Is the Ukraine war descending into a ‘frozen conflict’?

As heavy fighting in Donbas continues, neither side is making clear gains

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the front line
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the front line
(Image credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Russia launched its first air strikes on Kyiv in over a month, while heavy fighting continued in eastern Ukraine this week. The strikes on sites in Ukraine’s capital followed warnings from Moscow that it would step up attacks in retaliation for the supply of new US weapons to Ukraine.

Kyiv said its forces had recaptured a fifth of Severodonetsk, a Russian-occupied city in the eastern Luhansk province. After a visit to the front line, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy warned that his forces were outnumbered in Severodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk, but said they had “every chance” of fighting back. Russia will control the whole of Luhansk if it takes the cities. The US announced that it would send a new rocket system, doubling Ukraine’s artillery range; the UK will send similar weapons. In remarks which angered Kyiv, France’s President Macron urged the West not to “humiliate” Russia, so that a diplomatic solution can be found “when the fighting stops”.

What the editorials said

What on earth is Macron thinking, asked The Times. Russian forces are launching “relentless attacks” on Severodonetsk and are killing up to 100 Ukrainian troops a day. Yet instead of focusing on getting weapons to Ukraine, the French president has made an “extraordinarily foolish” intervention in which he talked of finding an accommodation with Moscow. And he isn’t the only EU leader to suggest that Russia be offered a face-saving way out of the war: Germany’s Olaf Scholz has done so too, and recently repeatedly refused to say that he wants to see Russia defeated militarily.

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Signs of “flagging resolve” in Western capitals are clearly alarming, said The Washington Post – not least because Russian forces seem to have “regrouped” in recent weeks. Yet for all the talk of “intra-European squabbling”, said The Economist, the overall story of this conflict is one of impressive continental unity: witness the EU’s announcement of stiffer sanctions on Russia last week. However, that unity will no doubt be “further tested” in the months ahead – especially by the question of how to wean the continent off Russian gas.

A soldier from the Ukrainian army

(Image credit: Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

What the commentators said

Much has been made of Russia’s advances in recent weeks, said Max Boot in The Washington Post, but “the facts on the ground” suggest that Ukraine’s position is still pretty strong. True, Russian forces have made “incremental gains” in the east. But they haven’t come close to encircling Ukrainian troops, who are retaking parts of Severodonetsk, a city which had looked lost a week ago. Meanwhile, the West continues to bolster Kyiv’s arsenal. Russian forces, by contrast, are suffering from “incompetent leadership and low morale”, and have lost so much hardware that they’re using 60-year-old tanks. The West must now go for broke, said Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. Far from offering Putin an “off-ramp”, it should aim for the “rapid defeat, or even, to borrow Macron’s phrase, humiliation” of Russia. Putin has shown no appetite for ending his war, and views destroying Ukraine as an “existential goal”. If we’re to prevent further aggression (by him), only Russia’s total defeat will suffice.

Alas, that sort of talk belongs in the realm of “fantasy”, said Robert Colls in The New Statesman. Leaving aside the threat of nuclear escalation, do hawks in the West really think Russian forces will simply “crawl away” while Zelenskyy stages a “victory parade in Kyiv”? No, the “miserable truth” is that neither side can afford to lose this war. If it is to end, Putin “has got to be shown a way down” so that a diplomatic solution can be found – however unpalatable that sounds. For now, the war in Donbas is like a “bloody seesaw”, said Daniel DePetris in The Spectator. “The Russians spend a day acquiring one kilometre of ground, only for the Ukrainians to counter attack shortly thereafter.” Neither side looks likely to end the stalemate soon, and both appear to view diplomacy as “a chore best left to some later date”. The most likely scenario is therefore that the war descends into a “frozen conflict”, like the one in Donbas from 2014 until February. That’s by no means a good outcome – but right now, it’s “looking like the best of bad options”.

What next?

The foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey met in Ankara this week to discuss opening a corridor in the Black Sea for agricultural exports, following warnings that Russia’s naval blockade could trigger global food shortages. Kyiv says that 75 million tonnes of grain could be stuck in Ukraine by autumn unless exports resume.

More than 1,000 Ukrainian fighters who surrendered after the fall of Mariupol have been transferred to Russia for investigation, according to Russian state media. There have been calls in Russia to treat them as war criminals.

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