After two years of war in Ukraine why is there

After two years of war in Ukraine, why is there no end to this conflict?

The “Blitzkrieg” offensive promised by Vladimir Putin in February 2022 has become a war of attrition and no peace deal is on the agenda. Looking at history, several experts explain why this conflict continues.

Two years after Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, fighting continues and peace still seems a long way off. However, when Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” in his neighboring country on February 24, 2022, he promised a blitzkrieg and the capture of Kiev in a few days. But the Russian army encountered Ukrainian defenses and the solidarity of its Western allies.

While Kiev's supporters have committed tens of billions of euros in aid, they are now divided over how to continue sending aid. Russia, on the other hand, claims to have coped with the shock of the economic sanctions intends to strengthen his army. The Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in the summer of 2023 did not have the expected impact and neither did the front line almost frozen.

“If this continues, the statehood of Ukraine could suffer an irreparable blow,” Vladimir Putin said happily at the end of January. Is this ongoing war exceptional? Why does peace seem impossible? Franceinfo interviewed several specialists.

The banality of constant wars

When Vladimir Putin launched his offensive in Ukraine at dawn on February 24, 2022, he was convinced that he could take Kiev in a few days. The Russian army bombs the capital's suburbs. Frightened civilians rush to the train stations to get to the west and cross the border. In the West, most observers thought these images belonged to the 20th century. “We thought it was war [du XXIe siècle] would be carried out using new advanced technologies, autonomous weapon systems. That they would take place in space and cyberspace,” notes war historian Margaret MacMillan in the American magazine Foreign Affairs.

“The West recognized that conventional war between states could return to the European continent.” explains Tim Sweijs, research director at the Center for Strategic Studies in The Hague (Netherlands). Although Europe experienced the Yugoslavian War in the 1990s, this is the first time since the end of World War II that the territorial integrity of a state on the continent has been violated.

At the front, the Ukrainian army is increasing its ambushes to slow the Russian advance. Thanks to the military help of her allies, she managed to force the Russian army to retreat to the east.

“The success of a blitzkrieg depends on various factors, such as enemy resistance, international support and the ability to consolidate territorial gains.”

Tim Sweijs, research director at the Center for Strategic Studies in The Hague

at franceinfo

The conflict develops into a trench warfare. The fighting is concentrated in the cities of Boutcha, Zaporizhia and Mariupol. “The situation has stalled and the war has turned into a war of attrition,” continues Tim Sweijs, who emphasizes that this is a situation that is “far from exceptional” in contemporary history. In the 20th century, many wars that were supposed to be short-lived became protracted, both in Europe and elsewhere. In the summer of 1914, European countries went to war promising soldiers that they would come home for Christmas, but the war lasted four years. In 1980, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, believing that the 1979 Islamic Revolution had weakened the country and that confrontation would soon occur. The war lasted more than seven years and claimed more than a million lives.

Overall victories difficult to achieve

For researchers interviewed by franceinfo, wars tend to last long because total victories are almost impossible. “During the world wars of the 20th century, states followed a doctrine that the only outcome could be complete surrender of their opponents,” recalls Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, professor of war studies at the University of Loughborough, UK. “In World War II, the Allies wanted to destroy Nazi Germany and fascist Japan.”

But the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 shifted the conflicts “into an era in which total victories were unthinkable because they were far too risky.” As a result, “wars between states occurred less frequently” and conflicts took other forms, such as wars of independence between states and states their colonial power. After September 11th, “Western countries began wars against terrorism with asymmetrical opponents and even lower chances of victory,” believes Caroline Kennedy-Pipe. The US-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan (2001-2021) lasted twenty years and ended with the return of the Taliban to power.

“Western countries waging wars in the 21st century tend to limit human and material costs. That is why the war of attrition taking place in Ukraine seems frightening to us.”

Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, war researcher

at franceinfo

In his study (in PDF format) How Wars End: Prospects for the Russia-Ukraine War, Tim Sweijs evaluated 63 interstate wars between 1946 and 2005. Only 21% of these conflicts ended with a net result. “Wars that end in a stalemate without victory but where two sides continue to threaten each other are more likely to happen again,” he explains. In 2008, the war between Georgia and Russia over the pro-Russian separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia ended with a ceasefire within five days. But the Russian army still occupies 20% of Georgia.

