Ukraine, on the contrary, benefits from motivated troops and officers experienced in combat, supplied with arms and intelligence by NATO countries. After weakening the Russian defensive positions in the south and in the Donbass region, perhaps the Ukrainian forces will repeat the lightning seizures of occupied territories that they accomplished in September and October in the east and the south? Even if this were not the case, they will continue their slow progress.
The offensive dynamic alone will not be enough to win the war, but it is the first condition of everything else, especially the second track: firm Western support for the Ukrainian efforts. Vladimir Putin had estimated that the West would abandon Ukraine to its fate or, at the very least, force it to accept a disadvantageous peace.
So he tried to retaliate for his setbacks on the battlefield by cutting off gas supplies to Europe and warning of the risks of nuclear confrontation. These threats backfired by convincing Western governments that trying to go along with Putin would be dangerous. Giving in to it now, as it did in 2014 when Russia first attacked Ukraine, would only serve to set the stage for the next conflict.
Western armaments will therefore continue to be transported to the east, while Russian gas will never again be transported in large quantities to the west. This winter will be tough, and the next could be even worse, especially if Chinese demand for energy picks up, pushing up oil and gas prices. However, as long as Ukraine advances on the battlefield, European determination will remain unchanged.
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The third track concerns the rest of the world. China continues to pay lip service to Russia. Irritated by the requirement that they subscribe to the agenda of a West that too often ignores theirs, India and many developing countries have adopted a position of withdrawal. However, even on this terrain, Vladimir Putin is losing some of his support and his close allies. He received a rather lukewarm reception from his counterparts at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in September. He then suffered his biggest defeat since the outbreak of the invasion when the UN General Assembly voted on Russian annexations in October.
These first three tracks converge on the fourth: growing international pressure to end the fighting. In these difficult times, the means are lacking to wage such a war. The OECD, which mainly includes rich countries, estimates that it will cost 2,800 billion dollars in 2023. The shortage of weapons in the West will become a subject of growing concern. So expect to hear a lot about scenarios for peace in 2023.
The problem is that today neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians are ready to lay down their arms. Vladimir Putin will either want to keep fighting, betting that he will be able to mount an offensive and regain control, or freeze the conflict in order to prevent Ukraine from becoming a prosperous and peaceful European democracy. Opposite, inflated by the successes on the ground, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wants to regain all the territories lost since 2014. Westerners insist that it is up to Ukraine alone to decide when it wishes to negotiate. But since they are the ones financing the war, the time will come when they will put pressure on kyiv.
The timing of this moment will likely be determined by the fifth, most uncertain lead. For peace to be lasting, something has to change in Moscow. Because of the nuclear arsenal it possesses, forcing the Kremlin to capitulate by force of arms is unthinkable. We will have to wait for the Russians to realize that their president is wasting their lives in an unwinnable war.
Vladimir Putin could resort to chemical or nuclear weapons – although even that would not lead to a Russian victory. It is more likely that he will seek to limit his losses in an attempt to cling to power, or that he will be abandoned by the elites. He is left with hope that something will happen: that the tide turns in his favor on the battlefield, that China provides him with military aid, that Western unity cracks, or that a Donald Trump re-elected ceases all support for Ukraine. The master of the Kremlin knows that anything is possible in a war. But also that he is caught in strong opposing currents.