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When will the war in Ukraine end?

Despite Russia’s sudden withdrawal from Kherson, and Ukraine’s latest recapture of another big chunk of its territory, the answer remains the same as in the spring, and in the summer, and earlier this fall: Not any time soon.

All wars end at the negotiating table, and this one will be no different. Diplomacy will have its day. Eventually. But for now, the two sides to the conflict – the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin – remain far apart, at least in their public statements.

It was only a few weeks ago that Mr. Putin hosted an elaborate ceremony to declare that four occupied Ukrainian provinces were, now and forever, Russia. Even after the Russian military retreated across the Dnipro River, and out of northern Kherson oblast, Kremlin spokesmen insisted that the liberated territory to which Mr. Zelensky paid a triumphal visit was still “Russia.”

And Mr. Putin, who kicked off the war by claiming that Ukraine is not a real country, has responded to battlefield setbacks with a campaign against civilian infrastructure, far from the battlefield. Moscow has been using drones and cruise missiles to take out Ukraine’s electric grid, aiming to deprive as many Ukrainians as possible of electricity, heat and power. It renewed this campaign with a fresh round of strikes on Tuesday.

As for Mr. Zelensky, the 10-point peace proposal he presented to the G20 meeting in Indonesia isn’t likely to lead anywhere. His conditions include the creation of an international tribunal to investigate Russian aggression, the establishment of a mechanism to levy reparations against Russia, and Russian withdrawal from every inch of Ukraine.

As a moral claim, these are hardly unreasonable demands. Moscow is responsible for this war, full stop. It invaded an independent state, and is trying to annex its territory by force. All of the destruction and loss of life suffered so far is because of Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s assertion that the President of Ukraine is the obstacle to peace in Ukraine is absurd.

But as a practical matter, Mr. Putin is not about to abandon his enterprise. Not yet. An admission of defeat, and withdrawal from all land so recently claimed, would risk triggering the end of his regime, and his life.

So the war continues. It will someday be settled by diplomats, but for now, the only intercourse between the two sides is through the barrel of the gun. Earlier this month, U.S. officials said that 100,000 Russian soldiers have likely been killed or wounded since Feb. 24, along with a similar number of Ukrainian troops.

The fact that a war is raging in the heart of Europe, on NATO’s borders – on Tuesday, missiles crossed the frontier and killed two people in Poland – and that one of the participants is a nuclear superpower, understandably worries many world leaders, including those who support Ukraine.

The war has upended energy and food markets, powered global inflation, created millions of refugees, and is making major demands on Western arsenals and budgets. The Biden administration is asking Congress for US$38-billion more for Ukraine, on top of US$12-billion appropriated in September and US$40-billion in May. The Trudeau government on Monday announced another $500-million in military aid, on top of $3.4-billion in military and non-military assistance to Ukraine so far this year.

Those costs will continue to mount, as Mr. Putin tries to engineer a favourable outcome. So far, everything from calling up thousands of conscripts to forging a closer alliance with Iran has failed to turn events in his favour. His use of energy blackmail against Europe hasn’t fractured NATO. The world’s largest nuclear arsenal is one of his few untouched tools.

Hence the worry among many world leaders, and the desire to find a way to end the fighting. But for that to happen, the ball is in Mr. Putin’s court. He is the instigator and, despite setbacks, he continues to prosecute the war. Russian forces remain on the offensive in the Donbas region, and the retreat to the other side of the river in Kherson is widely seen as a part of a plan to shift forces to that Donbas offensive.

So we end where we started, far from the end of the war. It will continue indefinitely, pending further developments on the battlefield.