Bessma Momani is professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Watching the horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a lingering question: When will this end? After all, it is a senseless war of Ukrainian suffering, and the invading army is showing signs of military strain. But domestic support for this war is gaining traction on both sides. Sadly, this may mean this war will endure.
Analysts who are optimistic about it ending soon point to the great attrition in the Russian military operation. Estimates of potentially 10,000 Russian troops killed – and conservative estimates that this implies another 40,000 troops have been wounded – are significant blows. Consider that Russia had deployed 190,000 troops to invade Ukraine and this accounts for approximately 75 per cent of all of its active military personnel.
The Russian army is also said to have low morale owing in part to conscripts being misled about their deployment. Up to six generals have been killed on the front lines, and videos of Russian troops with frostbite, old equipment and expired food rations have circulated online. There is clear evidence that the Russian military faces continued logistical and supply chain challenges in maintaining its equipment. The image of Ukrainian farmer towing defunct Russian tanks with their tractors captures these failures.
Russia is certainly exhibiting signs of military fatigue. Why else would it need to search for impoverished soldiers from the battlefields of Syria and Libya, seek out Wagner mercenaries, and reach out to Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov to enlist more troops? Global economic sanctions against Russia are also unprecedented and will hurt the average Russian consumer – although the political elite are insulated from these pains and Russian coffers continue to swell thanks to oil and gas sales not yet being widely sanctioned.
The uncomfortable truth is that this war is also gaining steam within Russia, where it is portrayed as a conquest that must be won. In a country with dizzying state narratives that pump out increasingly more incredulous news designed to confuse, the result is often deference. Certainly, some Russians are challenging state narratives, and many have paid with their lives trying to challenge disinformation. But we would be mistaken to assume this war will ignite a backlash, or more incredulous claims of an overthrow of Vladimir Putin. Over the years, the President has masterfully worked to consolidate his power and politically insulate himself from potential opposition, and bought acquiescence from competing power centres.
With no independent media left in the country and international outlets forced into silence with new media laws, the Russian population is consuming a perverse narrative: Russian identity is under global attack and the war in Ukraine is being fought to prevent it from coming to Russia’s doorstep.
Russia claims it has a list of objectives that include so-called de-Nazification and demilitarization of Ukraine, independence for the Donbas region, recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea and, of course, preventing Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But Ukrainians believe there is a far more sinister goal that Mr. Putin already penned in a now infamous essay last summer: elimination of Ukraine as an identity and reverting the country to the Russian fold.
Abandoning an identity is non-negotiable. The horrors of Bucha and in other towns and cities surrounding Kiev that continue to come to light reinforce the Ukrainian view that Russia’s war aims are more ominous. Unsurprisingly then, Ukrainian nationalism is also at an all-time high. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s popularity has soared, and he is emboldened by the wide support he is receiving around the world, albeit support that is more rhetorical and diplomatic than military.
Ukrainians will now have a new fire under them to have maximalist’s objectives: Rid Russians from Ukrainian territory. While Mr. Zelensky alludes to an openness to discuss the future of Donbas and Crimea (which Russia is actively trying to connect with a land bridge by fighting fiercely to occupy Mariupol), Ukrainians may see any compromise as putting them at risk of meeting the same fate of Bucha. All wars come to an end, but not when both parties are emboldened and when the consequences of surrender are perceived as an annihilation.
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