War in Ukraine: What’s Next? (Long Read)

Amidst the Ukrainian preparations and announcements of a major counteroffensive this spring, there is a growing surge in analyses, commentaries, and predictions surrounding the potential repercussions if the effort fails. Questions arise about the possible adjustments in Zelensky’s rhetoric and the likelihood of Ukraine conceding to Russian territorial demands, particularly under increased domestic and international pressure. The unity of the EU’s unwavering military, political, and economic support, coupled with the approaching U.S. presidential elections where voices advocating reduced aid to Ukraine are gaining traction, adds another layer of complexity. Meanwhile, the specter of a renewed Middle East conflict in Palestine looms, posing the risk of escalating into a broader regional catastrophe. As we enter the 21st month of the war in Ukraine, deciphering future developments becomes imperative.

This analysis seeks to shed light on key factors influencing current events in Ukraine and Russia, the dynamics of international relations, and the evolving global order. It aims to provide insights into potential scenarios for the course of the war in the coming months and years. It is not an exhaustive study or a policy recommendation but rather a modest attempt to highlight factors that may shape the war’s trajectory and the behavior of central actors.

Ukrainian Preparedness

Firstly, Ukraine’s readiness to continue the war. I intentionally emphasize “readiness” and not “capability” or any other synonym. Ukraine is not capable of successfully defending itself against Russian aggression independently, as tragically witnessed in the early months of the war. Hence, the military aspect is crucial, but more on that later. However, even the supply of Western weapons will not help if Ukraine’s readiness for combat and defense of an independent Ukraine wanes. Despite extensive military casualties, the suffering, and the fear of the civilian population, this is unlikely to happen soon. In the early moments and months of the war, President Zelensky was the key driver of unwavering resistance and courage, actively maintaining high morale among the Ukrainian people. Now, the Kremlin itself maintains this Ukrainian collective consciousness by constantly broadcasting messages that the Ukrainian language and nation do not exist, and Ukraine has no right to exist as an independent state. Therefore, with or without President Zelensky, there is a high likelihood that Ukrainian readiness for war against the aggressor will continue.

Secondly, the continuation of Western military aid. There are many uncertainties due to the fact that such aid depends on many aspects, including the political stability in Western countries and the known data on the stockpiles of ammunition in EU member states, which are not at an enviable level. However, it is essential to recall how it all began and where we are today. Shortly before the start of the Russian invasion, Germany announced its readiness to supply 5,000 helmets to Ukraine. Today, 20 months later, we see how thinking and perception of Russian aggression and all its consequences for European security architecture have changed significantly. From 5,000 helmets to the supply of modern Leopard 2 tanks and F-16 fighter jets. Those who believe that such arms shipments only prolonged the war I suggest looking at the situation in Ukrainian cities near the front lines, such as Kharkiv or Kherson. Western weapons have played a crucial role in halting Russian aggression at the current frontline, preventing it from advancing tens or hundreds of kilometres further west.

Additionally, we cannot ignore the cynicism abundant on both sides. American transatlantic partners openly discuss how Ukraine, for the cost of 3-4% of the U.S. defense budget, successfully fights a nuclear superpower (and a perpetual American rival), without American boys dying, as seen in military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere worldwide. American boys do not die, but Ukrainians do, defending their homeland against aggression. This cynicism may lead American conservatives to continue military support for Ukraine, even if there is a change in the White House. It’s not just “Good Business” for the arms industry (similar to the export of liquefied natural gas), but also an opportunity to maintain American political-military dominance, at least in relation to the EU. If U.S. support were to make a 180-degree turn, it would send a strong signal to Russia that it could complete what it started in Ukraine in a few years; European support without the U.S. would not be enough. Neither politically nor materially.

Long War

Thirdly, Russia’s ability to finance the war and regime stability. Russia is preparing for a long war. Last year, it began an autarkic economic model, and from 2025 officially transitions to a war economy mode (official data on planned federal budget expenditures and the share of GDP dedicated to arms production). The Kremlin’s crucial goal will be to ensure enough weapons at all costs while maintaining economic and social stability. This is essential for the regime’s stability because any political changes are unlikely in Russia, given extensive internal repression and some degree of social stability. Political apathy and fear are strong, and voices against the war are rare, as they are immediately suppressed. Russia is rapidly returning to the era of total repression from Soviet times.

