[Column] Will the Ukraine war end soon?

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[Column] Will the Ukraine war end soon?

Wi Sung-lac

The author is a former South Korean representative to the six-party talks and head of the diplomacy and security division of the JoongAng Ilbo’s Reset Korea campaign.

Nearly one year has passed since the Ukraine war broke out on Feb. 24, 2022. The war had an immense impact around the globe. The intense confrontation between the West and Russia was coupled with the worsening standoff between the United States and China. Russia and China strengthened their strategic solidarity. The alarming developments pushed the U.S. closer to the West while forcing China to join hands with Russia over global issues. The ratcheted-up international sanctions on Russia and their repercussions on energy, food, finance and trade shook the global economy.

The Korean Peninsula was no exception. While North Korea sided with Russia and China, South Korea cemented its relations with the West, including the U.S. The showdown between the South Korea-U.S.-Japan alliance and the North Korea-China-Russia alliance stood out. Given the massive impact of the Ukraine war on our security and economy, many South Koreans are asking when the war will really end. The war will certainly come to an end through negotiations. The routes to the end of war will depend on several factors.

First is the combat situation in Ukraine. In principle, the likelihood of a ceasefire grows when neither side can expect an overwhelming victory. But Russia would not agree to a truce easily even if it is pushed back on the warfront. Meanwhile, the West would ask Ukraine to accept a ceasefire if the country keeps pulling back. As the Ukrainian forces are fighting better than expected amid a sporadic, heated battles, Russia tries to turn the tide. A negotiation for ceasefire cannot start under such circumstances. We can tell the future of the war after watching to see the results of an upcoming massive offensive from Russia.

Second is the ability to sustain the war. As Ukraine would keep fighting as long as the West supports it, the question now is, “Until when will the West support Ukraine?”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin do not have the intention to end the war. [EPA/YONHAP]

For Russia, what matters is domestic support for the war. Proud of its ability to fight a protracted war, the Russian leadership seems to believe that the West would withdraw if Russia persists with fighting against Ukraine. But it is unclear whether Russia could demonstrate its marvelous endurance this time too. Historically, Russia showed strengths when it was invaded from outside. It could achieve unity and resistance in such defensive wars. But the Ukraine war is different because it was abruptly waged by Russia without building a national consensus. If the anti-war sentiment reaches the level of threatening the regime security of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the possibility of armistice will grow.

Another factor is China, a key ally of Russia. As China does not want Russia’s defeat and retreat from the war amid its power competition with the U.S., China would ask Russia to come to a ceasefire if Russia’s defeat is expected. Based on the three variables — combat situation on the battlefields, ability to sustain the war, and China — we can draw up possible scenarios of the Ukraine war. First of all, Russia will prepare for another massive offensive rather than making compromise, even if it fails in an upcoming attack.

If Ukraine counterattacks and gets closer to recapturing the Crimea, Russia could issue an additional mobilization order or threaten Ukraine with tactical nukes because the future of the Crimean Peninsula is nonnegotiable for Russia. At any rate, Russia will not come to the negotiating table if it cannot turn the table.

On the other hand, if Russia succeeds in a large-scale offensive, two scenarios are possible. First is when the Ukraine forces are defeated by the Russian forces. In this case, the West would broker an armistice to prevent the fall of Ukraine. Second is when the Ukraine forces have a slight disadvantage over their Russian counterparts. In that case, Ukraine will keep fighting to turn the tide. Given its past record, Ukraine will not likely be defeated by Russia entirely.

Considering all the circumstances, both sides are expected to continue their offensive and defensive battles to seize the chance of victory. If Ukraine is not defeated for a while, Russia will enter a prolonged war and test the capabilities of Ukraine and the West to fight a long war. If Russia chooses a drawn-out war, it needs public support, but it is not clear if Moscow really can get it.

What also attracts attention is the form of a ceasefire if Russia and Ukraine choose it. Much depends on whether it is a quick fix of combat on the battlefields or a stable cessation of combat. Russia will likely leave some room for reinvasion after temporarily suspending combat, which is called a strategy to leave a “frozen conflict” behind. But Ukraine will try to ensure a stable cessation of combat after seeking the West’s assurance to prevent Russia’s reinvasion. All in all, the war will most likely prolong, and even if it ends up in a ceasefire, it could be provisional.

Regardless of a ceasefire or not, the Ukraine war already endangered the international order. Unity of the West and a weakened Russia amid a heated ideological confrontation bode ill for the future of Russia, China and their allies. At the center of the front is a disgruntled Russia. South Korea is distanced from China and Russia after it took sides with the U.S. after the Ukraine war amid the intense Sino-U.S. confrontation.

The developments pose serious challenges for South Korea. It must brace for the possibility of a prolonged war in Ukraine. If it fail to skillfully weather a new international order full of dark clouds, Korea could face a serious crisis.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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