anything, these respective successes and failures have only ensured the war will continue indefinitely. The coming months could prove to be more decisive than anything that has happened during the war’s first ten and a half months. It would be foolhardy to predict what will happen next. Predictions are predicated upon past performance. Judging by that, this war will be long and unpredictable, just as it has been so far. That may seem obvious, but there have been few obvious things about the Ukraine-Russia War. Like all wars it tends to have a logic all its own. Outside observers, can scarcely understand this logic. More confounding is the likelihood that those on the frontlines may not conceive of the logic that governs their actions. The only thing certain, is this war’s future is uncertain.
Future uncertain – Ukrainian man walks in front of buildings damaged by Russian shelling
Obstacles & Objectives – Putting Up A Good Front
It is understandable that anyone looking to predict the war’s future will look back at what has already occurred. If we go by past performance in the Ukraine-Russia War here is what should happen. Russian forces will continue to lose men and ground. They will lose the latter at a slower rate than before. This is not because they are fighting any better than before, but because they are bringing hundreds of thousands of more men to the battlefront. Even the worse trained, poorly armed, badly fed, undersupplied, and frightened Russian soldier who would rather be anywhere other than Ukraine will be a formidable obstacle. When a Russian soldier is fighting for his life, his livelihood, his chance to make it back home alive, then there is little doubt that he will present a barrier to Ukrainian forces recapturing their territory. That does not mean several hundred thousand soldiers will succeed in any kind of decisive victory. It just means that they will slow the Ukrainians down.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainians will make further territorial gains. These will be more like the ones they made in Kherson Province rather than Kharkiv Province. Breakthroughs will occur, but the Russians will throw tens of thousands of men at the Ukrainian forces to slow their advances. The Ukrainians will still destroy large amounts of Russian men and material. They will be the aggressor in most battles and viewed as “winning” the war, but “winning” is not “won”. A decisive defeat of Russian forces will continue to prove elusive. The war will grind on through the spring, summer, and fall. At that point both sides will lick their wounds, assess their respective strengths, and decide whether to negotiate. Neither will have achieved their ultimate objectives. The Russians, because they still have not decided their objectives. The Ukrainians, because they have not taken all their territory back, including that which the Russians captured after their full-scale invasion. Ukraine will be in a better position than they were when campaigning began during the dead of winter in 2023, but this will not be good enough to claim victory. Keep in mind that this is what should happen, it is almost certainly not what will happen.
Before the war – Mariupol Theater at Christmas in 2021
Then & Now – Role Reversals
The greatest argument for the Ukraine-Russia War’s unpredictable future is the past ten and a half months. Consider how so many of the truths now seen as self-evident would have been considered improbable, if not impossible prior to the war. A then and now comparison bears out this transformation. Then: The Russian military is the second most powerful in the world. Ukraine does not stand a chance against them in a war. Now: The Russian military is a disorganized disaster plagued with incompetence and corruption. Ukraine is winning the war. Then: Russia will capture Kyiv and install a pro-Russian puppet government. The Zelensky government will go into exile. Now: Russia not only failed to capture Kyiv, but they have no chance of capturing it in this war. Kyiv is the epicenter of Ukrainian nationhood and will continue to be long after the war is over.
Then: Vladimir Putin is a master strategist who has strengthened Russia into a great power once again. Now: Vladimir Putin presides over a degenerate regime that has weakened Russia irreparably. It is a second-rate power with a bleak future at home and abroad. Then: If the west supports Ukraine with state of art the weapons system Russia will attack NATO member states. Now: The west is continuing to increase military support to Ukraine with everything from Patriot missile defense systems to armored personnel vehicles. Russia can barely hold off the Ukrainian Army. They will not attack a NATO member state because that would lead to an even greater disaster. Then: Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and targeting civilians is a thing of the past in Europe. Now: Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and targeting civilians is part of Russian military strategy in Ukraine. Then: Ukraine will be forced by its western allies into a negotiated peace. Now: Ukraine will decide when negotiations with Russia will begin. The western allies offer continued support for this stance.
War changes everything – Mariupol Theater after Russian siege
Tracking Changes – Never The Same
Those are just an arbitrary list of how much has changed in less than a year of war. The war has disabused military strategists and geopolitical analysts of long held assumptions about Russian military strength and Ukrainian political military weakness. The same can be said concerning the effectiveness of Russian autocracy versus Ukrainian democracy. If someone on February 23, 2022, questioned the Thens given above and professed a belief in the Nows, they would have been called crazy or ignored as a foolish provocateur. The difference between the Thens and Nows proves the truth behind that old cliche that war changes everything. War is provocative and unpredictable. Out of chaos comes clarity. The world as it existed in Europe, Russia, and much of the west prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been upended. It will never be the same. The question is what kind of world will arise to replace it. No one really knows. In 2023, we may find out or we may be right back to where we started this year by wondering what the future will bring.