Where is the war going in Ukraine?

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By JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER*

Russia will eventually win the war, although it will not defeat Ukraine decisively.

This article looks at the likely trajectory of the war in Ukraine. I will address two main issues. First, is a meaningful peace agreement possible? My answer is no. We are currently in a war where both sides – Ukraine and the West on the one hand, and Russia on the other – see each other as an existential threat that must be defeated. Given the maximalist goals of both parties, it is almost impossible to reach a viable peace treaty.

Furthermore, the two sides have irreconcilable differences over territory and Ukraine's relationship with the West. The best possible outcome is a frozen conflict that can easily turn into a hot war. The worst possible outcome is a nuclear war, which is unlikely but cannot be excluded.

Second, which side is likely to win the war? Russia will eventually win the war, although it will not decisively defeat Ukraine. In other words, it won't conquer all of Ukraine, which is necessary to achieve three of Moscow's goals: toppling the regime, demilitarizing the country and cutting Kiev's security ties with the West. However, it will end up annexing a large part of Ukrainian territory, turning Ukraine into a dysfunctional failed state. In other words, Russia will win an ugly victory.

Before directly addressing these questions, it is necessary to make three preliminary observations. For starters, I'm trying to predict the future, which isn't easy to do given that we live in an uncertain world. So I'm not claiming to own the truth; indeed, some of my statements may turn out to be wrong. Also, I'm not saying what I would like to happen. I'm not rooting for one side or the other. I am simply telling you what I think will happen as the war progresses. Finally, I am not justifying Russian behavior or the actions of any of the states involved in the conflict. I'm just explaining your actions.

Let us now move on to the fundamental question. To understand where the war in Ukraine is going, it is first necessary to assess the current situation. It is important to know how the three main actors – Russia, Ukraine and the West – think about their threat environment and conceive their objectives. However, when we talk about the West, we are talking mainly about the United States, since its European allies take orders from Washington where Ukraine is concerned. It is also essential to understand the current situation on the battlefield. Let me start with Russia's threat environment and its objectives.

 

Russia's threat environment

Since April 2008, it has become clear that Russian leaders generally regard Western efforts to integrate Ukraine into NATO and make it a Western bulwark on Russia's borders as an existential threat. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin and his commanders repeatedly made this point in the months leading up to the Russian invasion, when it was becoming clear to them that Ukraine was almost a de facto member of NATO.

Since the war began on February 24, 2022, the West has added another layer to this existential threat, adopting a new set of goals that Russian leaders cannot help but find extremely threatening. I'll talk more about Western goals later, but suffice it to say here that the West is determined to defeat Russia and eliminate it from the ranks of the great powers, or even bring about regime change, or even bring about Russia's demise. , as happened to the Soviet Union in 1991.

In an important speech, delivered last February (2023), Vladimir Putin highlighted that the West is a mortal threat to Russia: “During the years that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union”, he said, “the West never stopped trying to set fire to post-Soviet states and, above all, to do away with Russia as the largest remaining portion of our state's historic boundaries. They encouraged international terrorists to attack us, provoked regional conflicts along the perimeter of our borders, ignored our interests, and tried to contain and suppress our economy.” And he underlined that “the western elite makes no secret of its objective, which is, I quote, 'the strategic defeat of Russia'. What does this mean for us? It means they plan to finish us off once and for all.” And Putin further said: "This poses an existential threat to our country."

Russian leaders also see the Kiev regime as a threat to Russia, not only because it is a close ally of the West, but also because they see it as a descendant of the Ukrainian fascist forces that fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in Second World War.

 

Russia's goals

Russia must win this war as it believes it is facing a threat to its survival. But what does victory consist of? The ideal outcome before the outbreak of war in February 2022 was to transform Ukraine into a neutral state and resolve the civil war in Donbass, which pitted the Ukrainian government against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers who wanted greater autonomy, or even independence for his region. It appears that these goals were still realistic during the first month of the war and were, in fact, the basis of the negotiations in Istanbul between Kiev and Moscow in March 2022. Had the Russians achieved these goals by then, the current war would have been avoided or finished quickly.

