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The Conflict in Ukraine: A Prolonged Struggle with No Clear End in Sight

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As of the summer of 2023, the protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine has entered a new phase with the launch of a highly anticipated counteroffensive by Kyiv. Initial expectations were high that Ukraine would gain the upper hand in this complex struggle, but the reality on the ground has proven to be far more challenging than anticipated.

Instead of a swift turnaround, Ukrainian forces find themselves facing a frontline spanning a staggering 600 miles, equipped with extensive Russian defensive fortifications. Some of these defensive lines extend as deep as 19 miles into Ukrainian territory. These reinforcements were constructed during the winter months while Ukraine awaited the delivery of heavier military equipment from its international allies. The counteroffensive has made it clear that quick results are unlikely, and success in retaking Russian-occupied territory is far from guaranteed.

Military experts are warning that this protracted conflict is likely to continue for many more years, placing enormous pressure on Ukraine to sustain the fight. Furthermore, Ukraine’s international partners may need to commit billions of dollars in ongoing military, humanitarian, and financial support to maintain the effort.

Retired British General Richard Barrons, former commander of the UK’s Joint Forces Command, highlights the complexity of the situation. “Ukraine has to demonstrate that it can make progress, but everyone understands that, given the size of their military force, they will not expel every Russian from Ukraine in 2023,” he noted. “By the end of this year, both parties will believe that they still have more to gain by continuing to fight.”

While Ukraine’s counteroffensive may achieve some limited progress in the remaining months of the year, it is unlikely to end the occupation. Barrons suggests that a substantial effort, with an annual budget of around $100 billion from all international supporters, will be needed to continue supporting Ukraine in 2024 and 2025.

Since the launch of the counteroffensive in June, only a handful of villages have been recaptured by Ukrainian troops. They face significant challenges in breaking through Russian defensive lines and advancing further south towards the port cities of Berdyansk and Melitopol on the Sea of Azov. The Russian defensive lines, composed of mines, bunkers, trenches, and anti-tank obstacles, have proven to be formidable barriers.

One of Ukraine’s primary objectives is to sever the Russian “land bridge,” which stretches from Russia through the occupied part of Southern Ukraine to Crimea. However, this area is heavily fortified, making progress slow and challenging for Ukrainian forces.

The Russian strategy is to maintain control over the territory they have occupied, with the expectation that Ukraine’s resolve to fight for this cause will diminish, and Western support will wane due to the ongoing financial burden.

It is crucial for Ukraine to maintain Western support. Jamie Shea, an international defense and security expert, emphasizes the importance of achieving some success: “From a Ukrainian perspective, you have to achieve at least some significant successes so that you can approach NATO and the United States and say, ‘Look, guys, it may not have been as successful as we hoped, but with the weapons you’ve provided, we’ve done enough to split the Russian forces in two, so you can invest in another objective in the spring of 2024 to keep hope alive.'”

A protracted stalemate, where Ukraine gains little territorial ground and suffers significant losses, could have adverse consequences. It could bolster critics of the war, increase public discontent with continued funding for Ukraine, and create challenges in terms of arms production and supplies for the West.

While some Western governments may privately hesitate due to the ongoing costs of supporting Ukraine (the United States has already pledged over $40 billion in security assistance to Kyiv), many understand the high strategic stakes. They recognize that this is a confrontation between the West and Russia, where not only the future territorial integrity of Ukraine is at stake, but also the security framework for Europe and the West in their dealings with Russia, especially at a time when China closely observes the West’s determination to uphold its interests.

In an era where China closely monitors whether the West has the resolve to stand up for its interests, Western nations understand the need to continue steadfastly supporting Ukraine in this pivotal struggle. Despite the costs, the majority comprehend that there is a price to pay for defending their interests in a confrontation that extends beyond Ukraine’s borders.

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