Is the Ukraine-Russia war headed for a Syria-type stalemate?

BEHIND THE LINES: If a “frozen conflict” Syria-style emerges in Ukraine, it will only be because independent Ukrainian efforts succeed in preventing a complete Russian victory.

 SYRIAN UNIVERSITY students in Damascus hold a giant Russian flag at a pro-Russia rally following the invasion of Ukraine. (photo credit: YAMAM AL SHAAR/REUTERS)
SYRIAN UNIVERSITY students in Damascus hold a giant Russian flag at a pro-Russia rally following the invasion of Ukraine.
(photo credit: YAMAM AL SHAAR/REUTERS)

Some commentary on the Ukraine war in recent days has raised the possibility that the battle between Kyiv and Moscow could be headed toward a state of “frozen conflict.” British journalist Patrick Cockburn, for example, wrote in a column published on April 23 that, “Overall, the war in Ukraine is beginning to look more and more like Syria: a military and political stalemate with limited chances of breaking the deadlock.”

What would such an outcome consist of, and how likely is it? A close perusal of the unfolding situation in Ukraine must conclude that any talk of stalemate is misleading and premature.

Firstly, it is important to define what exactly this term means. The Syrian civil war began as a two-way contest between the Assad regime and a largely Sunni Arab insurgency directed against it. By 2014, this war had birthed another conflict, between the Islamic State and a US-led international coalition. The situation in Syria began to show signs of settling into the current reality of de facto partition and frozen conflict by about 2017, and by 2020 this picture was confirmed. 

Today, Syria is divided into three areas of control. These are the “regime” area, which is actually an area in which Iran, Russia and the Assad regime all exercise authority; the “Kurdish” area, in which a Kurdish-led autonomy in cooperation with the United States holds sway; and the “rebel” area in the northwest, in which a variety of Sunni Islamist militias exercise power in various forms of cooperation with Turkey. 

The situation of “frozen conflict,” and de facto partition, exists in Syria because of the support afforded each of the entities in question by outside powers. This makes each of them invulnerable to destruction, without the likelihood of triggering conflict with the state sponsor behind them – Russia and Iran in the regime’s case, the US in the case of the Kurds, and Turkey in the case of the Sunni Islamists. 

 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Moscow in September. (credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters) RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Moscow in September. (credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

It is notable that all areas outside of regime control that were not guaranteed by an outside power have been reabsorbed by Assad and his allies. The last of these was rebel-controlled Deraa and Quneitra Provinces, retaken by the regime and its allies in the summer of 2018. These areas had received partial support from Israel and the West, but not to the extent of any readiness to directly guarantee their survival by use of direct force. 

SO HOW does the current situation in Syria compare with that of Ukraine?

There is an obvious and immediate difference. The three Syrian areas of control all have backers who are prepared to guarantee their survival through force. 

Ukraine does not. The US and Western European countries oppose the Russian invasion. Washington and London are committed to major efforts to arm the Ukrainians. But no Western power has committed to sending its own troops to guarantee the Kyiv government’s survival. 

President Volodymyr Zelensky knows that ultimately if Ukraine is to survive, it must do so by its own efforts. If a “frozen conflict” Syria-style emerges in Ukraine, it will only be because independent Ukrainian efforts succeed in preventing a complete Russian victory – and if Moscow then decides to cease further offensive action. 

So how likely is this? It is without a doubt that any such outcome remains at some distance in the future. 

The first phase of the Ukraine war ended with the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kyiv area after their failure to take the city in the first month of the conflict. The second phase is currently underway. In it, Russian forces are seeking, according to Moscow’s stated goals, to complete the conquest of the Donbas area in eastern Ukraine, create a land corridor from Donbas to the Crimean Peninsula, take or blockade Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, and create a land link to the breakaway pro-Russian enclave in Transnistria. 

It remains very much to be seen if Russia is able to achieve any or all of these ambitious aims. But the question of a stalemate followed by a frozen conflict will not even come seriously on the agenda until this matter is tested. A battle of maneuver on a scale not seen in Europe for many decades looks set to take place in eastern Ukraine in the coming months. Any talk of a stalemate or frozen conflict prior to the commencement of this battle, currently in its opening stages, is surely premature. 

Russian success in achieving these aims would be unlikely also to generate a subsequent stalemate and frozen conflict. There is no reason to assume that President Vladimir Putin’s original, maximalist war aims of toppling the government in Kyiv and installing a Belarus-style client/puppet regime have been abandoned because of the failure to achieve these in February and March. 

Attainment of the current campaign’s goals would be likely to herald a second attempt on Kyiv, once the gains made were consolidated. Should Putin’s forces succeed in linking up with Transnistria, then the future status of Moldova, in which this Russian-speaking enclave is located, might also become subject to the Russian leader’s ambitions.

If, however, Putin’s second campaign in Ukraine proves no more successful than his first, then the prospect of a gradually emerging frozen conflict might emerge. Even then, however, a further phase of maneuver warfare might intervene. Should the Russian offensive stall, Russian forces would then be left to defend a large, unstable front line, and a Ukrainian counteroffensive would become a possibility. Such a counteroffensive would be intended to reduce Russian territorial gains, made since the commencement of the war on February 24, to a minimum. 

Such an effort, even if it succeeded in winning back parts of the territory in eastern Ukraine for Kyiv, would almost certainly not manage to expel the Russians from the entirety of Ukraine, and would be highly unlikely even to push Moscow’s forces all the way back to the February 24th lines. (The reconquest of Crimea is generally regarded as an impossibility for Ukraine.) 

If such an outcome is reached, Ukrainian success in the war might then result in the renewal of the stalemate and frozen conflict that existed in eastern Ukraine from 2014 when the Russians made their first incursions, to February 24, 2022, but with some territorial losses for Kyiv.

SO COMPARISONS of Ukraine to Syria are premature. Ukraine appears in fact more similar to Syria in 2012, with the major questions still unsettled, than to the exhausted, divided Syria of 2022. 

But once the maneuver campaigns that lie ahead are concluded, then unless Russia can dramatically change the course of the war, the eventual outcome of the war in Ukraine may indeed be the continued de facto partition of Ukraine and the continuation of unresolved conflict. 

The aim of the Ukrainian government will be to preserve as much of the Black Sea coastline as possible, and to reduce the area of Russian control in the east to the smallest possible area. 

So a Syrian-style division is indeed a likely scenario following the conclusion of the Ukraine war. But the achievement of this will depend on the continued arming and support of the Ukrainian government by its Western allies. 

The Ukraine war is far from concluded. It may well indeed not yet have reached its height.