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Political and Military Realities in the Russia-Ukraine War

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Widespread disappointment with Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year – and now also with the U.S. and European ability to step up their arms production – calls for a reckoning among security policy experts on both sides of the Atlantic to consider their failure to impact and predict policy. It is necessary to bridge the growing gap between reality and the pro-Ukraine advocacy that has driven much of the public policy discussions during 2023. To devise a more realistic strategy going forward, experts should strive for a higher degree of objectivity about the military reality on the Ukrainian battlefield and the political realities in Western capitals, in Kyiv and in Moscow. Moreover, discussions about the war’s progress, stalemate, or setbacks can hardly be separated from discussions about the circumstances under which it could come to an end.

The Evolving Nature of the Ukrainian Battlefield

The battlefield situation after the fading of Ukraine’s counteroffensive toward the end of 2023 has favored Russia, which regained the initiative against Ukrainian forces in several places along the frontline. The battlefield technology and equipment characterized by reconnaissance drones, effective anti-tank weapons, mining, and dispersed artillery fire makes it costly to undertake counteroffensives. The war has become one of attrition reminiscent of the First World War, in which Russia has a clear quantitative advantage because of a higher weapons production. Russia currently fires five times as much artillery as Ukraine because it does not have to ration its military resources as much. The gravity of the situation is underlined by estimations that as many as 70 percent of Ukrainian casualties are a result of artillery fire, which puts Ukraine at an attritional military disadvantage. If the trend continues, Russia will be able to resume offensive operations against fatigued Ukrainian forces.

Russia’s Domestic Front

Three main elements affecting Russia’s ability and will to invest more in the war should be emphasized. The first is that Russia pays dearly in human lives: for example, U.S. intelligence estimated that the Russian military has suffered more than 13,000 casualties since it tried to retake Avdiivka between October and December 2023. Independent polls show high support for the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, although their reliability is hard to assess: support is high among the higher educated classes whose children are not being sent to the front, and respondents simultaneously say they prefer peace talks over continued fighting. War casualties are a liability to Russian President Vladimir Putin, albeit one that he has thus far been able to manage.

Western sanctions have proven ineffective not only at punishing Russia’s economy but also at reducing the Russian capacity or will to wage war.

The second is that Russia by now has adjusted its economy to a war footing, allocating one third of the state budget and six percent of its GDP to defense for 2024. Although all parties are depleting their stocks of weapons, Russia is out-producing the West/Ukraine in terms of battle tanks (by seven times), and infantry-fighting vehicles (by five times). This bodes poorly for Ukraine’s ability to hold its defensive positions through 2024 and 2025. The Russian economy grew in 2023 and is projected to surpass the growth of any of the major European countries this year. Western sanctions have proven ineffective not only at punishing Russia’s economy but also at reducing the Russian capacity or will to wage war. The hope, based on containment during the Cold War, is that the Russian economy eventually will run out of steam due to the absence of outside investment and innovation and by overspending on defense. However, it holds a (very) long-term prospect that is unlikely to affect the battlefield situation.

The third is Russia’s declared war aims, which remain hard to distill and which seem to be shifting with its success or failure on the battlefield. Russia was seemingly willing to negotiate in 2022 when the war went poorly (no longer vocal about ‘de-Nazification’, i.e. regime change) but today showing no sign in that direction. Putin recently claimed that Odessa is a Russian city, while Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, reiterated that the existence of Ukrainian statehood on Russia’s historical territory remains a constant reason for the resumption of hostilities. Russia’s war aims are seemingly decided by progress or setbacks on the battlefield, which, therefore, begs the question of how many more arms the Western countries can produce and send to Ukraine.

U.S. and European Arms Production

A recent report from the Estonian Ministry of Defense says that supplying Ukraine sufficiently to resume counteroffensives by 2025 (and putting the Russian war economy under pressure) requires a commitment from the Euro-Atlantic community of merely 0.25 percent of its GDP annually. It is the most ambitious goal outlined by any Western government but political realities on both sides of the Atlantic cast serious doubt over its realization.

In the United States, Congress is divided over allocations to Ukraine, compelling President Joe Biden to downgrade his administration’s ambitions from ‘as long as it takes’ to ‘as long as we can’. In Europe, most governments have made incremental increases to their arms production, while individual countries have provided advanced weaponry like fighters and cruise missiles. The EU is struggling to meet its goal of delivering one million shells to Ukraine this year, while Ukraine itself has resumed the production of armor, drones, and electronic warfare systems.

