ON THE VARIABLES IN THE RUSSIA – UKRAINE WAR
The Russia-Ukraine War has been raging for over a year and the war situation remains at a stalemate. Ukraine has vowed to expel Russian troops within its borders and even retake Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, rather than ceding territory or making any compromises to end the war. On the other side, Russia has carried out partial mobilization to compensate for the shortage of front-line troops and has shown no intention of accepting a truce.
It is evident that the Russia-Ukraine War will be difficult to resolve. However, the future development of the war will be influenced by many variables, not just the battles between Russia and Ukraine. The paper aims to explore the variables related to the Russia-Ukraine War in an attempt to provide a comprehensive understanding of the war.
WESTERN “UKRAINE FATIGUE”
Since Ukraine turned the tide of the war and regained Kharkov and Kherson from September to November 2022, its determination to refuse to negotiate with Russia has become firmer. However, the war situation reached a stalemate thereafter, and Ukraine has continued to seek increased military aid from the West, particularly heavy armaments, to facilitate the recovery of territory.
Western support for Ukraine has been crucial to its resistance against Russian aggression. In addition to providing military aid, the West has imposed economic sanctions on Russia with the aim of undermining Russia’s ability to continue the war while strengthening the Ukrainian army’s resistance. However, the West’s military aid to Ukraine is constantly depleting its own military reserves, and the economic sanctions against Russia have also made Western economies pay a price. These negative impacts on Western countries have led to growing public dissatisfaction, resulting in what is known as “Ukraine Fatigue.”
Raphael S. Cohen and Gian Gentile, two RAND Corporation researchers, believe that “Ukraine Fatigue” is a myth rather than a fact, and they point out that the United States has not suffered losses on the battlefield, nor has it suffered energy shortages. Besides, aid to Ukraine does not come at the expense of domestic spending, and Americans also do not pay higher taxes due to the war. However, a Reuters/Ipsos poll of more than 4,000 people conducted between February 6 and February 13 2023 showed that the level of support for military aid to Ukraine of the US public dropped from 73% in April 2019 to 58% in February 2023. Although the level of support is still above half, the decline undoubtedly serves as a warning signal of a potential further decrease support in future, and it may even decline in the future due to the unfavorable battlefield situation the Ukrainian army faces. Furthermore, aid to Ukraine has bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, but there are still dissenting voices. That is, they ask that when the United States is facing high inflation and economic difficulties, why should we spend a huge amount of money to assist Ukraine? While U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed firm support for Ukraine, the United States has also indicated that it will not provide indefinite aid at the current level. A growing number of Republicans have also begun to question the practice of supporting a war with no end in sight. Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, already made it clear in October 2022 that he would not write a “blank check” to Ukraine, and he reiterated his stance when he refused the invitation of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to visit Kyiv in March 2023.
The United States is the main and most important supporter of Ukraine in the Western camp. Without the support of the United States, the war situation is more likely to favor Russia, putting Ukraine at the risk of losing the entire war.
THE GREAT POWER POLITICS BEHIND THE WAR
According to an investigation by the Washington Post, the premise of U.S. military aid to Ukraine is to avoid direct conflict between the United States and Russia and prevent Russia from escalating the war. Since the war started, aid to Ukraine among Western countries has varied based on the war situation. Germany and France seem to be more cautious, while the United States and the United Kingdom have showed a more supportive attitude. However, the overall stance of Western countries against Russia is similar, with the primary goal being to prevent the war from escalating and to avoid direct involvement.
The respective positions of Western countries are evident in their approach to providing main battle tanks to Ukraine. On January 15, 2023, the United Kingdom pledged to aid Ukraine with 14 Challenger II tanks, becoming the first country to provide heavy tanks at Ukraine’s request. The move was tantamount to encouraging Western countries to provide military aid based on Ukraine’s needs. Thus, Germany was under pressure to provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks or allow other countries to donate the same tanks to Ukraine. After Germany agreed to aid Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks on January 25, 2023, Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz said on February 5 that he had reached a consensus with Zelensky that the weapons provided by the West would only be used on Ukrainian territory, and Russia would not be attacked using these weapons. Scholz also emphasized that Germany closely coordinates with its allies and carefully weighs each batch of military aid to Ukraine to avoid escalation of the war. Hence, while Germany is one of the countries that primarily provide military aid to Ukraine, it often expedites delivery under pressure, especially when other allies have taken the lead. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed in an internal meeting on February 15, 2023, that the United States does not actively encourage Ukraine to retake Crimea. The current focus is on assisting Ukraine in making progress on the Eastern Ukraine battlefield. Retaking Crimea is considered a red line for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and any attempt by Ukraine to retake it could provoke a serious response from Russia. However, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the United States and NATO have maintained that Crimea is Ukrainian territory, without taking any substantial action. While Blinken did not explicitly oppose Ukraine’s recovery of Crimea, the United States’ intentions are evident.
