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Analysis of Uncertainties Affecting the Russia-Ukraine Conflict


This piece from two Russia scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) is a part of the 2024 version of an annual volume on international politics published by the Institute of World Economics and Politics at CASS. The authors explore factors influencing the dynamics and future of the war in Ukraine two years in. They argue that political factors (such as 2024 elections in the United States and Europe, and Putin’s growing preoccupation with regime security) will shape the intensity of the war, while economic factors will influence its duration.

Key takeaways
  • In this article, two researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences explore the current status of the war in Ukraine and identify factors they see as driving its future trajectory.
  • The authors argue political factors will impact the intensity of the war, and economic factors will influence its duration. In other words, barring major changes in leadership in the United States, Russia, and Ukraine, the dynamics on the battlefield will remain the same, while the ability of Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and Europe to finance the conflict will determine its length.
  • The authors argue that Ukraine’s position is largely dependent on the United States and Europe, and their military and financial support to Ukraine may come under pressure after upcoming 2024 elections in both locations.
  • The authors assess that Putin is increasingly preoccupied with regime security and is advancing Russian nationalism to maintain popular support. On the economic front, the authors posit that the Russian economy can only support the war at current levels in the short to medium term. Should the war drag on, they argue, the Russian economy will have difficulty providing resources to the battlefield.

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The continuation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict since 2022 has brought many uncertainties to relationships between powers and to global governance. On the political front, traditional diplomatic means for resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict have been lacking. With the United States and the West continuing to provide support for Ukraine, and Russia repeatedly engaging in nuclear deterrence, the risk of nuclear war has emerged and the political security of the whole Eurasian region has felt the impact. On the economic front, the spillover effects of the Russia-Ukraine conflict have had a huge impact on the international financial system, energy security, and food security, and have affected the direction of global production chain and supply chain reconstruction to a certain extent, increasing the challenges facing the world’s economic recovery and globalization. Changes in the political power structure in the United States and Russia and the future political and economic situation in Europe are the most important factors that will determine the direction of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.


I. International Community Factors in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

一   俄乌冲突中的国际社会因素

In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Ukraine’s foreign policy lacks independence due to its dependence on the United States and Western countries. As a result, three major international factors—the U.S. domestic power structure, the political and economic situation in Europe, and the policy trends of key countries in the Eurasian region—as well as Ukraine’s performance on the battlefield, are the main factors that will affect the future direction of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. First, the domestic power structure in the United States is the fundamental prerequisite for determining whether Russia and Ukraine can move toward peace talks in the future, and if the United States continues to insist on a hard-line stance toward Russia after the 2024 election, Russia and Ukraine will have almost no hope of moving toward peace talks. Secondly, the overall political and economic situation in Europe will determine Europe’s space for policy autonomy in its attitude toward the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and its level of economic input. Thirdly, the attitude of Turkey and other key countries in the Eurasian region will determine the scale of anti-Russian forces and the likelihood of an expansion of the war. Finally, Ukraine’s battlefield performance will determine its leverage for gaining more Western support and winning negotiations with Russia.


(i)      The U.S. domestic power structure


Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the United States and Europe have maintained a high degree of consistency in terms of sanctions against Russia and supplying arms to Ukraine, and the United States remains the most important factor influencing Europe and Ukraine’s military and diplomatic decision-making. The United States will hold a presidential election in November 2024. The changes in the U.S. domestic power structure that the election will bring about, and changes in the political philosophy of the incoming president, will largely determine the extent of U.S. assistance to Ukraine. Against the backdrop of the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict, whether or not the United States adjusts its allocation of resources to Ukraine will be crucial in influencing Ukraine’s future performance on the battlefield. Between February 2022 and September 2023, the United States provided Ukraine approximately US$76 billion in military, humanitarian, and financial assistance. The U.S. Department of State has authorized more than 14,000 entities within the United States to provide military-grade weapons and equipment to Ukraine and other interested foreign governments. 1 On August 12, 2023, the Biden administration again proposed to the U.S. Congress the provision of a total of $13.1 billion in military support to Ukraine.2 As a result, it is still unknown if there will be a change in the U.S. choice for president and whether the U.S. Congress will be able to support Ukraine in the long run. Whether or not U.S. support for Ukraine continues will be key to determining Ukraine will be able to keep fighting.


