With no strategy for bringing their war to a conclusion, Ukraine and Russia are now seeking each other’s exhaustion.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is now well into its second year. The contested area in eastern Ukraine is still marked by regular exchanges of fire, and equally regular losses of life. The United Nations reported in late July 2015 that at least 6,832 people had perished since April 2014, along with over 17,000 wounded.1 There have been frequent warnings of new Russian offensives, but these have yet to materialise. For all the effort put in by both sides, the basic contours of the conflict have barely changed since September 2014.2 

It is not evident that either side has a strategy for bringing the war to a conclusion. The situation can be described as one in which they are each seeking the exhaustion of the other. Exhaustion here does not so much describe a physical state of being unable to continue with the struggle as it does a mental state: the sense of weariness and futility that can induce combatants to accept a political compromise that would previously have been rejected. Exhaustion can be the result not only of frustration with a military position, but also of economic pressure and political discontent. Indeed when exhaustion truly takes hold, it does so at the highest political level where the key strategic decisions about a war’s future conduct must be made.

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Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. An earlier version of this article appeared with the same title on the web magazine War on the Rocks on 11 August 2015.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October-November 2015

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