Wars between countries are some of the main threats that have a transformative impact on the international system and order. When powerful countries are belligerents, the effects of these types of wars are multiplied, increasing their unpredictability and time duration.
The reasons for these wars are many and varied. They can happen due to various factors and by various actors, starting from territorial disputes, competition for economic opportunities and geopolitical space, different interests, ideological clashes etc.
The war between Russia and Ukraine is the largest war between countries in Europe since the time of World War II. Many schollars have already concluded that the effects of this war will be multidimensional, profound and transformative, especially for the security system in Europe. Seventeen months have passed since the start of the war and there are still no indications about its form, manner and potential outcome.
It is understandable that no one can accurately predict something like that. However, even under these circumstances, an explanatory theoretical perspective can be offered that takes into account two factors: the situation of the military forces on the ground, intertwined with the ultimate objectives of the parties involved, and the empirical data on the average duration of wars between countries in the past.
The territorial dispute as a factor for duration of a war
After seventeen months of fierce fighting, it appears that neither side has a realistic chance of achieving absolute victory on the battlefield. This type of victory is achieved when the winning country is able to permanently destroy the threat that could appear in the future from the opposing country. Moreover, the objectives of Russia - the country that initiated the aggression - have transformed significantly over time.
At the beginning of the conflict, the Russian officials stated that the sole and final objective is to achieve, using a "special and well-planned operation", a quick and decisive victory aimed at the "demilitarization" and "denazification" of Ukraine. Faced with the resistance of the Ukrainian army and people - who were unconditionally supported by ther Western countries in terms of military, financial and intelligence means - the Russian leadership changed its approach, thus changing the objectives of the war.
As a result, the tactic of mass bombing started, which targted the civilian population compliance with any criteria or principles. In October 2022, Russia began to implement the policy of territorial occupation and annexation. Currently, Russia has managed to officially annex Crimea and four other regions, which together make up over 20% of the total Ukrainian territory before the start of the crisis in 2014.
The Russian leadership has made it clear on several occasions that it has no intention of ceding that territory. On the other hand, Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly said that they will continue to fight until all Russian-occupied territory is returned under Ukrainian control. President Zelensky emphasizes the fact that it is not only about the return of the recently occupied regions, but also about the annexed Crimea in 2014. Addressing the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he stated that "Crimea is ours, our territory".
At the meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, Zelensky said that it is unthinkable to have peace based on territorial compromises. The same applies to the Ukrainian citizens. In a survey conducted by the International Institute of Sociology in Kyiv during February and March 2023, 87% of Ukrainians consider that any territorial concession to achieve peace is unacceptable. The study showed that only 9% of the citizens stated that they would accept concessions even in relation to the territorial aspect, provided that this means achieving lasting peace.
Considering these circumstances - where the beligerents have irreconcilable differences in relation to the occupied territory and reflect conflicting ultimate objectives in terms of ending the war, where there is a clear lack of political will to engage in a negotiation process and they have incompatible views regarding the future relationship that Ukraine should have with the West - the probability is very high that this war will continue for many years.
History shows many years of war
In addition to the territorial objectives of the beligerents - the main element that leads us to the conclusion that the war in Ukraine will continue – history, unfortunately, also supports the same assumption. Based on the data collected over a period of more than 75 years by the University of Upsala (Department of Peace and Conflict Research) - regarding the number of conflicts/wars, how big they are, the form of warfare and duration, it was determined that 26% of interstate wars end in less than thirty days.
The average duration of military activities that end within 30 days is 8 days. However, if a war lasts more than thirty days, then, according to this data, 25% of them end within a year. In most cases, the end of these wars is in the form of a peace agreement or ceasefire between the belligerents. If military activities last longer than a month, but less than a year, they end with a ceasefire in 24% of cases. However, what is important to note is that this data show that, if interstate wars last more than a year, than it is probable that their duration will continue in a period of up to one decade.
This empirical data seem to paint a bleak outlook about the war in Ukraine. A year and a half has passed since the beginning of the conflict and there is still no profound initiative on the horizon to reach a ceasefire agreement. Western countries, including the USA, pledged to support Ukraine "as long as necessary." However, they still have no clear idea of how and when the war will end. There are some minor initiatives by countries like Brazil or China that occasionally meet with the Ukrainian and Russian leadership in order to bring the belligerents together, but without any significant success.
The Ukrainian side continues to insist that talks can begin only when Russian forces leave all of its territory, including Crimea. The best guarantee for peace would be a military victory that would force the Russian troops to leave Ukraine, while the Russian side responds that Ukraine must first accept the "new reality" - control over nearly one-fifth of Ukrainian territory - and then sit down at the negotiating table.
It is obvious that the war in Ukraine is a rather complex conflict in which different interests are intertwined, not only the interests of the parties that are directly involved in the military activities. Russia and Ukraine have expressed contradictory views on resolving the conflict, making it difficult to predict a quick end to the war. Moreover, historical data also indicates that wars lasting more than a year tend to last up to a decade.
However, despite the will of the parties involved in the conflict and the conclusions we can draw from the duration of similar wars in the past, there are unpredictable circumstances that can also affect the end of the war in Ukraine. It is clear that Russia is aiming for a longer war. President Putin may be hoping that the return of the former President Trump to the White House in 2025 could change the US support for Ukraine.
However, the mutiny of the Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who accused the Russian army of attacking his forces and in retaliation intended to return to Moscow to demand justice, was proof that Putin is no more untouchable and all-powerful in terms of controlling rivals and political-military groups even within Russia.
In addition, it is believed that if the Ukrainian counter-offensive, launched several months ago, is successful enough, it could force Putin to sit down at the negotiating table in order to find a way to end the war. Of course, all these variables can affect the course of the war in Ukraine, including its duration.
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