Russia-Ukraine war in 2023: Can there be a way out? 

person carrying belongings out of a bombed home
Local residents carry their belongings as they leave their home ruined in the Saturday Russian rocket attack in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko

After 10 months of war, Ukraine did not see a ceasefire on New Year’s Eve, which is usually widely celebrated in the former Soviet Union republics. 

Instead, Ukrainian air defenses reportedly intercepted drones that Russia again sent to strike Ukrainian infrastructure during consecutive nights from Dec. 31­ to Jan. 2.  

More surprising was the announcement on Thursday that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ordered a 36-hour ceasefire starting at 12 a.m. Jan. 6 to allow citizens living in the areas of hostilities and professing Orthodoxy to attend church services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Ukraine did not immediately react to Putin’s ceasefire announcement. However, a senior adviser to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Mykhailo Podolyak, called the “Christmas truce” a “cynical trap and an element of propaganda.”

Russia maintains that it would entertain the idea of peace talks only when Ukraine takes into account “new territorial realities,” meaning its one-sided annexation in September of Ukrainian Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

headshot of mai'a cross (left), pablo calderon martinez (center), and julie carie (right)
Portraits from left to right of Mai’a Cross, Northeastern associate dean of faculty affairs, diversity and inclusion and dean’s professor of political science, international affairs, and diplomacy; Pablo Calderon Martinez, Edward W. Brooke professor of political science & international affairs, assistant professor in politics and international relations; and Julie Garey, assistant teaching professor of political science. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Courtesy Photo

“Both countries seem to be very far away in terms of a compromise that can be reached,” says Pablo Calderon Martinez, assistant professor of politics and international relations at Northeastern University-London. 

Although Ukraine has been doing very well defensively, he says, neither side can claim outright victory. He cannot see Ukraine taking back or giving away its territory in the East, currently occupied by Russia, nor Russia pulling back to pre-war borders.

“It’s the ultimate definition of a stalemate. We are entering a war of attrition, really,” Calderon Martinez says.

Russia is weakened in many ways, which is starting to show in 2023, says Mai’a Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy, and director of Northeastern’s Center for International and World Cultures. The country’s economy experienced a contraction in 2022 after being cut off from the global economy as a result of Western sanctions.

“There is the ongoing question of how Russia is going to make money from selling oil and energy resources,” Cross says.

It currently relies on China and India, which are willing to find ways around sanctions, she says. But the country was selling most of its energy resources to Europe, and being cut off from that source of income will be an increased challenge in 2023. 

Intelligence and analysts suggest that Russia is running low on ammunition and equipment, Cross says. It is going to be quite difficult for Russia to import basic goods and military weaponry, like the missiles it has been using to indiscriminately attack regular Ukrainian citizens and infrastructure. 

Cross also believes that with more than 80,000 troops killed the Russian professional army that had started the war is experiencing a collapse.

But Ukraine still remains a relatively small country with a relatively small military force, Calderon Martinez says, relying on support from the outside. It is highly unlikely that NATO will decide to get involved with boots on the ground, he says.

“I don’t really see a way out of it for either of the countries,” Calderon Martinez says. “Of course, the war will have to end at some point or will have to subside at some point. How it will happen, we’ll have to see.” 

NATO supports Ukraine but won’t engage forces 

NATO maintains that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict, says Julie Garey, an assistant teaching professor of political science at Northeastern who specializes in international relations and U.S. foreign policy.

“They want Ukraine to be able to decide its own destiny, free of Russian interference,” she says.

Garey believes the alliance’s support is largely reflected in the support the U.S. has been providing Ukraine. The U.S. Congress approved $45 billion worth of assistance to Ukraine as part of the $1.66 trillion government funding bill for 2023. 

The U.S. public is predominantly unified around the notion that the U.S. is fighting Russia by supporting Ukraine and that Russia is an entity that should be opposed. 