But an agreement that satisfies Russia's goals is no longer possible. Ukraine and NATO are inseparable for the foreseeable future and neither is willing to accept Ukrainian neutrality. Furthermore, the Kiev regime is anathema to the Russian leadership, who want it out of the picture. They are not just talking about “denazifying” Ukraine, but also “demilitarizing” it, two goals that would presumably entail conquering all of Ukraine, forcing its military forces to surrender, and installing a friendly regime in Kiev.

A decisive victory of this kind is not likely for several reasons. The Russian army is not big enough for such a task, which would probably require at least two million men. In fact, the current Russian army is having a hard time conquering all of Donbass. Furthermore, the West would go to great lengths to prevent Russia from dominating all of Ukraine. Ultimately, the Russians would end up occupying a huge amount of territory that is densely populated by ethnic Ukrainians who detest Russians and would fiercely resist occupation. The attempt to conquer all of Ukraine and bring it under Moscow's will would surely end in disaster.

Leaving aside the rhetoric about the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine, Russia's concrete goals involve the conquest and annexation of a large part of Ukrainian territory, while simultaneously transforming Ukraine into a dysfunctional failed state. As such, Ukraine's ability to wage war against Russia would be greatly reduced and it would be unlikely to qualify for membership in the European Union or NATO. Furthermore, a broken Ukraine would be especially vulnerable to Russian interference in its internal politics. In short, Ukraine would not be a western bastion on the border with Russia.

What would this dysfunctional failed state look like? Moscow officially annexed Crimea and four other Ukrainian oblasts – Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia – which together accounted for about 23% of Ukraine's total territory before the outbreak of the crisis in February 2014. have any intention of relinquishing this territory, part of which Russia does not yet control. Indeed, there is reason to think that Russia will annex other Ukrainian territories if it has the military capability to do so at a reasonable cost. However, it is difficult to say how much additional Ukrainian territory Moscow will seek to annex, as Vladimir Putin himself makes clear.

It is likely that Russian reasoning is influenced by three calculations. Moscow has a strong incentive to conquer and permanently annex Ukrainian territory, which is densely populated by ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. It will seek to protect them from the Ukrainian government – ​​which has become hostile to all things Russian – and to ensure that there will not be a civil war in Ukraine like the one that took place in Donbass between February 2014 and February 2022. At the same time, Russia it will avoid controlling a territory largely populated by hostile ethnic Ukrainians, which places significant limits on wider Russian expansion.

Finally, to turn Ukraine into a dysfunctional failed state, it will be necessary for Moscow to seize substantial amounts of Ukrainian territory so that it is well positioned to do significant damage to its economy. Control of the entire Ukrainian coastline along the Black Sea, for example, would give Moscow a significant economic asset over Kiev.

These three calculations suggest that Russia is likely to try to annex the four oblasts – Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkov, Mykolaiv and Odessa – which lie immediately to the west of the four oblasts which it has already annexed – Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. If that happened, Russia would control approximately 43% of Ukraine's territory before 2014. Dmitri Trenin, a leading Russian strategist, estimates that Russian leaders would seek to conquer even more Ukrainian territory - advancing westward into northern Ukraine to the Dnieper River and taking the part of Kiev that lies on the east bank of that river. He writes that “a logical next step” after taking all of Ukraine from Kharkov to Odessa “would be to expand Russian control to all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River, including the part of Kiev that lies on the east bank of that river. If that happened, the Ukrainian state would shrink to include only the central and western regions of the country.”

 

The threat environment of the West

It may seem hard to believe now, but before the Ukraine crisis began in February 2014, Western leaders did not view Russia as a security threat. NATO leaders, for example, spoke to the President of Russia about “a new phase of cooperation towards a true strategic partnership” at the alliance's Lisbon Summit in 2010. Unsurprisingly, NATO expansion prior to 2014 was not justified in terms of containing a dangerous Russia.