In terms of public opinion, with the war dragging on and the investment in Ukraine increasing, opposition to continued aid to Ukraine has begun to emerge in the United States. Given the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive to achieve significant results, the question of how to explain massive U.S. aid to Ukraine to voters will be a one that President Biden and the Democratic Party will have to answer before the 2024 election. Against this backdrop, some voices have emerged in the United States in favor of negotiations with Russia. Former Pentagon Senior Advisor Douglas McGregor stated in August 2023 that in the context of the United States’ own economic problems and the protracted conflicts, the White House should take decisive steps to negotiate with the Moscow side.3


In addition to political party factors, mass media factors, and popular opinion, interest groups are important factors influencing U.S. government decision-making. The U.S. military-industrial complex is likely to continue to use political contributions and other means to lobby for policy, influence policymakers’ preferences, and use the Ukraine battlefield to continue reaping profits. For now, it appears that the power of the military-industrial complex still holds the dominant position influencing U.S. government decision-making. In August 2023, the U.S. Department of Defense committed $2.3 billion to U.S. arms dealer Lockheed Martin (Loma) to replenish weapon stockpiles and continue providing arms support to Ukraine.4


(ii)     The political and economic situation in Europe


In the context of a unanimously anti-Russia West, European countries, represented by NATO and European Union (EU) member states, have borne the most significant political and economic costs of sanctions against Russia and assistance to Ukraine. On the economic front, in the more than a year since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Europe has always followed the principle of “sacrificing development in exchange for security,” and it seems this trend will continue for some time.


On the political front, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has exacerbated the public dissatisfaction in Europe caused by economic stagnation, social polarization, and ethnic differences. On one hand, it will be difficult for Europe to maintain its support for Ukraine in the long term if its politics become more right-wing, populist, and fragmented. In recent years, right-wing parties have gained strength in France, Italy, and Spain, and their policies of opposing admitting illegal immigrants and upholding nationalism cater to public opinion. On the other hand, European countries remain divided in their attitudes toward Russia. Poland and Italy have continued to support Ukraine, and the Netherlands and Denmark are supplying F-16 fighter jets, but Hungary has continued to buy Russian gas through Serbia, and Bulgaria has maintained a neutral stance on support for Ukraine.


Economically, Europe is still struggling with stagflation and debt. On one hand, energy shortages and sanctions against Russia have made it hard for European businesses to grow. The Eurozone business confidence indicator is way down since February 2023. At the same time, higher labor costs and high interest rates on top of high inflation are having a dampening effect on economic activity. While nine consecutive interest rate hikes since July 2022 have failed to significantly ease inflation, the current core inflation rate, which excludes energy, food, and tobacco and alcohol prices, is still climbing, reaching 5.5% in July 2023. On the other hand, German and French public debt have all set record highs.5 In this context, whether the EU has enough money to provide long-term and predictable military support to Ukraine will become a critical issue.6 In July 2023, EU member states planned to establish a new “Ukraine Defense Fund” with a total of 20 billion euros, but fund-raising issues are bound to cause controversy among some member states. From an energy perspective, the risk of a return to energy crisis in the eurozone persists. The International Energy Agency has ruled out the possibility of a huge energy crisis, but if extreme weather coincides with supply cut-offs by individual energy suppliers, it may once again cause energy shortages and an energy crisis. The European natural gas market still faces price volatility risk in the winter of 2023-2024.7 All of these factors will become constraints on Europe’s continued assistance to Ukraine.


(iii)    Attitudes of key countries in the Eurasian region


The Russia-Ukraine conflict has enabled some key countries in the Eurasian region to greatly increase their international political voice. Countries such as Turkey, Poland, Belarus, and Moldova have inextricably linked cultures or intersecting interests with Russia, Europe, and the United States, and these countries also have different degrees of competitive relationships with each other. Due to their special geostrategic locations, the influence of these countries on the Russia-Ukraine conflict is more complex than that of traditional Western European countries.


Turkey is the most important country for in-depth mediation of the Russia-U.S. and Russia-Ukraine relationships, and whether or not the balancing policy it has adopted between Russia and the United States changes in the future will be an important factor affecting the direction of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. On one hand, Turkey has supplied weapons to Ukraine and released Ukrainian officers from the Azov battalion, causing Russia’s discontent. On the other hand, Turkey has begun negotiations with Russia on the “Black Sea Grain Agreement,” and has reached an agreement on the preferential sale of grain from Russia to Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Vladimir Putin in September 2023 to discuss agreements, including one on establishing a natural gas hub in Turkey. As of now, there has been no significant change in Turkey’s balancing policy. However, in September 2023, Turkish President Erdogan stated that Turkey had submitted Sweden’s application to join NATO to the Turkish parliament for review.8 In the event that the parliament agrees to Sweden’s NATO accession, it may push Russia to take further radical measures in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.


