Trapped in a Forever War

Trapped in a Forever War

Even considering a change in the Russian leadership, the war in Ukraine looks set to last for years.


Twenty months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war grinds to a bloody stalemate with no end in sight. Neither side can afford or accept defeat; for Ukraine, this is an existential fight, and for Russia, the outcome of this war will have profound ramifications on foreign policy and domestic stability, which presents a survival threat to the Russian regime. 

A complete Ukrainian victory would entail the restoration of 1991 borders, reparations, and security guarantees, likely in the form of NATO accession. Although morally justifiable, those are terms of capitulation, which could only occur if the Russian army collapses. Even if Ukraine achieves a military breakthrough, Russia has enough troops and weapons to maintain control over certain areas, particularly in the Donbas. Furthermore, by maintaining a military presence in Ukraine, the Kremlin would achieve its objective of preventing Kyiv’s geopolitical realignment with the West, particularly in the form of EU and NATO membership. As long as the war is ongoing and there are unresolved territorial disputes, Ukraine cannot join NATO, and the Kremlin hopes that the cost of reconstruction coupled with the threat of conflict flaring up again will make it exceedingly difficult for Ukraine to join the EU. 


Russia appears to have given up on its initial goal of taking Kyiv and toppling the government. Its current objective is to gain complete control of the four annexed oblasts. While there is a possibility that the front line may shift in Russia’s favor, it seems inconceivable that the Ukrainian government would formally cede its territories or abandon its efforts to liberate them from Russian occupation. 

Since the liberation of Kherson nearly a year ago, there have been minimal changes to the front line despite grueling fighting seasons and mounting casualties. Both sides are facing difficulties in regenerating offensive capabilities, and it will be increasingly challenging for either to achieve a military breakthrough, given the dense minefields and multiple lines of defense. Russia plans to increase its military budget by nearly 70 percent in 2024. It has started accelerating arms and ammunition production, indicating that fighting will likely continue at a similar intensity for at least two to three years. 

From the Kremlin’s perspective, a long war will erode Western support and force Ukraine to make concessions. The war risks becoming a more polarizing issue in upcoming elections, particularly in the United States, and the emergence of other geopolitical conflicts, whether in the Middle East or over Taiwan, will divert attention and aid from Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukraine believes that its resilience and resolve will ultimately prevail, and the cost of the war will result in internal pressure within Russia to withdraw.

At some point, we will see a decrease in the intensity of the fighting, where the front line will stabilize, and both sides will agree to a ceasefire, which will likely be periodically violated. This does not mean that there will be an ease in hostilities or an immediate armistice agreement or peace settlement. Instead, we will see a shift to hybrid warfare, with an additional focus on covert operations aimed at destabilizing the opposing side, such as assassinations and sabotage. Ukraine has an interest in preventing Russia from consolidating control over occupied territories. Therefore, we may see an increase in partisan warfare. This new phase of the war could last several years, perhaps decades. 

How the war develops from that point on is entirely unpredictable. It may gradually become a frozen conflict, or perhaps peace negotiations will materialize after a protracted stalemate. Much of it will depend on the overall geopolitical context and political changes in the West and also in Ukraine and Russia. While President Vladimir Putin’s regime appears stable for the time being, most of the senior Russian officials are in their late sixties or early seventies. If this war drags on for several years or decades, we may be faced with a different Russian leadership without a coup or uprising taking place. Putin’s successor could either be a pragmatic technocrat open to negotiations and willing to improve relations with the West or a hardliner who may decide to resume fighting or launch another war. 

Kelly Alkhouli is a political consultant and director of international relations at the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA).

Image: Shutterstock.