Edward A. Kolodziej is Emeritus Research Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and author of the book “Global Governance: Evaluating the Liberal Democratic, Chinese, and Russian Solutions.” He spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the one-year mark.
One year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, what is the state of the conflict?
Putin’s attack on Ukraine sought to reincorporate the Ukrainian state and its people into his fanciful vision of a restored Russian world and empire. The high morale of the Ukrainian people; NATO’s unprecedented political, economic and military support for Ukraine; and Ukraine’s success in repelling the Russian invasion have decisively frustrated Putin’s ill-considered invasion.
But there’s a disquieting geopolitical reality that’s gradually settling in. Given the present and foreseeable balance of military capabilities as well as human and materiel resources on each side, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that neither side can outright “win” the war.
While it’s impossible to predict the dynamic evolution of a war, it would appear that stalemate, at a mounting cost in blood and treasure, will be the lamentable result. Despite the vast amounts of arms supplied to Ukraine by the U.S. and its Western allies, the balance of military forces between Ukraine and Russia in the coming year means neither side will break through against the other.
The U.S. insists that its shipments of weapons, some of which will not reach Ukraine before its projected spring offensive, are sufficient. Well, they are certainly enough to sustain a stalemate, but scarcely enough to provide Ukraine with the means to break through Russian lines.
The least-worst outcome of a prolonged stalemate, with no prospect of a political solution in the offing, would be the fait accompli of a prolonged ceasefire – much like the Korean War, which officially has not ended, or similar to the division of Germany and Europe between 1945-1991, until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For Putin and Russia, a sustained ceasefire would be a Pyrrhic victory. It would be portrayed to a tightly controlled Russian populace as a strategic win for Moscow over the West and a vindication of Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine, despite heavy losses of Russian men and military equipment – 100,00 to 200,00 casualties, the destruction of more than 800 military vehicles and half of the Russian tank supply.
What is Putin’s next move?
Despite these heavy losses, Putin is doubling down. The Russian economy has largely weathered Western sanctions. Russian oil and gas revenues continue to support the war. New conscripts and convicts are replenishing Russia’s armed forces. Domestic support of the war effort remains high as many Russians accept Putin’s false narrative that Ukraine, in league with NATO, attacked Russia. What dissent is raised against the Ukraine invasion is immediately quelled by prison or worse. Putin has successfully created a totalitarian Leninist-Stalinist state to do his bidding.
With that said, Putin is saddled with an incompetent and corrupt military command; outdated military equipment; a dysfunctional logistical system incapable of reliably sustaining forces in the field; and low troop morale and inadequate training.
What is China’s role in the conflict?
Until now, China has pretended to play the role of neutral observer. It recently published a peace plan, heavily tilted in favor of Putin, to foster this pretense.
But there are reports that China may be prepared to abandon its faux neutrality by providing Russia with weapons and munitions. Chinese military assistance to Russia is more likely to reinforce the stalemate in Ukraine than to provide Russia with sufficient arms to achieve a breakthrough.
What is potentially destabilizing are the collateral effects of China’s military assistance to Russia. What is not fully understood by many observers it that the threat posed by China is greater than its possible invasion of Taiwan.
Much of China’s military modernization and its buildup of arms have been designed to support China’s territorial claims over the South China Sea as its sphere of influence. China has already defied the International Court by violating the rights of regional states, such as the Philippines. China insists on its sovereign right to regulate the more than a trillion dollars in commerce moving annually via the South China Sea. It challenges Western insistence on preserving the freedom of the international waters to provide for the open movement of commerce and military operations across this vast area.
But military moves against China would be damaging to both sides. Trade between China, the U.S. and Europe is well over a trillion dollars. China also possesses approximately a trillion dollars of U.S. debt. So both China and the West would suffer if economic sanctions were imposed on China.
The danger, of course, is that the regional conflict in Ukraine will metastasize into a global one.