Poland, as a base for NATO support to Ukraine, has common interests with Ukraine in terms of opposing Russia. The Poland-Ukraine relationship is intertwined, while the Poland-Belarus relationship is tense. Although Poland supports Ukraine by supplying weapons, helping the Ukrainian army to consolidate its rear, and increasing the presence of troops in the Polish-Belarusian border area, Mikhail Podoliak, an advisor to the Ukrainian President’s Office, has also admitted that Poland would be Ukraine’s closest partner only until the end of the war, and that after the Russia-Ukraine conflict Ukraine and Poland will compete with each other. Alexei Reznikov, former Ukrainian Minister of Defense, has also accused the Polish company Alfa of a large number of overdue deliveries in the performance of a series of military procurement contracts signed with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, while the Polish side may also gain access to the western part of Ukraine by supporting the country. In addition to Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia also have similarly complex relationships with Ukraine, and while the European Commission has opened “solidarity corridors” through Poland, Hungary, and Romania to help Ukrainian exports, low prices for Ukrainian agricultural products have squeezed the profit margins of farmers in these Eastern European countries, leading one after another to adopt restrictive measures in 2023 on Ukrainian grain imports.


Another key country affecting the Russia-Ukraine conflict is Moldova. Moldova has been strengthening its cooperation with NATO since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the Moldovan government has now initiated the process of regaining control of the Russian-backed Transnistria region (also known as the Derzhokan region). Once the Moldovan conflict expands, a linkage effect with the Russia-Ukraine conflict may form. Because Moldova’s border is close to Ukraine’s Odessa region and Romania, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has affected this region before. At present, there has been a certain amount of progress in NATO’s cooperation with Moldova, as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Christopher Cavoli visited Moldova on September 4, 2023, and pledged to strengthen overall cooperation with Moldova and help it develop its military forces. NATO has begun helping Moldova build an air defense radar system, which will be put into operation by the end of 2023. In addition, in August 2023, the United States handed over a shipment of weapons worth more than U.S. $3 million to the Moldovan military, and the EU has allocated 40 million euros to Moldova to strengthen its defense.9


(iv)    Ukraine’s battlefield performance and foreign policy


In terms of battlefield performance, Ukraine’s determination to counterattack is strong, but progress at the practical level has been limited, and the counteroffensive’s sound and fury have so far exceeded the actual results, with suspicions that some of the “war results” have been exaggerated. This counteroffensive has two main features: First, the frequency of Kiev’s use of high-precision weapons and unmanned weapons has increased; second, the number of Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory has increased significantly, with the intention of shaking Russia’s military center. Although equipped with Western weapons, the Ukrainian army has not been able to break through the Russian defensive lines since June 2023, and will face Russian minefields, anti-tank obstacles, and drone-launched grenades in the next advance, making the seizure of the Crimea and Donbas regions in the short term an almost impossible task.


In the current counteroffensive, Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory are aimed at shaking the Russian military’s psychological defenses and stirring up antiwar sentiment among the Russian population. Since July 2023, Ukraine has frequently used drones to attack Russian territory and unmanned ships to destroy key infrastructure such as the Crimean bridge and the large landing ship Olenegorsky Gornyak. In August, Russian forces claimed to have intercepted a Ukrainian missile in Crimea. On August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day, Ukrainian forces launched a large-scale attack, and the largest suicide drone strike to date, against Russian forces, with Russian air defenses shooting down several drones over Crimea, Kaluga, and Tula, as well as a missile over Kaluga.10 Although the United States and Western countries have stepped up reinforcements, the Ukrainian army is still lacking weapons such as fighter jets and tanks. This has become the main reason for Ukrainian army casualties and difficulties in launching a large-scale counteroffensive. If Ukrainian President Zelensky’s instructions to “seize Crimea at all costs” were to be followed, the Ukrainian army would likely suffer a devastating blow.