Last year’s mobilization shook Russian society more than images from Ukrainian battlefields. Thus, more than anti-war protests, a potential new mobilization and a disrupted social model could significantly shake the regime’s stability. The regime enjoys legitimacy as long as social transfers flow smoothly, and the disintegration of social subsystems seen in the 90’ is not repeated. This is a memory deeply ingrained in the average Russian. As long as life in major cities runs relatively smoothly, even with fewer freedoms, repression against dissenters, and fewer foreign goods, the Russian electorate will remain subservient.

Fourthly, economic sanctions and the oil embargo. Economic and political sanctions imposed by the West in the last 20 months have a limited effect on public finances and, consequently, the survival of Putin’s regime. The key is oil and revenue from oil and petroleum product exports. Not natural gas, where there is significantly less manoeuvring room for the Kremlin due to a significantly reduced export. With the practical loss of the European market (for which all European consumers and industries pay an exceptionally high price!), Russia relies solely on liquefied natural gas exports and gradually increases gas exports to China. However, this will by no means replace the premium European market. The ability of Russia to finance war expenses and overall public financial stability will be most dependent on oil exports. Therefore, the previous point.

The cap on the export price of Russian oil (set at $60) in the first months of its operation has already shown the effects. Inflows into the Russian federal budget significantly decreased, leaving it in a considerable deficit. Thus, in the long term, the Kremlin cannot easily cover it, as reserves are limited, and the ability to incur new debt is also limited. However, like all economic sanctions, oil sanctions have many loopholes, and these are becoming more significant in recent times: Russia and its key partners have provided alternative supply routes, the so-called “gray fleet of tankers,” which fairly unhindered sail international waters and supply Russian black gold. The discounts that Russia had to admit to buyers in India and China earlier this year are becoming smaller; Urals crude oil prices are approaching the times before the embargo.

If the West wants to influence the course of the war with sanctions, it will have to constantly adjust them and seek new political alliances to prevent sanctions circumventions, which are becoming more numerous. The devil and the paradox of the world order are, of course, that international markets need Russian oil, as there is already a shortage of supply, and prices can skyrocket even with minor disruptions or shortages (which is why the OPEC cartel, together with Russia, limits production capacities). This means continuing the inflationary spiral, as well as reducing economic growth. The most developed economies also feel these effects most strongly. Therefore, markets and political decision-makers within the most developed G7 countries secretly desire Russian supplies but at a politically acceptable/defined price. We have two goals that are diametrically opposed. The result: turning a blind eye to both.

For Own Benefits

Fifthly, the consolidation of global powers around the war. Although the Kremlin and Beijing publicly promote an “unlimited” partnership between the superpowers, which also implies support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in practice, it is not the case. China is politically cautious but by no means neutral. Economically, it tries to gain the most from the war, primarily through cheaper supplies of fossil fuels, with potentially more Russian concessions to come. However, militarily, China has so far stood symbolically by the political ally; this is confirmed by data on the delivery of a few million dollars worth of Chinese military equipment, which is a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of billions that the West supplies to Ukraine.

However, it’s not just China; there is also India and other (associate) BRICS members, increasingly placing the war in Ukraine on the map of the confrontation between the West and the Global South or the old political-financial order established in the Bretton Woods after World War II and the new reality, where China and India will likely play key roles. Roles based on interests that can be quite far from the desires of Washington or Brussels. Starting with where and at what price they will supply their economies with fossil fuels. This is already evident in the case of Russian oil, as India is the most active Russian partner, becoming the central market for Russian black gold. This is despite being the world’s largest democracy and a long-standing ally of Washington in Asia.

In real politics, everything has its price. Therefore, the war in Ukraine will also be decided in the context of the geopolitics of the new world order and the question of the West’s ability to understand and respect the interests of rising powers. Otherwise, the transatlantic alliance will increasingly struggle to cope independently with key security and other challenges. This includes the war in Ukraine.

Published in newspaper Vecer, 04.11.2023; available in Slovenian here.

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