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Paul Vallely: No end in sight to this bloody conflict  

24 February 2023

Paul Vallely has learned how hard it is to predict President Putin’s next move


President Putin greets members of the Russian military during a concert at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Wednesday

President Putin greets members of the Russian military during a concert at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Wednesday

CONFESSION, they say, is good for the soul. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote in these pages that I did not think that it was very likely that Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine (28 January, 2022), although he was amassing large numbers of troops along the Russian border. How wrong can you be?

Still, it’s interesting to look back, after a year of this brutal war, on the reasons that I gave. The arguments against were political, economic, and military. But I noted the strength to President Putin of the cultural argument in favour of invasion.

To many Russians, their President included, Ukraine is not a separate country. For centuries — starting with the medieval confederation of Kyivan Rus, which was the fount of Orthodox Christianity, and ending with the tight integration of the Russian and Ukrainian economies during the Soviet Union — the territory was at the core of Russian national identity.

It is this that explains the ferocity of the Putin commitment to what appears to the West an outmoded imperial adventure. President Putin has now embedded the idea of Ukraine’s being part of Russia in his nation’s school textbooks. His outrage has been heightened as Ukraine’s resistance solidified the Westward-leaning tendency of its democracy. The result is, I fear, that this horrible war could last for another year, or even longer.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 went unchallenged. But its advance on Kyiv swiftly stalled. The troops of Volodymyr Zelensky then regained territories in the east. But Russia has secured a land bridge to Crimea. The tide of war ebbs back and forth across the unhappy land. Thousands of civilians have been killed, as have tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides. Millions have been displaced, and entire towns and villages razed.

The future looks grim. The West is providing tanks, missiles, and perhaps fighter jets, while the less than impressive Russian forces are being supplied by Iran and soon, perhaps, China. The bloodbath may well worsen. Other territories — Moldova, Georgia, and the western Balkans — could be drawn into the conflict. So might NATO countries, as President Putin steps up his attempts to destabilise the West by weaponising our energy supplies.

What can be the endgame? Kyiv insists that it wants to liberate all Ukrainian territories, including Crimea. Some Ukrainians go further, speaking of forcing the break-up of the Russian Federation into separate independent ethnic states. Russia is set on a victory that requires Kyiv to cede territory — Crimea, the land bridge, and/or the Donbas — in any peace negotiation.

What looks most likely is that an eventual military stalemate will force the two sides to the negotiating table. How much territory Russia will then retain will depend on the position that it has achieved on the battlefield. Beyond that, it is hard to see the way forward.

“Any territorial compromises would make us weaker as a state,” President Zelensky said recently. Yet defeat for Putin could well prompt him to use battlefield nuclear weapons. Common sense says that he would not risk such a mad escalation. But then, a year ago, common sense said that he would not invade Ukraine — which he has done, unleashing the largest-scale conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

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