NATO is also active in Poland, Latvia and Lithuania because of what’s happening close to its borders, she says. 

“They are dealing with not only perhaps the threat of the conflict spilling over, but also with refugees, people leaving Ukraine,” she says.

However, a missile killing two people when it hit a Polish village about 4 miles from the Ukrainian border shows that the allies recognize the importance of taking a moment to decide how to engage as an organization, Garey says.

Ultimately, Poland decided to treat what had happened as an isolated incident. The alliance undertook reviews of its defense mechanisms. 

“NATO is not interested in engaging in a large-scale war,” she says. “Prolonged military engagements are expensive.”

NATO refrained from announcing a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine because that would have required willingness to use force, Garey says. It also would create a potential for an accidental use of force or a deliberate use of force. 

“I think there was a real reluctance to open that door,” Garey says, given that Russia is a nuclear power. “The other thing that probably does come into play is that Ukraine is not a member of NATO.”

But the allies have the ability to act as individual units, she says. NATO doesn’t prohibit them from reacting in ways they see fit.

Russia nuclear threat still remains

Despite Russia being weakened, Cross says, it still has thousands of nuclear weapons that have been maintained over the decades. If Putin is desperate to claim some kind of victory, she says, he might use them.

“The threat remains that if he feels backed into a corner and the losses of the Russian military continue to be so humiliating, there’s the possibility of using those [weapons],” she says. 

Russia also could ramp up propaganda domestically and hybrid attacks abroad to try to destabilize Western elections, for example, or advance anti-Western narratives through social media, Cross says. 

She has come across U.S. think tanks and European governments using the argument that Putin was forced to engage Ukraine in war because of the expansion of NATO. 

“It’s disturbing, and it actually works. People actually do start to make these arguments that totally line up with what Putin wants out there,” Cross says. “That sort of narrative is completely counterproductive when it comes to helping the Ukrainians.” 

Europe can tap into more non-military resources

“By and large in Europe, support for Ukraine seems to be the de facto position,” Calderon Martinez says.

“It absolutely doesn’t have a choice in this matter, because this is about the future of Europe,” Cross says.

Russia doesn’t have many tools at its disposal to discourage the West from supporting Ukraine, Calderon Martinez says. Its main leverage—energy shortage intimidation tactics—didn’t work as the European Union was able to efficiently shift away from Russian energy dependency, procuring more than 90% of its energy supplies from elsewhere. The weather in December and early January has been milder, as well.

In the U.K., Calderon Martinez says, support for Ukraine is unconditional and unwavering.

“That’s the one policy point that has made both mainstream political parties agree on,” he says.

As for the EU, he cannot see big players like Germany and France—and countries in the middle like Poland, Italy and Spain—deviating from supporting Ukraine despite some past pro-Putin sentiment within right-wing parties in Italy, France and Hungary.

Although the EU is much more limited than the U.S. when it comes to providing military equipment, Cross says, it can deepen sanctions, solicit diplomatic support and use its civilian resources to bolster governmental systems in Ukraine and help rebuild infrastructure to stabilize cities.

Will it take China to pressure Russia into peace talks?

A virtual meeting held between Putin and Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China, on Dec. 30 demonstrated that Putin is looking for an ally to supply weaponry and basic economic goods, Cross says.

“But that relationship is not a natural one, in many ways,” she says. 

Although both Putin and Xi are serious authoritarian leaders, they have nothing in common beyond that, Cross says. 

“If his biggest possible supporter is Xi Jinping, then that is a very weak relationship,” Cross says, as China has demonstrated reluctance in supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from day one.

Although China would not want to be seen as pro-American or pro-NATO, Calderon Martinez says, it is going through a particularly tricky moment with the end of the COVID-19 restrictions. The government needs to provide high levels of economic growth that its citizens were accustomed to before the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war.

“So it’s possible that they might start putting pressure on Russia to change their approach [to the war],” Calderon Martinez says. 

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