Blog post #10, 13 May 2022
In the quest to end the dreadful war in Ukraine, it is helpful to take a moment and look at what we know about wars and how they end. This blog post tries to summarize some of this knowledge and what it means in terms of the prospects for Ukraine.
For decades, peace and conflict studies have focused on civil wars (or intra-state conflicts), which after WWII had become predominant. In recent years, however, we have witnessed a resurgence of conflicts between countries – from the invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq by the US and its allies to Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine. Moreover, wars that seemed intra-state, at second glance involved various international actors – just think of the actions of Russia, Turkey and other states in the Syrian conflict.
So, while much theory on conflict termination and peacebuilding has focused on civil wars, it is important to look at what we know about inter-state wars and how these have come to an end. Fortunately (well.. depending on how you look at it), it is not as if are no precedents to learn from in this regard. Between 1946 and 2005, there have been 63 wars between states.
Of these inter-state wars, only about one fifth ended with a clear victory by one side. Almost a third ended in ceasefires, which, however, have been notoriously unstable: most ceasefires break down after a while, and fighting resumes. More extensive peace agreements, in which political issues are settled, often with added provisions for peacekeeping contingents and/or third-party guarantees, are more durable, but also more difficult to reach: only 16% of the wars ended in this way.
Most inter-state conflicts, whether they have reached a ceasefire or not, end up in a kind of stalemate or ‘frozen conflict’. In such a situation, the conflict is not really resolved and neither side reaches an ultimate victory. Due to fatigue on both sides, the fighting may temporarily end, but the situation remains tense, with violence flaring up every once in a while. This, then, is where the Ukraine conflict is likely headed. More so given another finding, namely that wars where the parties have a history of animosity, and where one side’s existence is threatened, are significantly more likely to be repeated.
This gloomy picture provides all the more reason to actively pursue a peace agreement, no matter how difficult. What are the chances of this happening? In order for peace negotiations to commence, there has to be what is called a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, with neither side having much hope of victory, whilst the costs of fighting are high. This gives both parties a reason to prefer a negotiated agreement over a continuation of fighting.
Early in the war, it seemed that these conditions were reached. The Russian advance on Kyiv was brought to a halt by logistical problems and unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance. Whilst this gave Ukraine hope, a victory against the much larger Russian army seemed beyond reach. Meanwhile, casualties mounted on both sides. Both sides, then, had a reason to talk. Hence, negotiations took place, and there even seemed to be an outline of what an agreement could look like: Russian withdrawal, a neutral Ukraine, security guarantees by third parties and a framework for addressing the status of Crimea and the Donbas further down the line.
However, subsequent developments ended the ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, taking both parties away from the negotiating table. For Ukraine, anger over Russian war crimes in places like Bucha, coupled with its unexpected success on the battlefield, removed its willingness to talk to Russia. For Russia, an adjustment of its war aims, now focusing on Eastern Ukraine, rekindled hope of a battlefield victory. Now both sides think they can win, or are at least willing to take their chances.
They’re wrong about that in the sense that it is unlikely that either side can achieve a decisive victory. Even if Russia conquers a significant part of Eastern and possibly Southern Ukraine, it will be faced with ongoing opposition both inside and outside of that territory: inside, by local rebels who will refuse to accept the new status quo, and outside, by the Ukrainian military. As for Ukraine, although it is significantly bolstered by Western aid and arms shipments, and although Russia’s war effort is hampered by problems with material, morale, and (to some extent) sanctions, Ukraine is not strong enough to entirely defeat the Russian army. The most likely outcome, if both sides continue to pursue the military path, is a war of attrition, ending in a shaky stalemate when supplies, troops and energies run low. Perhaps then the parties will return to the table. But the costs in terms of lives and destruction will have been enormous.
This means that seeking a settlement remains a priority. This is all the more so given the continued threat of escalation, either through the use of nuclear weapons or in the form of a spread of the conflict to other countries, such as Moldavia. Difficult though this is to stomach, outside parties should try to incentivize both sides to return to the table. For example, Russia’s ability to rearm can be made more difficult by stepping up efforts to cut off its supply of military parts and technologies and by implementing oil and gas bans. Importantly also, the voices of Russians who oppose the war, such as the independent media outlets now operating from third countries, should receive support in order to increase pressure on the leadership from below. The West should continue to support Ukraine militarily to ensure a good negotiating position, whilst also finding ways to convince it to resume talks. Offering security guarantees that can be part of a settlement may be one way of doing this.
In sum: though the chances of reaching a durable settlement that is satisfactory to both sides are slim, this option should be pursued nonetheless. The alternative – a war of attrition which neither side can win – is simply too grim.