The opinions of Scholz and Blinken reflect the stance of most Western countries. While they are concerned about Russia’s potential victory in the war, they also fear that the war could expand and escalate out of control. Western countries are also worried about Russian retaliation, so they provide military aid to Ukraine but limit the targets of the Ukrainian army to mitigate risk. The decision to provide advanced fighters to Ukraine is another example. On January 30, 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron did not rule out aiding Ukraine with fighters but laid out several prerequisites. These included Ukraine making a formal request, using the fighters only for defense without escalating the conflict, and ensuring that the military aid does not weaken France's own military force. Macron later announced on May 15 that France was preparing to train fighter pilots for Ukraine but ruled out delivering fighters to Kyiv. On the other hand, Biden refused to provide Ukraine with fighters at the beginning of the year, but at the G7 summit in Hiroshima on May 15, he stated that he had obtained a guarantee from Zelensky that the F-16 fighters provided by the West would not be used to attack Russian territory. The United States agreed to transfer the F-16 fighters to Ukraine through a third party. Furthermore, most of the countries aiding Ukraine are European, reflecting the geopolitical considerations and fear of Russia by the donor countries. After all, if Ukraine were to be annexed by Russia, European countries would then directly face the threat of Russia.
China is another variable in the war. Prior to the war, China believed that Russia would quickly conquer Ukraine, and it declared that China and Russia are not allies, they are better than allies. The friendship between China and Russia has no limit, and there is no restricted area for cooperation.  Although the development of the RussiaUkraine War did not unfold as expected by China, and China was unwilling to publicly support Russia, it refrains from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China assists Russia by timely importing Russian energy and raw materials, thereby easing the pressure of Western economic sanctions on Russia. These actions clearly indicate China’s covert support for Russia.
On February 24, 2023, China released a statement entitled “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” on the anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine War. While this move seemed aimed at promoting a peaceful end to the war, the content reaffirmed Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s previous stance on the Russia-Ukraine war. Notably, the statement referred to the ongoing conflict as the “Ukrainian crisis,” demonstrating that China’s position echoes Russia’s narrative about the war. Although Russia expressed approval of China’s statement on February 27, it clarified that the conditions for a peaceful resolution were not currently present. Russia insisted that conditions for a ceasefire would only be met when Ukraine recognized Russia’s claims over the four oblasts (Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson). Ukraine refuted the plan as it would only freeze the war and create a new demarcation line, unrelated to peace. Ukraine suggested that only it is eligible to initiate a peace initiative. Biden stated that China's proposal showed no signs of benefiting anyone other than Russia. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg criticized China’s mediation for having little credibility, and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen pointed out that China’s statement did not offer a new peace plan but rather a series of principles. China’s peace plan proposal was nothing new; it merely reaffirmed previous statements and intended to use a neutral and peaceful stance to disguise its secret support for Russia. The reaction of major powers exposed the futility of China's actions and reinforced the perception that China is aligning itself with Russia.
From March 20 to March 22, 2023, Xi Jinping visited Russia at Putin’s invitation. While China presented the visit as a trip focused on friendship, cooperation, and peace, the actions of both heads of state, as portrayed in their respective official media prior to the visit, indicate strong support from Xi Jinping for Putin. However, for political actions to have a substantial impact on the Russia-Ukraine war, they must translate into tangible material support, including potential military aid. This is precisely what Western countries are most concerned about.
Therefore, the Western camp has repeatedly warned China not to provide military aid to Russia. The United States has accused China of supplying lethal weapons to Russia, while the United Kingdom and France have also called on China not to provide any “material assistance” to Russia or its proxies at the Paris summit on March 10. China has consistently denied these accusations from Western countries. Western countries worry that Chinese military aid could alter the course of the Russia-Ukraine war and potentially escalate the conflict. Thus, they continue to deter China in order to prevent such military aid from occurring. However, it is uncertain whether China is willing to deplete its own stockpiles of arms and ammunition for Russia, especially considering the severe sanctions that may result. In any case, this highlights Western countries’ belief that Chinese military aid to Russia could significantly change the current war situation and potentially escalate it. The future actions of China remain to be observed.
