People look at a map of Europe and express horror that a large part of it is once more in flames. Pundits point out with alarm that for the first time since 1945, one European country has invaded another and we are witnessing the first big military conflict on the continent since the Balkan wars in the 1990s, aside from some earlier fighting in the Ukraine itself.
But if we look at a larger map that includes not only Europe but the Middle East and North Africa, we get an entirely different impression because Ukraine is no longer a blood-soaked exception in a zone of peace. It is, on contrary, the new northern extension of a giant zone of war that has extended over the last twenty years east-west from Afghanistan to north-east Nigeria and north-south from Turkey to Somalia and Yemen.
Parallels are occasionally drawn between the Ukrainian war and a dozen or so conventional and guerrilla wars being fought out in this vast area of conflict to the south of Ukraine. When similarities between these conflicts are noted, it is usually on the grounds that Russian shelling and bombing of cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv is similar to that of Damascus and Aleppo by Russian-backed Syrian forces. This is true enough, but keep in mind that the bombardment of Gaza by Israel and Raqqa and Mosul by the Americans likewise led to massive physical destruction and heavy civilian loss of life.
But there is are other more ominous similarities between the war in Ukraine and the wars in the Middle East and North Africa. Most of the latter developed into stalemates with no final winner or loser, while the countries being fought over were wrecked from end to end. Ceaseless violence generated mass flight of the population, the ruin of the economy, and the disintegration of society.
The standard of living in Iraq was close to that of Greece in 1980, but had fallen to that of Mali forty years later. Skilled surgeons who had once worked in Baghdad or Damascus hospitals fled to California or New Zealand and were not coming back.
Could the same thing now happen in Ukraine? The war there has turned into a stalemate in a surprisingly short period and the result may be akin to that in the Middle East wars. The Russians have failed to destroy the Ukrainian government and army, take the cities or even encircle them, gain control of the air or stop Ukraine being resupplied with arms by foreign powers. It does not look as if Moscow can mobilise enough soldiers and equipment to recover from these setbacks.
But at the same time, Russia has not been militarily defeated and it can keep pounding Ukrainian cities into rubble even though it cannot easily capture them. It is unlikely to agree to serious peace talks until it has made some significant gains on the ground and these may be a long time coming. Already large parts of these Ukrainian cities look like opposition areas in Damascus and Fallujah west of Baghdad.
We live in what President Donald Trump called “the era of endless wars” and the Ukrainian conflict may prove as intractable as so many others. Russia has certainly failed in its objectives, but President Vladimir Putin has every reason not to admit defeat. For its part, Ukraine has survived but is still partly occupied by a powerful army that it is unlikely to evict. Both sides can still hope to improve their positions, though not to win
An endless war in Ukraine is possible, but it will be dangerous and with the potential to escalate into an all-out conflict between Russia and Nato which might in turn escalate into a nuclear exchange. The likelihood of this occurring has increased for two reasons since the Russian invasion of 24 February. First, the Russian army has shown itself much weaker than anybody expected, increasing the chance of the Kremlin using tactical nuclear weapons to even the odds.
Second, Putin’s historic blunder in starting an unwinnable war in the first place shows that the Kremlin is a very poor judge of the situation on the ground in Ukraine. Equally important, the Kremlin wholly underestimated the furious reaction of the US and the rest of Europe to the invasion. The danger is that these serial misjudgments would in the future extend to the prospect of Russia using nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
Western political leaders have so far tried to draw a firm dividing line between supporting Ukrainian resistance and direct confrontation with Russia through no fly zones. But the killing of Ukrainian civilians and destruction of their homes by Russian firepower shown every night on Western television will raise the pressure on politicians to do something about extending war aims from defending Ukraine to regime change in Moscow. This would guarantee a longer war with more blood spilt by the day and an ever-decreasing chance of a compromise peace. Russia has always said that would be justified in using nuclear weapons if there was a danger to the existence of the Russian state.
We may see a stalemate like in Syria, but a far more risky one. Many argue that the Kremlin would back down if faced with war with Nato. “What these arguments [for a stronger Western response] have in common,” says the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, “is an uncomfortable element of guesswork and wishful thinking.”
The lesson of the Middle East wars is that stalemates never last forever and when they do finally break, the violence is worse than ever.