Not a decisive fight

On the battlefield in Ukraine, the two armies still managed to face each other. “There were failures and successes on both sides. But there was no decisive battle that would have brought down the opponent,” continues Caroline Kennedy-Pipe. There was no equivalent of a “Battle of Waterloo,” adds Tim Sweijs. In 1815, this brutal defeat of Napoleon against an Anglo-Prussian coalition led to the abdication of the French emperor and ended the Napoleonic era.

“The war in Ukraine is an 'old-fashioned' war, characterized by fortification strategies and sieges, in which artillery on both sides attempts to overwhelm their opponents by sending them rockets and missiles…,” notes David Betz , Professor of War Studies at King's College, London. Initially, Russia had a military budget ten times that of Ukraine, almost a million active soldiers and two million reservists. “But the Ukrainians knew how to defend themselves well, despite Western weapons that were rather difficult to use and poorly adapted to the terrain,” says David Betz.

Kiev is now waiting to receive the F-16 aircraft and long-range missiles promised by its allies. Because “air superiority has always been crucial in wars over the last fifty years,” continues Tim Sweijs. In 1967, Israel won the Six Day War thanks to its air force. “Whoever controls the sky will determine when and how the war ends,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kouleba warned in January.

“Without Western support, it’s over for Ukraine.”

David Betz, Professor of War Studies at King's College London

at franceinfo

Each side also believes they can still win. Vladimir Putin “sees that the Ukrainian armed forces are exhausted, that Western aid is uncertain. He knows that a return of Donald Trump to power in November will be favorable for him,” continues Tim Sweijs. During his term in office, the former American president repeatedly threatened to leave NATO and reiterated his admiration for Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian president doesn't see it no interest in ending the fighting. “He believes that a ceasefire would allow Vladimir Putin to rearm and that this would only prolong the duration of the fighting,” observes Tim Sweijs. In addition, “Kiev has a deep distrust of Russia,” recalls Dan Reiter, professor of political science at Emory University in the United States and author of How Wars End (2009). “The Budapest Memorandum signed between the two countries in 1994, in which Moscow pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, was never respected,” he recalls. It did not stop Russia from annexing Crimea in 2014.

A peace that must be maintained over time

What remains is public opinion, which will change the course of history. “His role is central because war is a battle of wills and public opinion determines or influences political will,” explains David Betz. In the 1960s, the Vietnam War sparked numerous peace protests in the United States and contributed to the withdrawal of American troops from the country. After two years of war, Ukraine is struggling to recruit new volunteers and mobilization is a matter of debate. According to a poll by the American Gallup Institute published in October 2023, support for the war is still high (60%), but declining compared to 2022 (70%).

But “in autocracies like Russia, opinion doesn’t matter much because all information about the war is controlled,” recalls Tim Sweijs. Russia also remains unrestricted internationally. The Kremlin assures that it was able to absorb the Western sanctions and that “neither India nor China is putting pressure on Moscow because Russia is an important trading partner,” the researcher recalls.

“The longer the war lasts, the more likely it is that Russia will win.”

Dan Reiter, Professor of Political Science

at franceinfo

Especially since even if one of the two camps managed to win the war, this would not necessarily lead to peace. “The costs of maintaining peace can be very high,” warns David Betz. The West would then have to provide Ukraine with very high levels of military aid in order to deter future attacks by Russia. When the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, “they had no reconstruction plan for the future” and the war lasted almost ten years, explains Caroline Kennedy-Pipe.

Worse still, peace treaties are sometimes the source of new wars. “The humiliation of the Germans by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 triggered a sense of revenge that contributed to the emergence of the Second World War,” recalls Tim Sweijs. In 1945, the United Nations was founded for this purpose: to prevent the recurrence of conflict and to maintain peace. But she is finding it difficult to make her voice heard in the war in Ukraine, which is blocked by the Russian veto in the Security Council. In early January, the organization declared that the consequences of the war were “catastrophic” and that there was “no end in sight.”