Indeed, it was Russian weakness that allowed the West to shove the first two installments of NATO expansion down Moscow's throats, in 1999 and 2004, and that allowed the George W. Bush administration to think, in 2008, that Russia could be forced to accept the accession of Georgia and Ukraine to the alliance. But that assumption proved wrong, and when the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014, the West suddenly began to portray Russia as a dangerous enemy that had to be contained, if not weakened.

Since the start of the war in February 2022, the West's perception of Russia has steadily increased, to the point where Moscow is now seen as an existential threat. The United States and its NATO allies are deeply involved in Ukraine's war against Russia. In fact, they are doing everything but pulling the triggers and pushing the buttons. Furthermore, they made clear their unequivocal commitment to winning the war and maintaining Ukraine's sovereignty.

Thus, losing the war would have extremely negative consequences for Washington and for NATO. The United States' reputation for competence and reliability would be severely damaged, which would affect how its allies and adversaries—especially China—deal with the United States. Furthermore, practically all European countries in NATO believe that the alliance is an irreplaceable security umbrella. Thus, the possibility of NATO being severely damaged – perhaps even ruined – if Russia wins in Ukraine is a matter of deep concern among its members.

Furthermore, Western leaders often portray the war in Ukraine as an integral part of a broader global struggle between autocracy and democracy, which is Manichaean to its core. What's more, the future of the sacrosanct rules-based international order is said to depend on victory against Russia. As King Charles said last March (2023), "Europe's security and our democratic values ​​are under threat".

Likewise, a resolution introduced into the US Congress in April states: “The interests of the United States, European security and the cause of international peace depend on … Ukrainian victory.” A recent article by The Washington Post illustrates how the West treats Russia as an existential threat: “The leaders of more than 50 countries that support Ukraine have presented their support as part of an apocalyptic battle for the future of democracy and international law against the autocracy and aggression that the West cannot afford to lose”.

 

goals of the west

As should be clear, the West is firmly committed to defeating Russia. President Biden has repeatedly said that the United States is in this war to win. "Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia." It has to end in a “strategic failure”. Washington, he emphasizes, will stay in the fight "for as long as it takes". Specifically, the aim is to defeat the Russian army in Ukraine – erasing its territorial gains – and paralyze its economy with lethal sanctions. If successful, Russia would be eliminated from the ranks of the Great Powers, weakening it to the point where it cannot threaten to invade Ukraine again. Western leaders have additional goals, which include regime change in Moscow, putting Putin on trial as a war criminal and possibly splitting Russia into smaller states.

At the same time, the West remains committed to bringing Ukraine into NATO, although there is disagreement within the alliance about when and how this will happen. Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the alliance, said at a press conference in Kiev in April 2023 that "NATO's position remains unchanged and Ukraine will become a member of the alliance". At the same time, he underscored that “the first step towards any Ukraine membership of NATO is to ensure that Ukraine prevails, which is why the US and its partners have given Ukraine unprecedented support”. Given these goals, it is evident why Russia sees the West as an existential threat.

 

Ukraine's Threat Environment and Goals

There is no doubt that Ukraine faces an existential threat, as Russia is bent on dismembering it and ensuring that the surviving state is not only economically weak, but also does not become a de facto or de facto member of NATO. . There is also no doubt that Kiev shares the West's goal of defeating and seriously weakening Russia so that it can regain its lost territory and keep it under Ukrainian control forever. As President Volodymyr Zelensky recently told President Xi Jinping, "There can be no peace based on territorial compromises." Ukrainian leaders remain, of course, firmly committed to joining the European Union and NATO and to making Ukraine an integral part of the West.

In short, all three major players in Ukraine's war believe they face an existential threat, which means they each think they have to win the war or else suffer dire consequences.

 

The current battlefield

Moving on to events on the battlefield, the war has evolved into a war of attrition in which each side is primarily concerned with slowly bleeding the other into surrender. Of course, both sides are also concerned with capturing territory, but that goal is of secondary importance to attrition on the other side.