The current political reality in the Western capitals suggest a will to dedicate resources in 2024 enough for Ukraine to hopefully maintain its strategic defense, but far from enough to conduct successful counteroffensives.

The transatlantic West is so far not willing to increase defense spending to the level necessary to sustain a long-term confrontation. The current political reality in the Western capitals suggest a will to dedicate resources in 2024 enough for Ukraine to hopefully maintain its strategic defense, but far from enough to conduct successful counteroffensives.

Ukraine’s Domestic Front

The Ukrainian economy was recovering in the second part of 2023 (with Western support) and will probably be kept afloat in the coming years by the macro-financial commitment that the EU has agreed to. While Western support remains crucial for both Ukraine’s economic survival and its defense capability, it cannot replace its manpower (short of a direct intervention), which is its arguably most critical resource in Russia’s war of attrition. The Ukrainian Army has requested President Volodomyr Zelensky to draft an additional 500,000 troops, essentially to relieve the soldiers that have been rotated in and out from the front over the past two years since the full-scale invasion began. Ukraine is experiencing problems with people seeking to shirk enlistment in the army. The divide between President Zelensky, who remains politically invested in the aim to liberate all of Ukraine’s territory, and Army Chief Valery Zaluzhny, who publicly exposed his view about the military stalemate, seem symptomatic of the dilemma between ambition and reality that Ukraine faces.

The (Humble) Role of Experts

Russia’s preparation for a long-term armed conflict suggests that it believes it can overcome the attritional character of the war by outnumbering Ukrainian manpower and outpacing Western and Ukrainian weapons production. The trend for 2024 favors Russia, although it currently seems hard to judge when and if this will bear fruit on the battlefield. The Western expert community continues to discuss ways for how to convince Western politicians to increase their weapons supplies to Ukraine to prevent this from happening. However, Western politicians seem generally embedded within the strategic cultures of the countries they represent and are (naturally) pursuing the chance for re-election.

By and large, experts have failed to articulate to the electorates why supporting Ukraine is in their national interests. Experts advocating the need for sustained and enhanced weapons supplies for Ukraine may gain higher resonance among decision makers if they would couple to this a discussion about the end goal, namely, the circumstances under which the war could come to a close.

Scenarios for Ending the War

Short of a Ukrainian or a Russian collapse, four scenarios present themselves for the end of the full-scale war:


Low-scale conflict

The line of contact, i.e. the no man’s land between Russian and Ukrainian forces, stops moving because neither side tries to recommence new offensives. However, skirmishes between the two sides continue in a low-scale armed conflict similar to the situation in the Donbas between 2015 and 2022. If in such a scenario there is a ceasefire, it is regularly violated.


Frozen conflict

Hostilities between Russian and Ukrainian forces freeze along the line of contact without any formal agreement between Russia and Ukraine. The line of contact remains militarized but without skirmishes across it. Such a scenario expresses a tacit ceasefire respected by both sides.



Russia and Ukraine agree to a formal ceasefire along either the line of contact or another agreed line, similar to the armistice between North and South Korea in 1953. The line of demarcation would likely have to be monitored under an internationally binding commitment and ensured by a demilitarized zone, also similar to the North-South Korea armistice.


Peace agreement

Russia and Ukraine enter into a formal peace agreement, whereby Ukraine gives up (parts of) its lost territory in exchange for Western collective defense guarantees (NATO). Such a scenario puts Ukraine firmly in the Western camp, while Russia gains territory.

Predicting when and which of these scenarios will materialize is challenging given the continued test of power on the battlefield. The first two scenarios rely on agreement between Ukraine and Russia, whereas the Western countries almost certainly would be involved in the two latter. In the scenario of an armistice, the international monitoring of the line of demarcation would likely require the participation also of non-Western or at least non-NATO countries. In the scenario of a peace agreement, the Western countries would realistically give collective defense guarantees only if there is a low likelihood of actually ending up at war with Russia.

Policy discussions should not treat the end of the full-scale war as a taboo, but as a means to inject a necessary dose of realism into the debate that could give decision makers a sense of the strategic goal they have in mind.

Policy discussions should not treat the end of the full-scale war as a taboo, but as a means to inject a necessary dose of realism into the debate that could give decision makers a sense of the strategic goal they have in mind, which in turn will influence their considerations over how to allocate more weapons to Ukraine. The calculus of how the war can develop and possibly end should take into account the ideational and material factors that enable or constrain decision makers in the major Western capitals, in Kyiv and in Moscow to a higher extent than has been the case till today.

Written By:
Henrik Larsen
Henrik Larsen is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor