Is Russia-Ukraine War Set for A Big Freeze?

Dr. Diana Galeeva | 31 December 2023
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On the battlefield in the Russia-Ukraine war, the first half of 2023 was a period of buildup toward Ukraine’s Kherson and Kharkiv counteroffensives. But there were no swift resolutions. The summer counteroffensive did not produce the desired results, partly because Kyiv did not receive the necessary weapons from its allies, President Volodymyr Zelensky has admitted to the Associated Press. Nonetheless, Ukraine continued with its counteroffensive.

On Dec. 1, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that the Ukrainian army had lost more than 125,000 people and 16,000 large-scale weapons since the start of the counteroffensive. “Total mobilization in Ukraine, supplies of Western weapons and the introduction of strategic reserves into battle by the Ukrainian command did not change the situation on the battlefield,” he said.

Given these developments on the ground, how will the 2023 phase of the war be assessed? What were its main challenges and developments? And, looking ahead, what can we expect in 2024?

Zelensky last month stated that Ukraine needs “three victories” — for the US Congress to approve further military assistance, for the EU to continue its support, and for “open dialogue” on Ukraine’s EU accession.

Through NATO, Ukraine’s Western allies have promised €500 million ($539 million) to deal with Kyiv’s critical needs. They are also committed to a multiyear assistance program, in addition to billions of euros of financial aid. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg last month linked these commitments to “our security interests” and urged members of the security alliance to continue backing Ukraine.

At the 2023 Vilnius summit, NATO allies also reasserted that Ukraine would become a member of the alliance once specific conditions are met. This involves a careful balance of declaring unconditional ongoing support, including prioritizing Ukraine’s security as part of “our” security, while still setting conditions before the country can be fully welcomed into the bloc.

Individual NATO members have also shown additional commitments to the Ukrainian cause, but there are already signs of looming challenges in 2024.

The US has provided more than $40 billion in security aid to Ukraine. Germany and the Netherlands also recently increased their aid pledges for Ukraine. However, the future of these commitments risks becoming mired in domestic politics, as a proposed $61 billion US aid package has been held up by Congress. Moreover, the war between Israel and Hamas, which broke out on Oct. 7 is having an effect. The US has reduced its supply of 155mm ammunition by “more than 30 percent,” a senior Ukrainian source told ABC News in November, despite Washington’s assurances that the conflict in the Middle East would not have an impact.

With regards to European partners, a proposed €50 billion package from the EU is being opposed by Hungary, delaying its approval. It may also face disruption due to the financial crisis in Germany and the strengthening of the far right in several European countries, such as in the recent Dutch elections.

Along with this financial angle, the diplomatic aspect remains an obstacle. Not least is the fact that Ukraine’s membership bid has already divided the union. “Ukraine is in no way ready to negotiate on its ambitions to join the European Union,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said last month. In a Foreign Policy article in 2022, Amanda Coakley had called Orban “Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European Union.”

"The possibility of peace negotiations taking place is crucial to any analysis of how things will play out."

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, commenting on the European Commission’s recommendation that accession negotiations with Kyiv should begin, suggested that Ukraine should not be admitted to the EU until the armed conflict there ends, otherwise it risks spreading throughout Europe. Meanwhile, Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu warned that NATO allies need to stand firm in supporting Ukraine or risk right-wing and populist forces in the EU becoming even stronger.

The possibility of peace negotiations taking place is crucial to any analysis of how things will play out, but it is not at all clear that such a stage will be reached in 2024. Firstly, the disagreement between the two conflicting sides remains profound. Ukraine “cannot afford any stalemate,” according to Zelensky. The country previously lived under such conditions from 2014 to 2022 and cannot abide by it again in the future. According to the Ukrainian president, the conflict could end if Russia fulfills the conditions of the “peace formula” he presented. However, Moscow has ruled out negotiations based on the Ukrainian plan and called it unacceptable.

There have also been indications from both sides that they expect further conflict. Putin this month ordered an increase in the number of Russian troops of nearly 170,000, bringing the size of the army to 2.2 million, including 1.32 million troops. As for Ukraine, according to the latest polls, almost half of Ukrainians (44 percent) declared their readiness for compromises in peace negotiations with Russia, but about the same number (48 percent) were in favor of continuing hostilities. The survey was conducted by the one of the biggest nongovernmental and independent research organizations in Ukraine, the Rating group.

At the same time, there are other crucial partners in the war to consider. In November, Stoltenberg said that NATO members are not putting pressure on Ukraine regarding negotiations with Russia. According to him, strengthening Kyiv’s position in future negotiations requires continuing to provide it with military assistance.

However, a minority of EU members oppose this view. Hungary’s Szijjarto said: “The propaganda saying that more fighting will create better conditions for signing a peace agreement is false. Today, the conditions for peace talks are far better than any that there will be tomorrow.”

The future course of the war is particularly closely connected with the US position. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder noted in an October interview with Berliner Zeitung that Washington prevented the conflict from being resolved in March 2022. The US, in his opinion, is the only one that can resolve the issue of a settlement. Therefore, the 2024 US presidential election, in addition to the European Parliament elections, might contribute to evolving approaches toward the war and the role of Western countries in it. This would have a direct impact on the possibility of peace negotiations.

Finally, elections are also expected in Ukraine in the spring of 2024. However, they cannot legally be held during a time of martial law, which continues to apply in the country. Zelensky himself has said that it is “not the right time” for elections. Meanwhile, he is acutely concerned about the “Churchill phenomenon,” referring to the electoral defeat of successful British wartime leader Winston Churchill in 1945. Despite uniting his people for this “national struggle,” Zelensky has faced criticism, which might add a domestic challenger to his external struggles.

To sum up, it is clear that Ukraine remains dedicated to its current course, along with its allies. Meanwhile, Russia continues to build its important role among what it terms the “world majority,” i.e., countries in the Global South and the East, which will help it to sustain its economy and war effort. Amid such dynamics, the situation is unlikely to change in 2024, prompting a pessimistic assessment of the possibility of peace. However, the new year will witness fundamental developments, with planned elections in the US, Europe and Ukraine.

It may be that, with many new politicians in power, there will be some shifts in the war. But if the geopolitical situation remains fairly static, there is a possibility that the Ukraine war will become a largely frozen conflict in 2024.

Dr. Diana Galeeva is an academic visitor to Oxford University. X: @Dr_GaleevaDiana

This article was originally published on The Arab News.  
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.