The Ukrainian armed forces had the upper hand in the second half of 2022, which allowed them to regain territory from Russia in the Kharkov and Kherson regions. But Russia responded to these defeats by mobilizing an additional 300.000 troops, reorganizing its army, shortening its front lines and learning from its mistakes. The focus of fighting in 2023 has been eastern Ukraine, mainly in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions. The Russians have had the upper hand this year, mainly because they have a substantial advantage in artillery, which is the most important weapon in the war of attrition.

Moscow's advantage was evident in the battle for Bakhmut, which ended with the Russians taking the city in late May (2023). Although it took Russian forces ten months to take control of Bakhmut, they inflicted huge casualties on Ukrainian forces with their artillery. Shortly afterwards, on June 4, Ukraine launched its long-awaited counter-offensive in different locations in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions. The objective is to penetrate the front lines of Russian defense, deal a surprising blow to Russian forces and recover a substantial part of Ukrainian territory that is now under Russian control. Essentially, the aim is to duplicate Ukraine's successes in Kharkiv and Kherson by 2022.

So far, the Ukrainian army has made little progress in realizing these goals and is instead mired in deadly battles of attrition with Russian forces. In 2022, Ukraine was successful in the Kharkov and Kherson campaigns because its army was fighting heavily outnumbered and widely dispersed Russian forces. This is not currently the case: Ukraine is attacking well-prepared Russian defense lines head-on. But even if Ukrainian forces manage to break through these defensive lines, Russian troops will quickly stabilize the front and battles of attrition will continue. The Ukrainians are at a disadvantage in these clashes because the Russians have a significant advantage in firepower.

 

Where are we going

Let me change the subject and move away from the present to talk about the future, starting with how events on the battlefield are likely to unfold in the future. As already noted, I believe that Russia will win the war, which means that it will end up conquering and annexing a substantial part of the Ukrainian territory, which will leave Ukraine as a dysfunctional failed state. If I'm correct, this will be a big defeat for Ukraine and the West.

However, there is a silver lining to this outcome: a Russian victory significantly reduces the threat of nuclear war, as a nuclear escalation is more likely to occur if Ukrainian forces score battlefield victories and threaten to take back all or most of the war. of the territories that Kiev lost to Moscow. Certainly, Russian leaders would seriously consider using nuclear weapons to save the situation. Of course, if I am wrong about the course of the war and the Ukrainian military gains the upper hand and starts pushing Russian forces eastwards, the probability of using nuclear weapons will increase significantly, which is not to say that it is a certainty.

What is the basis for my assertion that the Russians are likely to win the war?

The Ukrainian war, as has been emphasized, is a war of attrition in which the capture and holding of territory is of secondary importance. The object of attritional warfare is to wear down the other side's strength to the point where it either gives up the fight or is so weakened that it can no longer defend the contested territory. Who wins a war of attrition depends largely on three factors: the balance of resolve between the two sides; the population balance between them; and the exchange ratio of casualties. The Russians have a decisive advantage in population size and a marked advantage in casualty exchange ratio; the two sides are evenly matched in terms of determination.

Let us consider the equilibrium of determination. As already indicated, both Russia and Ukraine believe they are facing an existential threat and, naturally, both sides are fully committed to winning the war. Thus, it is difficult to see any significant difference in their determination. Relative to population size, Russia had an advantage of approximately 3,5:1 before the outbreak of war in February 2022.

Since then, the ratio has noticeably shifted in favor of Russia. About eight million Ukrainians left the country, decreasing Ukraine's population. About three million of these emigrants went to Russia, increasing its population. In addition, there are probably around four million other Ukrainian citizens living in the territories that Russia currently controls, which further increases the population imbalance in Russia's favour. Putting these numbers together, Russia has a roughly 5:1 advantage in population size.

Lastly, there is the exchange ratio of casualties, which has been a contentious issue since the beginning of the war in February 2022. The conventional wisdom in Ukraine and the West is that casualty levels on both sides are roughly equal or that the Russians suffered more casualties than the Ukrainians. The head of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Oleksiy Danilov, even claims that the Russians lost 7,5 soldiers for every Ukrainian soldier in the Battle of Bakhmut. These statements are wrong. Ukrainian forces certainly suffered far more casualties than their Russian adversaries for a reason: Russia has far more artillery than Ukraine.