In terms of foreign policy, Ukraine remains hard-line, adhering to its territorial claims and unwilling to enter into negotiations with Russia. Ukraine opposes any ceasefire on the ground, mainly because it does not recognize the current borders and believes that a “ceasefire on the ground” would mean a de facto victory for Russia. The Ukrainian side would only be willing to cease fire and start negotiations after it has won enough battlefield victories and gained a favorable position. On August 11, 2023, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that Ukraine could negotiate after the withdrawal of Russian troops, but would not negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential advisor, has said that Kiev would not exchange territories in order to join NATO, which means that “the war must be transferred to the next generation.”


II.     Russian Factors in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

二   俄乌冲突的俄罗斯因素

Russia’s domestic political stability and economic sustainability, and the Russian military’s performance on the battlefield and its attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons, will determine the scale of resources Russia devotes to resolving the conflict in the future. In particular, domestic political stability is the fundamental guarantee of Russia’s continued investment in the conflict, economic sustainability and the Russian army’s performance on the battlefield are the objective conditions for consolidating the occupied regions, and attitudes toward the use of nuclear weapons will determine whether the conflict will be resolved in a rational manner or move toward the brink of a dangerous larger war.


(i)      Domestic political stability in Russia


Uncertainty in Russia’s domestic politics has increased, and regime security is the most important prerequisite for ensuring that Russia makes further gains in Ukraine. First of all, although the Prigozhin incident is over, it signaled the potential risk of Russia’s political balance being upset, and Putin’s statement at the time of the incident that Russia faced “a matter of life and death” also showed his concern for regime security. Putin will continue to run for the presidency in 2024. At the time of the last presidential election, a post-Crimean consensus based on patriotism was formed in Russia, and the anniversary of Crimea’s independence was set as the election day. The main goal of the election was to increase voter turnout, but the goal of the 2024 election has changed to ensure the continuity of the regime. Putin’s reelection is not difficult given the weak opposition parties in Russia, but how to unite the elite, unify public opinion, and prevent a split while continuing the special military operation and ensuring Russia’s interests and dignity in the Russia-Ukraine conflict has also become a major problem for Russia’s next leader. The United Russia party performed well in the local elections in September, suggesting that it still has a certain popular base. However, after the 2024 elections, the makeup of the Russian government may change, and as a result, a new political landscape may affect the direction of Russia’s foreign policy. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused Russia’s development orientation to give way to a security orientation, with resource allocation tilted toward military spending. In this context, in the new version of its foreign policy strategy, Russia has put forward the concept of the “uniqueness of Russian civilization” in order to consolidate the ruling party’s popular base, and turned to the East to restore people’s hopes for the country’s future development.11


(ii)     Economic sustainability


How the economy will emerge from stagflation and how much longer the country’s financial resources can hold out are important questions that will affect Russia’s political stability and its performance on the battlefield. The goal of U.S. and Western sanctions against Russia is to minimize Russia’s national strength and deprive Russia of capital, markets, and intellectual resources. The Russian government, based on the principle of “nationalism,” has taken anti-sanction and anti-crisis measures in finance, trade, and investment, with a focus on ensuring economic growth, employment, and financial stability. These measures have ensured the normal functioning of the economic system, but they have been accompanied by a shortage of financial resources and an intractable stagflation problem. In the short to medium term, Russia can still afford its battlefield spending. If the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues over the long term, however, it will cause further damage and challenges to Russia’s economy.


Russia has advantages in terms of resource endowment, but its economic system also has a series of problems. First, the Russian market is still suffering from an insufficient supply of some products, labor shortages, and other factors that further push up inflation, resulting in a shift in June 2023 from anti-sanctions to a focus primarily on stabilization and secondarily on economic growth. However, there is a contradiction between the expansionary fiscal policy required for the growth of the real economy and the central bank’s conservative and prudent monetary policy. Second, consumer demand is sluggish. Russia’s current infrastructure investment and other stimulus policies are aimed at boosting the economy and meeting the requirements of multi-industry development, but the purchasing power of residents for housing and other commodities has always been at a low level. In February 2023, the Russian Federal Service for State Statistics (Rosstat) revised the growth rate of disposable income per capita for 2022 from -1.5% to -1%.12 While officially reported disposable income per capita increased in 2023, consumption trends failed to recover along with it.13 Third, security spending has come at the expense of economic development spending, and spending on people’s livelihoods, health, and culture has shrunk. Russia’s budget allocations for 2023 continued to favor defense spending, national security, and law enforcement security spending. In contrast, there was a 20% year-on-year contraction in spending on economic development and a nearly 5% contraction in spending on people’s livelihoods and health.14 Fourth, the fiscal deficit has widened and future policy space has narrowed. Against the backdrop of tight fiscal resources, in late 2022 the Russian government began to raise corporate tax rates in higher-profit sectors such as coal and fertilizer, and raised the estimated yield on federal bonds to cover the deficit through debt issuance. Energy industry tax increases were also formalized starting in the second half of 2023, and nearly 50 percent of the revenues of Russian oil and gas companies will go to taxes from 2024 onwards.15


