The Big Unknowns of the War in Ukraine | Opinion

War is a brutal, nasty, inhumane extension of politics by other means. Look no further than Ukraine, host to Europe's deadliest conflict in more than 70 years. Coming up on its five-month anniversary this Sunday, Russia's invasion has turned wide swaths of the country into an inhospitable wasteland. Tens of thousands of people have died, nearly 6 million Ukrainians are now refugees, and the Ukrainian government is currently facing reconstruction costs as high as $750 billion.

War also produces chaos, not only for the troops on the battlefield and civilians but also for foreign policymakers trying to make sense of it all. The war in Ukraine is no exception. Even as military experts are spending their days dissecting changes at the tactical level, there is still so much we don't know on the most elemental questions: Who, exactly, has the momentum, and when will it end?

The first question, presumably, can be measured by the amount of territory a combatant controls at any given time. But in a conflict like the one currently burning in Ukraine, where you often need a magnifying glass to determine whether the frontlines have changed at all, it's difficult to give a definitive answer. Different experts hold different assessments. Russia is methodically pushing the Ukrainian army further west and continuing its drive in the Donbas. Or, alternatively, Russia's offensive is getting bogged down and coming at such a significant cost to its own personnel and equipment that the Kremlin is forced to scour for recruits (either by offering huge bonuses or by turning prisoners into soldiers).

To make the situation more confusing, both sides of the argument can point to some evidence to bolster their cases. Russia, for instance, appears to have learned from its previous follies during the war's first month, when its failed push on Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Chernihiv was riddled with logistical embarrassments, massive casualties (perhaps as high as 15,000 Russian troops killed in action), and appeals to China for basic items like food parcels for units at the front. Since the Russian army switched its focus to the Donbas region in April, limiting its objectives (at least for the time being), Russian forces have made indisputable gains by utilizing their numerical superiority in artillery against dug-in Ukrainian defenders. Russia captured Luhansk province earlier this month and is enveloping neighboring Donetsk with a withering fuselage of missile strikes.

Yet the Ukrainian army is still holding up better than most analysts expected before the war. The quick collapse of Kyiv's forces and the unraveling of the Ukrainian government never occurred. While it's true the Russians may be able to break through Ukraine's defensive lines in Donetsk, they haven't done so yet. It took Russian troops about two months to capture Severodonetsk, a medium-size Ukrainian city. Ukraine's use of the HIMARS long-range artillery system has destroyed Russian ammunition dumps located deep in Russian-occupied territory, which will complicate Moscow's offensive and compel Russian officers to adapt yet again.

The second question, when (and how) will the war in Ukraine end, is as murky as the first.

Typically, wars end in one of two ways: one side vanquishes the other (think World War II), or the combatants become so physically exhausted that suing for a mutually acceptable diplomatic settlement makes more sense than pressing the fight (think the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s).

Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank
Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank on a road in the Donetsk region on July 20, 2022, near the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Given the grueling, incremental nature of the fighting, the most effective way to terminate the war in Ukraine as quickly as possible would be through some kind of peace agreement—one that would result in an immediate ceasefire, thereby saving Ukraine even more destruction and giving Russian and Ukrainian negotiators the time to work out the politically treacherous issues dividing them. Some seasoned experts, like Charles Kupchan, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration, argued that Washington has a responsibility to begin an honest discussion with Kyiv about what an end-of-war settlement would look like.

The decision on whether or not to settle, however, isn't made by third parties. While a diplomatic settlement would be preferable to an open-ended war that could last for years, no settlement is likely until the combatants themselves make the determination that their interests are better served talking rather than fighting. Cajoling and begging from the international community won't do much if Ukraine and Russia continue to believe they can accomplish their objectives militarily.

Unfortunately, neither side has shown much of an interest in the diplomatic route. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may hate each other on a personal level and disagree substantively on every issue under the sun, but both agree on one critical point: talk of a peace deal at this stage is inadvisable at best and foolish at worst. With the battlefield fluid, both men think they have time on their side—Putin, partly on the hope that an energy crunch and record inflation will fracture the West's support for Kyiv; Zelensky, because Ukrainian troops have greater motivation and are the recipients of billions in Western security aid. Russian and Ukrainian officials are speaking the same language in this regard, and it isn't one of compromise. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is insisting peace talks will occur on Moscow's terms, while Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated on the same day that Russia will only treat negotiations seriously if it's defeated on the battlefield. The ugly reality is peace talks are nowhere to be found in the foreseeable future.

If all of this sounds dreary and depressing, it's because war itself is dreary and depressing. The list of unknowns makes it even more so.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at The Spectator.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.