In attritional warfare, artillery is the most important weapon on the battlefield. In the US Army, artillery is widely known as the “king of battle” because it is primarily responsible for killing and injuring soldiers who are fighting. Thus, artillery balance is extremely important in a war of attrition. By almost all accounts, the Russians have an advantage of between 5:1 and 10:1 in artillery, which puts the Ukrainian army at a significant disadvantage on the battlefield. ceteris paribus, one would expect the casualty exchange ratio to approach artillery balance. Therefore, a casualty exchange ratio of 2:1 in favor of Russia is a conservative estimate.

A possible challenge to my analysis is to argue that Russia is the aggressor in this war and that the aggressor invariably suffers much higher casualty levels than the defender, especially if the attacking forces are involved in extensive frontal attacks, which is often said. be the modus operandi of the Russian military. After all, the attacker is out in the open and on the move, while the defender fights primarily from fixed positions that provide substantial cover. This logic underlies the famous 3:1 rule of thumb, which states that an attacking force needs at least three times as many soldiers as the defending force to win a battle. But there are problems with this line of argument when it is applied to the Ukraine war.

First, it was not just the Russians who launched offensive campaigns throughout the war. Indeed, the Ukrainians launched two major offensives in the past year that led to widely heralded victories: the Kharkov Offensive in September 2022 and the Kherson Offensive between August and November 2022. Although the Ukrainians made substantial territorial gains in both campaigns, Russian artillery inflicted heavy casualties on attacking forces. On June 4, the Ukrainians launched another major offensive against Russian forces that outnumber and are much better prepared than those the Ukrainians fought against in Kharkov and Kherson.

Second, the distinction between attackers and defenders in a major battle is usually not black and white. When an army attacks another army, the defender invariably launches counterattacks. In other words, the defender goes on offense and the attacker goes on defense. In the course of a prolonged battle, each side is likely to end up attacking and counterattacking a lot, as well as defending fixed positions. This back-and-forth explains why the exchange ratios of casualties in US Civil War battles and World War I battles are often roughly equal, not favoring the army that started out on the defensive. Indeed, the army that strikes the first blow sometimes suffers fewer casualties than the target army. In short, defense usually involves a lot of offense.

Ukrainian and Western press reports clearly show that Ukrainian forces frequently launch counter-attacks against Russian forces. Consider this account of the Washington Post on fighting earlier this year in Bakhmut: “'There is fluid movement going on,' said a Ukrainian lieutenant… Russian attacks along the front allow their forces to advance a few hundred meters before being pushed back hours later. 'It's difficult to distinguish exactly where the front line is because it moves like jelly', he said”. Given the enormous advantage of the Russian artillery, it seems reasonable to assume that the ratio of casualties in these Ukrainian counterattacks favors the Russians – probably in an unequal way.

Third, the Russians are not employing – at least not often – large-scale frontal attacks that are intended to advance quickly and capture territory, but which would expose the attacking forces to heavy fire from the Ukrainian defenders. As General Sergey Surovikin explained in October 2022, when he was commanding Russian forces in Ukraine, “We have a different strategy… We spare every soldier and we are persistently crushing the advancing enemy”. In effect, Russian troops have adopted smart tactics that reduce their casualty levels.

Their preferred tactic is to launch probing attacks against stationary Ukrainian positions with small infantry units, which prompts Ukrainian forces to attack them with mortar and artillery. This reaction allows the Russians to determine where the Ukrainian defenders and their artillery are located. The Russians then use their great advantage in artillery to attack their opponents. Subsequently, Russian infantry groups advance again, and when they encounter serious Ukrainian resistance, they repeat the process. These tactics help explain why Russia is making slow progress in capturing Ukrainian territory.

One would think that the West could do a lot to balance the casualty exchange ratio by supplying Ukraine with many more rounds and artillery shells, thus eliminating Russia's significant advantage with this critically important weapon. However, this will not happen anytime soon, simply because neither the United States nor its allies have the industrial capacity necessary to mass-produce shells and artillery shells for Ukraine. Nor can they quickly develop this ability. The best the West can do – for the next year at least – is to maintain the current imbalance in artillery between Russia and Ukraine, but even that will be a difficult task.