(iii)    Nuclear deterrence and Russian foreign policy


Since Russia’s special military operation encountered a series of difficulties, an important goal of Russia’s foreign policy and anti-sanctions policy has been to increase its bargaining chips with the United States and Ukraine. Since 2023, the question of whether Russia would use nuclear weapons has become a central issue of concern in the world. Repeated references to the use of nuclear weapons by officials and scholars, including [former Russian president Dmitry] Medvedev and [Russian political scientist Sergei] Karaganov, prove that Russia has realized that the usefulness of nuclear deterrence rhetoric is very limited. While testing the world’s reaction, Russia is also psychologically preparing itself to go nuclear. The purpose of using nuclear weapons would be to reawaken the fear of nuclear war in the United States and the West, and force it to make a strategic retreat. However, as a country that lived through the Chernobyl incident, Russia is in fact well aware of the serious consequences of using nuclear weapons, and is therefore at a rather hesitant and cautious stage. On August 11, the Russian Foreign Ministry also said that Russia believes that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and that a nuclear war should not be waged, but that Russia will also take all necessary measures to defend its national security and sovereignty.16 This statement is also evidence of Russia’s complex mentality on the issue of whether to use nuclear weapons.


In terms of foreign policy, Russia still sees the United States as the main threat, and it is difficult to ease the conflict of interest between the two sides, but Russia has not ruled out the possibility of negotiations with the United States and Western countries. On one hand, the new version of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation released in 2023 plainly states that the United States is the main instigator of the anti-Russian line and the main source of threats to world security and peace, and that Russia will eliminate security threats from unfriendly countries in Europe and NATO, eliminate the “dominant position” of the United States and other unfriendly countries in international affairs, and force them to give up their neo-colonialism and hegemonic ambitions. On the other hand, the document also states that Russia wants to maintain the strategic balance with the United States and coexist peacefully with it, and that Russia does not view Western countries as adversaries. In addition, the document states that priority will be given to developing relationships with the countries of the Asia-Pacific region and emphasizes the importance of developing cooperation with countries in the Islamic world, Africa, and Latin America.17


(iv)    The Russian army’s battlefield performance


The Russian side currently employs a composite combat approach combining artillery, tank attacks, air combat, and information attacks. The Russian army experienced some losses in Kiev, Kherson, and Kharkov in the early stages of the conflict due to communication command and logistics support problems, and underestimation of the enemy. Since the start of 2023, the Russian army has learned lessons, adjusted its thinking and tactics, and strengthened its weaponry. At the same time, it has benefited from a strategy of strengthening its defenses, continuously reinforcing the Russian defensive lines consisting of barbed wire, minefields, and anti-tank trenches, withstanding Ukraine’s counterattacks, and redirecting the Russian offensive back to the Kharkov region in an attempt to regain control of cities such as Kupyansk and Lyman. In the future, the main threat to the Russian army may come from the Ukrainian army threatening its logistical supply lines, the Crimean transport line, and especially the M14, M17, and M18 highways. At the same time, Russian trenches used to block the Ukrainian offensive will be threatened if the Ukrainian army uses U.S.-supplied depleted uranium munitions and cluster bombs. In addition, for the first time in September 2023, the military equipment provided by the United States to Ukraine will include armor-piercing ammunition containing depleted uranium, which can be fired from Abrams tanks, and about 200 Ukrainian military personnel have already completed training in operating the tanks.18 An important issue for the Russian army in the future, therefore, will be whether it can maintain its defensive advantages and find more flexible and mobile tactics in the new situation.


III     The Direction of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

三   俄乌冲突的走向

Political factors are the main factors that will determine the intensity of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, whereas economic factors will be key to determining the duration of the conflict. The long-standing lack of trust between Russia and the United States and Western countries, as well as Ukraine, is the fundamental reason why it is difficult for the current Russia-Ukraine conflict to move toward reconciliation, and the conflict has further deepened the cultural confrontation and ethnic antagonism between Russia and Ukraine. Even if Russia and Ukraine reach reconciliation, they will be unable to achieve mutual understanding, and Ukraine may be unable to avoid the fate of being a conflict zone for a long time to come.


