Conflict in Ukraine: Another Year of Hostilities?

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Sergiu CEBAN
The current state of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict does not give us any reason to expect the phase of negotiations or the freezing of hostilities. So far, everything points out to the fact that we will face another year of fierce military confrontation
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict remains a key factor for the Eastern European region, which has a huge impact on Moldova as well. The outcome of this protracted war will ultimately determine the future geopolitical scenario not only for Ukraine but also its immediate neighbors, especially those in which the Kremlin has a specific political interest. The ongoing winter military campaign is still focused on mutual attrition and elimination of rear reserves. With the exception of a few waves of air operations, fighting has become a routine. Activities have mainly reduced to a few sections of the front where the Russian army is attempting tactical gains. The downing of an Il-76 aircraft carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war on Russian territory in January could have led to a more serious escalation. But the incident eventually descended into diplomatic channels closed to the wider public, and it remains unclear in what form it might reemerge in the media. Still, it is crucial that this has not prevented Kyiv and Moscow from further exchanges of prisoners of war. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has extended the list of goals set ahead of its invasion of Ukraine by adding the setting up of a “demilitarized zone” on Ukrainian territory along the entire border. As the Russian leader told, it should be located at a distance sufficient to ensure safety from the long-range weapons used by the Ukrainian army. Moscow is not specifying the depth of this buffer zone, although these details would make it possible to understand which oblasts and regional centers of Ukraine fall within the area of Russia’s military and political planning. Kyiv has its own big plans for the current year, including new counter-offensive activities, which, judging by the announcements, are scheduled to start closer to spring after the Russian forces are expected to exhaust themselves and take a tactical pause. We may assume that by then the Ukrainian army will have a new commander-in-chief. Over the past few weeks, in addition to the scandalous draft law on mobilization, the intrigue surrounding the resignation of the AFU leadership has become one of the hottest topics in Ukraine’s domestic political life. First of all, we are talking about the popular commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi, whom the office of the president is trying to force out of office, and in such a way as not to allow political technologists to create an image of a successful general-exile who has become a hostage of political discord in the high offices of Kyiv. Otherwise, the dismissal of the commander-in-chief can easily be transformed into a new political project, which has all chances to attract a part of the Ukrainian elites and society, thus weakening Volodymyr Zelensky’s position. The Ukrainian leader really has something to fear. Moreover, his term of office will formally expire closer to spring, and various opposition groups will surely attack Zelensky more actively, questioning his legitimacy. In this sense, Zaluzhnyi’s figure seems to be one of the most suitable for the internal political “campaign” against Kyiv. As a matter of fact, the political instability and the inability of state institutions to provide the army with the necessary resources were hinted at by the still acting commander-in-chief in his recent interview in an American media outlet. In addition, the position of the current Ukrainian president will largely depend on the success of his diplomatic efforts and the amount of international assistance he will be able to enlist in the first half of 2024. Since autumn, military and financial support for Kyiv has significantly weakened, thus lowering expectations in Western capitals and provoking an increase in pessimistic forecasts about the outcome of the war. There is no particular reason to say that supplies for Ukraine can reach the volumes of the second half of 2022 - early 2023. At first glance, a certain hope is given by the agreement of the 27 EU countries to allocate 50 billion euros in aid to Kyiv (the programme is designed for four years). However, a detailed examination of this sum, of which 17 billion euros are grants and 33 billion euros are loans, raises a lot of questions. For example, Brussels plans to get the grant part from the proceeds of frozen Russian assets, for which a number of additional legislative acts still need to be adopted. Besides, it is obvious that Moscow will challenge such a decision of the EU in court. As a result, the grant may be delayed. As for the credit part, the EU has conditioned this amount on a number of political requirements for Kyiv, only if they are fulfilled, the relevant tranches will be delivered to Ukraine on a quarterly basis. It should be borne in mind that each of these requirements may later become an instrument of pressure on Kyiv’s authorities and even a reason for a partial suspension of payments. At the same time, it is important to note that under the terms of the agreement between the member states, the European Council will review the program implementation in two years and may well not extend it. Moreover, it is necessary to take into account that this year’s elections to the European Parliament and changes in the composition of the European Commission do not guarantee that Brussels will stick to its current policy on Ukraine. Prospects for renewed U.S. aid are, alas, still very vague, as they held hostage to the complex circumstances of the internal political discord in Washington. Former President (and the most likely candidate of the Republican Party in the future presidential election) Donald Trump has urged his fellow party members to reject any agreement with the Democratic Party on the border problem and to postpone the issue of accepting aid to Ukraine until after his possible victory in the presidential election. Trump’s hardline position is mainly due to the ongoing attempts of Joe Biden’s administration to remove its main Republican rival from the election. Moreover, a successful cross-party deal would add points to Biden, so Trump is trying to use all the levers of political pressure in the House of Representatives to minimize the likelihood of a compromise between the opposing party groups. Meanwhile, the results of Victoria Nuland’s visit to Kyiv last week, even despite the critical decline in U.S. support for Ukraine, nevertheless clearly show that the US, as before, plays a key role in domestic Ukrainian affairs and has a decisive influence on Ukrainian elites. The current state of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict does not suggest that it is approaching the phase of negotiations or the freezing of hostilities. So far, everything points out to the fact that we will face another year of bloodshed and fierce military confrontation without any pronounced prospect of a breakthrough by either side. It seems as if the majority of experts and politicians have decided to fall into the standby mode, believing that the next window of opportunity may open following the results of the U.S. presidential elections. Thus, we have to admit that the confrontation between Kyiv and Moscow is serious and long-lasting. Consequently, unpredictability, instability and uncertainty about the future will also last for a long time.