Ukraine can do little to help solve the problem because its weapons manufacturing capacity is limited. It is almost completely dependent on the West, not just for artillery but for all sorts of major weapons systems. Russia, on the other hand, had a formidable capacity to manufacture weapons for war, which was increased since the beginning of the fighting. Putin recently stated: “Our defense industry is gaining momentum every day. We have increased military production 2,7 times over the last year. Our production of the most important weapons has increased tenfold and continues to do so. The factories work in two or three shifts and some are busy all the time”. In short, given the sad state of Ukraine's industrial base, this country is in no position to wage a war of attrition alone. It can only do so with the support of the West. But even so, it is doomed to lose.

There has been a recent development that further increases Russia's firepower advantage over Ukraine. During the first year of the war, Russian air power had little influence on what happened in the ground war, mainly because Ukraine's air defenses were effective enough to keep Russian planes away from most battlefields. But the Russians have seriously weakened Ukraine's air defenses, which now allows the Russian air force to attack Ukrainian ground forces on or directly behind the front lines. In addition, Russia has developed the capability to equip its huge arsenal of 500 kg gravity bombs with kits orientation that make them especially lethal.

In short, the casualty trade ratio will continue to favor the Russians for the foreseeable future, which is extremely important in a war of attrition. Furthermore, Russia is much better positioned to fight a war of attrition because its population is so much larger than Ukraine's. Kiev's only hope for winning the war is the collapse of Moscow's resolve, but that is unlikely given Russian leaders view the West as an existential danger.

 

Prospects for a negotiated peace deal

There is a growing chorus of voices around the world calling on all parties to the Ukrainian war to embrace diplomacy and negotiate a lasting peace deal. However, this will not happen. There are many formidable obstacles to ending the war any time soon, and far fewer efforts to reach an agreement that will produce lasting peace. The best possible outcome is a frozen conflict, where both sides continue to look for opportunities to weaken the other side, and where there is an ever-present danger of renewed fighting.

More generally, peace is not possible because each side sees the other as a deadly threat that must be defeated on the battlefield. Under these circumstances, there is hardly any room for a compromise with the other party. There are also two specific points of contention between the belligerent parties that cannot be resolved. One concerns territory and the other concerns Ukrainian neutrality. Almost all Ukrainians are deeply committed to regaining all of their lost territory – including Crimea. Who can blame them? But Russia has officially annexed Crimea, Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, and is firmly committed to keeping that territory. Indeed, there is reason to think that Moscow will annex more Ukrainian territory if it can.

The other Gordian knot concerns Ukraine's relationship with the West. For understandable reasons, Ukraine wants a guarantee of security after the end of the war, which only the West can provide. This means de facto or de jure membership in NATO, as no other country can protect Ukraine. Virtually all Russian leaders, however, demand a neutral Ukraine, meaning there will be no military ties with the West and therefore no security umbrella for Kiev. There is no way to square this circle.

There are two other obstacles to peace: nationalism, which has now turned into hypernationalism, and the complete lack of confidence on the Russian side.

Nationalism has been a powerful force in Ukraine for more than a century, and antagonism towards Russia has long been one of its core elements. The outbreak of the current conflict, on February 22, 2014, fueled this hostility, leading the Ukrainian parliament to approve, the next day, a bill restricting the use of Russian and other minority languages, a measure that helped precipitate the civil war in Donbass. The annexation of Crimea by Russia, shortly afterwards, worsened an already bad situation. Contrary to popular belief in the West, Putin understood that Ukraine was a separate nation from Russia and that the conflict between ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Donbass and the Ukrainian government was about the “national question”.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which pits the two countries squarely against each other in a protracted and bloody war, turned this nationalism into hypernationalism on both sides. Contempt and hatred of the “other” permeates Russian and Ukrainian society, which creates powerful incentives to eliminate this threat – with violence if necessary. Examples abound. A prominent Kiev weekly claims that famous Russian authors such as Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leon Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak are “murderers, looters, ignorants”. Russian culture, says a prominent Ukrainian writer, represents "barbarism, murder and destruction... Such is the fate of the enemy's culture."

