Potential Pathways Ahead for the Ukraine War

Foreign Affairs

Kyiv’s recent victories against the Russian invasion have led some to dream that Putin will be driven out of Ukraine with his tail between his legs – but such an outcome is highly unlikely, experts warn of a protracted conflict

The Russian invasion of Ukraine could be headed either for a bloody stalemate or an escalation involving direct conflict between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, a former CIA analyst has warned.

However, experts remain optimistic that there is still a path to peace if the two sides can be persuaded to walk to the negotiating table and reach a diplomatic agreement.

The state of the conflict in Ukraine and potential paths forward were discussed at an event on Monday organized by the nonpartisan Kiwi foreign policy think tank Diplosphere.

More than six months after Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine, the tide seems to have turned with Ukrainian forces regaining territory thanks to counter-offensives.

George Beebe, former head of Russian analysis at the CIA, currently with the American think tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told the audience that it was clear that the Russians had not foreseen how invading Ukraine would be difficult.

“Everyone involved in this war is discovering that it is much easier to get into a war than to successfully emerge from it.”

The initial offensive had included large numbers of troops armed with riot gear, Beeby said, believing their biggest challenge would be maintaining order during their occupation rather than actual conquest.

Despite moving from an attempt to seize the capital of Kyiv to establishing control of the eastern provinces and creating a land bridge to Russia, progress has been slow.

The Ukrainians continued to resist a “relentless barrage of artillery and rocket attacks” with the support of Western resources, although it was unclear whether recent gains could be turned into a decisive victory.

Former CIA official George Beebe said Ukraine may face challenges retaining territory it has reclaimed from Russian forces. Screenshot: IIEA

“It’s one thing to take advantage of any weakness in the Russian lines to achieve a breakthrough – it’s quite another to seize and hold vast tracts of territory which are now under Russian occupation, [and] it’s an open question whether the Ukrainians will be able to do that over time,” Beeby said.

If current trends continued, there were two likely outcomes: either a bloody stalemate that destroyed Ukraine, or an attempted escalation that resulted in a “direct military confrontation between the two largest nuclear powers in the world “.

Turkey’s ambassador to New Zealand, Ömür Ünsay, said her country’s government would continue to mediate between the two sides in the conflict, after helping broker an initiative to prevent grain and other staples food from Ukrainian ports via the Black Sea and into export markets.

Ünsay hoped the deal could be extended beyond its current end-November expiration date, though Ukraine’s recent military gains could threaten such an outcome.

She did not believe that total Russian isolation would be enough to end the war and said diplomacy was the only way forward, although there was still a long way to go.

“I think the image of the Russian forces, they are tarnished: they need a few face-saving victories to pretend they have achieved their goals, and then they would be inclined to sit down at the table or be able to say that, “Okay, that’s what we wanted, now we can negotiate.”

Richard Jackson, director of the National Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, also believed that a negotiated settlement rather than a military victory was the most likely way to end the war.

“Nowadays, wars can almost never be won decisively, for technological but also strategic reasons…and there really is no military solution to this conflict now that it is ongoing.”

Outright military victory “complete fantasy”

Jackson argued that New Zealand had “adopted the simple narrative of the injustice of the Russian invasion” and followed the example of its Western partners too eagerly, which he said undermined the claims of the country to an independent foreign policy.

The government’s “tacit tolerance” of Kiwis heading to Ukraine as foreign fighters could also undermine its approach to countering violent extremism, he said.

However, former trade minister and ambassador Tim Groser disagreed with Jackson’s view of New Zealand’s decision to back Ukraine, saying an independent foreign policy was not not synonymous with neutrality but simply meant making our own decisions based on the merits of each issue.

But Groser thought the idea of ​​an outright military victory was “a complete fantasy”, and said New Zealand should do what it could to back a diplomatic deal while continuing to support Ukraine. in his defence.

Asked about America’s approach to war, Beeby said American foreign policy had shifted from “trying to keep competition from spiraling out of control, to defeating our enemies.”

“If you take that kind of approach and apply it to big powers, like Russia and China, I think you’re expecting an extremely dangerous set of results, and that’s where we’re at. right now.”

The future of Russia-Europe relations also carries risks, he said, with European nations having to find a way to include Moscow in the regional order despite its aggression.

Although there are grounds for pessimism about the way forward, Beeby said it was too early “to give up and say there is nothing to be done”, with opportunities remaining for avoid disaster through settlement.

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