RUSSIA’S INTERNAL FACTORS
Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is the main reason for Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine, and it is also a crucial variable affecting the Russia-Ukraine war. In other words, if the Putin factor disappears, the Russia-Ukraine war may also change accordingly. This is why the outside world has been speculating on Putin’s physical condition, and Putin is suffering from a fatal disease and may pass away soon. There are countless similar inferences, but most are speculation and exaggeration, and many even provoke division. Putin's will is indeed the key to whether Russia continues to fight or not, but it does not mean that the war will end if he cannot serve as President or dies suddenly. Furthermore, the presence of a successor for Putin has always been a matter of concern for the international community. If Putin is unable to serve as President or passes away suddenly due to physical factors, Russia may indeed cease fighting. However, the continuation of the war would still depend on the situation at that time, which can be divided into two different scenarios: one without a successor and the other with a successor.
If Putin does not designate a successor, and the Russian political situation falls into a power struggle due to the issue of succession, similar to the situation after the death of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union period, whether the war continues at this time is likely to become a political struggle issue. If the war situation is unfavorable at this time, Russia may agree to a truce; if the battle situation is favorable and the Russian army still can fight, continuing the “special military operations” against Ukraine while the succession situation is unclear may be the only option and consensus because it would be tantamount to political suicide if politicians decide to stop the war at this time.
If Putin has a designated successor, the war situation would be the key to deciding whether to cease the war, but the character of the successor and Russia’s political situation are also variables. However, according to the political atmosphere in Russia, Putin may not have designated a successor at present, and at this stage, no one dares to consider himself a successor, and no one also wants to be identified as a successor. After all, this may not be beneficial to a politician and may lead to missed opportunities or assassination, because Putin does not allow others to challenge his authority. Therefore, “Who is Putin’s real successor” is a variable that the outside world has no way of knowing, let alone the inferences of a truce derived from it.
In 2024, Russia will hold a presidential election. If Putin is unable to serve as President, he naturally won't run for reelection, and the development of the Russia-Ukraine War may follow the aforementioned speculation. If Putin's health condition allows, he is likely to run for reelection, and the progress of the Russia-Ukraine War will certainly be one of the variables affecting the presidential election.
For smooth re-election, Putin needs a victory. If the war situation is unfavorable and the Russian army retreats from the four occupied areas, it is possible that Putin will take extreme measures. In the event of a deadlock in the war situation, Russia’s domestic political elite and public opinion may affect the direction of the war. Currently, the attitude of the Russian political elite towards the war is divided. The technocrats and middle-level officials in the military and security apparatus believe that the war should be first ceased, and military power and goals should be reassessed. The pro-war faction believes that the war should be won in 2023. However, the disagreement is unlikely to prompt Putin to cease fighting. To a certain extent, the struggle between the two factions will affect the Kremlin’s decision-making on the direction of the war, and the war situation will indirectly affect the growth and decline of the two factions.
It is certain that the political elite must bear the blame for the unfavorable war situation and build a firewall for Putin. As for whether the war situation will affect the subsequent presidential election or even bring about a truce, it will still depend on the overall situation at that time. The level of Western aid and the performance of the Ukrainian army will also be key factors affecting the combat situation.
Western “Ukraine Fatigue,” great power politics and Russia’s internal factors can be regarded as the key factors affecting the future development of the Russia-Ukraine War. What they have in common is that they are closely related to the war situation. Western “Ukraine Fatigue” caused by the stalemate of the war situation is steadily increasing. The degree of involvement of the great powers in the Russia-Ukraine War is related to the war situation. The war situation not only has a bearing on the divisions in Russia’s internal attitude towards the war but will also determine Russia’s future choice of continuing the war or seeking a truce. While the three key variables will be affected by the war situation, they will also influence the subsequent development of the war situation, thus there is a linkage among them. The future development of the RussiaUkraine War will depend on the key variables mentioned above, and they deserve further observation.
Dr. Shiau-Shyang Liou is an Associate Research Fellow at Division of National Security Research, INDSR. His research interests include Security Research, Russia & Eurasian Area Studies, Arctic Geopolitics, China's One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI).
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