(i)      Political factors will determine the intensity of the conflict


Who the main decisionmakers will be, and how their political will changes, are the most important factors for determining the intensity of the conflict in the future. 2024 is an election year for Russia and the United States, and Ukrainian President Zelensky’s first term will also expire in 2024. The ability to remain in power of the current U.S. and Russian leaders in particular has become the biggest uncertainty in determining the intensity of the conflict.


If the regime structures of the United States, Russia, and Ukraine remain unchanged, the intensity of the Russia-Ukraine conflict may increase further, with little hope for negotiations, and the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. If the leaders of the major powers involved in the conflict change as a result of the elections, there may be a chance for Russia and Ukraine to negotiate. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has distracted the international community’s attention from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which may affect the United States’ investment of resources in Ukraine, but it does not necessarily mean that Russia and Ukraine will usher in a turnaround in negotiations. The biggest influence on the Russia-Ukraine situation remains a change at the center of power within the United States. If the U.S. Republican Party, represented by Donald Trump, comes to power after 2024, and it is able to overcome anti-Russian resistance from the U.S. security agencies and the military and get mediated negotiations going, the Russia-Ukraine conflict may decrease in intensity, but eastern Ukraine may thus become a buffer zone with unclear sovereignty or a base for stationing a multinational mediation force. Under those circumstances, Poland, Sweden, and other anti-Russian countries would find it difficult to continue supporting Ukraine on their own, and Europe would be caught in the dilemma of wanting to continue to support Ukraine but not being able to expand military production.


At present, the likelihood of a change of leadership in Russia or Ukraine due to elections is very small. Although the Ukrainian government is facing corruption allegations, a unanimous anti-Russian front has basically formed in Ukraine domestically, and the Ukrainian constitution provides that elections or a change of government shall not be carried out under a state of war. Zelensky and incumbent members of the Rada (parliament) thus have the right to continue to serve after the end of their current terms, so they are highly likely to continue in office. In the event of a domestic black swan event in Russia, wherein political stability is undermined and its forces are weakened, it could make a strategic retreat and leave the occupied areas. Under such conditions, Ukraine would gain the opportunity for a counteroffensive and a negotiating advantage. Under the current conditions, both Russia and Ukraine are waiting for an opportunity, and the political factors are the most critical in terms of being able to reverse the balance, with a regime change or political contingency being the most likely to shift the balance of power in favor of one of the sides. Until then, the two sides will engage in a dual physical and spiritual confrontation. Since there are huge differences between the Russian and Ukrainian reconciliation formulas, one can only expect those differences to be eliminated if the political will of the decisionmakers changes.


(ii)     Economic factors will determine the length of the conflict


The resilience and sustainability of the Russian economy and the level of economic assistance provided by the United States and Western countries to Ukraine are the key factors for determining the future duration of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Overall, both Russia and Ukraine face varying degrees of difficulty in continuing battlefield operations. Russia cannot dedicate all of its resources to warfare, and on the NATO side, weapons and equipment are being mobilized based on the current state of the battlefield, Ukrainian requirements, and Russian inputs. If the status quo in the political factors is maintained and there are no black swan events, the economically affordable cost will be the key factor determining the length of warfare between the two sides.


For Russia’s part, despite the challenges of stagnant economic growth, inflation, fiscal deficits, and the decline of Wagner’s power, which currently make it difficult to mount a large-scale offensive, as of 2024 it nonetheless has the resource endowment and fiscal position to sustain its inputs in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. On August 4, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law raising the upper age limit for conscription to 30, and is well prepared in terms of staffing. The Ukrainian government currently receives half of its budget revenues from Western aid,19 and NATO countries, led by the United States and the UK, still have room to ramp up their military production capacity to provide assistance to Ukraine. Although Ukraine faces difficulties in recruiting troops for the front lines, the defensive side is augmented by mercenaries from NATO countries. In addition, the level of weaponry supplied to Ukraine is continuing to increase, and the newly provided F-16 fighters from the United States, the Netherlands, and Denmark have boosted Ukraine’s confidence. In August 2023, for the first time, the United States supplied Ukraine with 31 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, which are the weapons most urgently needed by Ukraine. Moreover, profit-oriented European arms dealers are committed to influencing government decisions to maintain and further increase military aid to Ukraine. Rheinmetall, the German defense contractor, made a profit of €6.4 billion in 2022 and saw its stock jump 130 percent, while other European defense companies such as Thales and Dassault Aviation also outperformed, with the war being their main growth driver. But in the long term, Ukraine will face a severe economic crisis once it loses Western aid, with the International Monetary Fund estimating that Ukraine’s public debt will reach 100.7% of GDP by 2025.20 Ukraine’s GDP growth rate was -30.4% in 2022, the worst year in the country’s history in terms of economic indicators, and while 2023 may see a growth rebound, growth is expected to be only 1% to 3%.21