Predictably, the Ukrainian government is engaged in “derussification” or “decolonization,” which involves removing books by Russian authors from libraries, renaming streets linked to Russia, removing statues of figures such as Catherine the Great, the banning of Russian music produced after 1991, the severing of ties between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, and the minimization of the use of the Russian language. Perhaps Ukraine's attitude towards Russia is best summed up by Volodymyr Zelensky's terse comment: “We will not forgive. We will not forget”.

On the Russian side of the hill, Anatol Lieven reports that "every day on Russian television one sees hateful ethnic slurs aimed at Ukrainians". Unsurprisingly, Russians are working to Russify and erase Ukrainian culture in areas Moscow has annexed. These measures include issuing Russian passports, changing school curricula, replacing the Ukrainian hryvnia with the Russian ruble, creating libraries and museums, and changing the names of cities and towns. Bakhmut, for example, is now Artemovsk and the Ukrainian language is no longer taught in schools in the Donetsk region. Russians, it seems, will never forgive or forget, either.

The rise of hypernationalism is predictable in wartime, not only because governments rely heavily on nationalism to motivate their people to support their country to the end, but also because the death and destruction that comes with war – especially wars prolonged – lead each side to dehumanize and hate the other. In Ukraine's case, the bitter conflict over national identity adds fuel to the fire.

Hypernationalism naturally hampers cooperation between the two sides and gives Russia a reason to seize territory full of ethnic and Russian-speaking Russians. Presumably many of them would prefer to live under Russian control, given the Ukrainian government's animosity towards everything Russian. In the process of annexing these lands, the Russians are likely to expel large numbers of ethnic Ukrainians, mainly due to fears that they will revolt against Russian rule if they stay. These developments will further fuel hatred between Russians and Ukrainians, making compromise over territory virtually impossible.

There is one final reason why a lasting peace agreement cannot be reached. Russian leaders trust neither Ukraine nor the West to negotiate in good faith, which is not to say that Ukrainian and Western leaders trust their Russian counterparts. The lack of trust is evident on all sides, but it is especially acute on the part of Moscow given a host of recent revelations.

The origin of the problem is what happened in the negotiations on the 2015 Minsk II Agreement, which constituted a milestone to end the conflict in Donbass. French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel played a central role in designing this framework, although they consulted extensively with both Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. These four individuals were also key players in subsequent negotiations. There is little doubt that Putin was committed to making Minsk work. But Hollande, Merkel and Poroshenko – as well as Zelensky – made it clear that they were not interested in implementing Minsk, but were interested in seeing it as an opportunity to buy time for Ukraine to bolster its armed forces to deal with the insurgency in Donbass. As Merkel told the Time and patience, was “an attempt to give Ukraine time (…) to become stronger”. Similarly, Poroshenko said: "Our aim was, first and foremost, to stop the threat, or at least delay the war - to ensure eight years to restore economic growth and create powerful armed forces."

Shortly after Merkel's interview with Time and patience, in December 2022, Vladimir Putin said at a press conference: “I thought that the other participants in this agreement were at least honest, but no, after all they were also lying to us and just wanted to fill Ukraine with weapons and prepare it for a military conflict. He went on to say that being deceived by the West made him miss the opportunity to resolve the Ukraine problem in more favorable circumstances for Russia: “Apparently, we established our position too late, to be honest. Perhaps we should have started all this [the military operation] earlier, but we just hoped to be able to resolve it within the framework of the Minsk agreements”. He then made it clear that the West's duplicity would complicate future negotiations: “Confidence is already close to zero, but after such declarations, how can we negotiate? About what? Can we make deals with anyone and where are the guarantees?”

John J. Mearsheimer is a professor of international relations at the University of Chicago. Author, among other books, of How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy (Yale University Press).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the portal News18.


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