Part 1: The Foundations
Making a prognosis is not difficult. Getting it right, however, is the hard part. It is, therefore, important to establish what is a variable and what is not. My predictions for 2024 highlight some of the enduring and transient factors.
The enduring factors, fixed in time and space, are the starting point for the analysis. The transient factors are the ones that will define and shape the war in the year to come. These include both negative and positive trends. However, they also include trends that can go either way. Uncertainty. The unknowns.
The enduring factors
Firstly, 2014 is the starting point for any analysis of the war. On Feb. 20, 2024, the war will have been going on for a decade. While the intensity of the war escalated dramatically on Feb. 24, 2022, it is still a Hybrid War.
It is the same aggressor with the same aim and objectives, using the same strategy, and the same tools since 2014.
Two years ago, Russia chose to shift its main effort from non-military to military means. Its military efforts are, however, still supported by the full range of its non-military tools (e.g., diplomacy, politics, energy, economy, information, security, religion).
Disinformation, propaganda, and active measures remain crucial elements of the Hybrid War. A major part of the battlespace of the nearly 10-year-long war occurs inside the cognitive spaces of populations and key decision- and policymakers. Using war, disinformation, cyber-attacks, blackmail, threats, provocations, fabrications, military deceptions, and other active measures, it continues to create a virtual reality that prompts the West into making the political decisions Russia wants without suspecting (or acknowledging) they are being manipulated.
Nuclear blackmail was always a crucial part of this strategy, but even more today as the Russian Army is being destroyed in Ukraine. Its nuclear “fait accompli” strategy has proven extremely efficient for years. It has helped hold the West at bay, stopping it from engaging decisively in Ukraine.
As during the first eight years of the war, hints of negotiations are being used to weaken Western resolve and reduce its support of Ukraine.
Secondly, Russia’s aims and objectives have remained the same since 2014. On Dec. 9, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova stressed that “it is necessary to confirm the neutral, non-aligned and nuclear-free status of Ukraine, carry out its demilitarization and denazification, acknowledge new territorial realities, and ensure the rights of Russian-speaking citizens and national minorities living in this country.”
The term “denazification” means a regime change in favor of Russia. “Demilitarization,” and “neutral, non-aligned and nuclear-free status of Ukraine” means that Ukraine would be left unprotected against continued Russian expansion.
Five days later, President Putin stressed that “there will be peace when we achieve our goals… denazification, demilitarization, and a neutral status for Ukraine.”
Despite the collective efforts of Ukraine and its international partners, Russia is maintaining the objective of subjugating Ukraine (and Belarus). Its territorial ambitions go beyond Crimea and the four oblasts it has illegally annexed. More importantly, Russia remains determined to seek great power status at the cost of the US and Europe, while seeking to rectify what the Kremlin sees as historical injustice after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It seeks to reassert its influence over Eastern Europe.
Thirdly, the war is a part of a broader confrontation between Russia and the West. The defeat of Ukraine is only a crucial objective in a far broader strategy. Russia cannot be a great power without Ukraine. Once it is integrated into the Russian Federation (along with Belarus) Russia hopes to resolve its huge demographic problems. Russia would also gain control over Ukraine’s defense industry and technology, its institutions and agencies, some of the world’s richest agricultural areas, and enormous deposits of minerals, gas and oil. It would not least, be able to move its military power nearly 1,000 km closer to London, Berlin, and Paris.
The subjugation of Ukraine would create the preconditions for great power status: The population, economy, technology and, therefore, the military power needed to be seen as an equal to the US and China.
It would create an aggressive, imperialistic power at the border of Europe, prepared to use military power to achieve its next objective: Its domination of Europe, including forcing NATO to withdraw its forces to its 1997 borders and denying the US from deploying military forces and nuclear weapons to Europe.
Fourthly, the war is fundamental. Ukraine is fighting for its right to exist. Russia is fighting for its great power ambitions, in which the defeat and integration of Ukraine into the Russian Federation is crucial. Having started an unjust and unprovoked war there is no turning back. It has turned friends into enemies. The world sees it as an imperialistic, aggressive, and criminal state. It is either victorious (and a future great power) or defeated (and a pariah state in the international community).
The war is, however, no less fundamental for the West. European security is inevitably linked to an independent, sovereign and complete Ukraine. In the words of Borrel: “If Ukraine loses, we lose.”
Fifthly, we need to acknowledge that Russia will never accept being defeated by Ukraine. Even if the West gets its acts together and provides Ukraine with the tools it needs to evict the Russian Armed Forces, Russia will never accept being defeated by a nation that – in its distorted narrative – “does not exist.”
At best, it would only accept withdrawal from Ukraine if the alternative is to fight a far superior military power and, thereby, risk losing the means that secure the survival of the regime and the state.
Lastly, the West remains true to its past. Like in the 1930s, we have chosen to observe an aggressor turn peace into crisis, conflict, and war, allowing it to believe that it can achieve its strategic aim and objectives through military force.
We are again governed by irrational fear, tired of past wars (international operations) and lack of strategic thinkers. The “Peace in Our Time” mentality has taken hold despite evidence of the contrary. The free world has too many Chamberlains and not even one Churchill. Like the prelude to World War II, both Europe and the US lack the will to put out the fire before it becomes uncontrollable.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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