(iii)    Resolution of the crisis of confidence is the most important prerequisite for reaching a peace settlement


The lack of trust between the two sides in the conflict is the root cause of the difficulty in reconciling the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In terms of the Russia-U.S. and Russia-Europe relationships, Russia believes that the United States and the West have repeatedly violated their commitment not to expand NATO eastward. Russia believes that, from 1999 to the present, NATO has expanded eastward six times, advancing more than 1,000 kilometers to the east, and 15 countries that were in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence have been absorbed through accession to NATO. A series of previous actions by the United States to withdraw from the group have also deepened Russia’s realization that the West will not keep its promises. The United States and the West have refused to cooperate with Russia because of “Russophobia,” the special military operation, and doubts about Russian democracy, and have punished Russia with sanctions.


In terms of the Russia-Ukraine relationship, Russia believes that the Ukrainian government was not sincere in implementing the Minsk agreements, while Ukraine believes that Russia desires more of its territory, and the nature of the zero-sum game between the two sides on the territorial issue has made peace talks extremely difficult. In Russia’s peace talk formula, Crimea should belong to Russia forever, and it is difficult for Russia to give up the territories it has occupied in eastern Ukraine. Its goal is to reorganize the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, force them to surrender and demilitarize completely, and become a pro-Russian buffer state. Ukraine, on the other hand, demands that Russia withdraw from eastern Ukraine and return Crimea to Ukraine.


(iv) Reconciliation is not understanding; ethnic rivalry and cultural confrontation are the inevitable result.


From a realist perspective, Russia and Ukraine are caught in a zero-sum game with territorial rivalry at its core. From a constructivist perspective, the conflict has further heightened the preexisting cultural confrontation between the two countries into inter-ethnic antagonism and hatred. Even if Russia and Ukraine were to reach a rapprochement, they would not be able to achieve mutual understanding. As Sergei Karaganov, Honorary Chairman of the Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, put it, “a clash with the West cannot end even if we win a partial or even a crushing victory in Ukraine.” For the two sides of the conflict, the Russia-Ukraine conflict may be able to awaken Russian society to the power of long-term development, but in the short term, it will cause Russia to further detach itself from the global economic system, and lose the advantages of a latecomer country, and make it difficult for Russia to introduce the technology, equipment, and capital of the advanced countries, which will further diminish its power to integrate and influence the Eurasian region; whereas Ukraine will fall into recession, and its infrastructure reconstruction and economic recovery will be difficult and protracted. 


The Russia-Ukraine conflict will continue to have far-reaching impacts on the world landscape. From a political perspective, the United States and Russia may be able to achieve limited cooperation in the future based on the exchange of interests, but altering the trend of protracted hostility is difficult. A Russia-Belarus-Ukraine alliance is virtually no longer possible, and instability in the Eurasian region has further increased, but the international political status of middle powers in the Eurasian region, such as Turkey, Poland, and Saudi Arabia, has risen. From an economic perspective, sanctions have changed the direction of global trade and investment flows and the structure of production chains; the “politicization” of food, energy and S&T products has increased; marketization and globalization trends have been reversed; and a certain degree of retrogression has appeared in the level of global governance. The Ukrainian and Russian economies have suffered enormous impacts, the European economy is heading towards an energy transition while in the midst of stagnation, and the economic growth of other countries in the Eurasian region is likely to slow further due to the effects of the conflict. 


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Cite This Page

欧阳向英 (Ouyang Xiangying), 张誉馨 (Zhang Yuxin). "Analysis of Uncertainties Affecting the Russia-Ukraine Conflict [影响俄乌冲突走向的不确定因素分析]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Yellow Book of International Politics: Annual Report on International Politics and Security [国际形势黄皮书:全球政治与安全报告], December 1, 2023

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