Russia’s month-long war on Ukraine has killed thousands of people, displaced millions of refugees and devastated cities, but its armed forces remain largely frustrated by fierce Ukrainian resistance, with no end in sight to the conflict.

On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine – the biggest offensive in Europe since World War II – and implied the possibility of nuclear escalation if the West intervened.

After Russian armed forces were unable to seize control of Ukraine with a lightning offensive in the first week of the war, they shifted strategy to the bombardment of cities with artillery, air strikes and missiles. Civilian targets including hospitals, churches and housing have been hit, leading United States President Joe Biden to call Putin a “war criminal”.

Russian forces have repeatedly struck the capital, Kyiv, but have failed to encircle the city.

The besieged southern port city of Mariupol has been hardest hit, subject to weeks of bombardment that has killed at least 2,300 people and destroyed most of the city, according to Ukrainian officials. About 100,000 civilians remain trapped in the city without running water, electricity, or heating, and with supplies of food dwindling.

Only one major city, Kherson, has fallen to the Russians. The war’s death toll is unclear, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – who has become a symbol of national resistance – said on Wednesday that thousands of people have been killed, including at least 121 Ukrainian children.

Ukraine says it has killed 14,000 Russian soldiers, and destroyed hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery pieces and aircraft. Even conservative U.S. assessments estimate at least 7,000 Russian dead.

The United Nations says more than 3.6 million Ukrainians have now fled the country, and a further 6.5 million have been displaced within Ukraine. The war has also rattled the global economy and the geopolitical order.

Economic sanctions on a scale never before placed on a $1.5 trillion economy are set to send Russia into deep recession this year. The World Bank warns the country is now in “default territory.”

Biden travels to Europe on Wednesday with new sanctions proposals, including weighing whether Russia could be kicked out of the Group of 20 (G20) bloc of nations. However, the Kremlin insists that its war is going to plan and that Russia will not stop fighting until it has achieved its strategic goals – including forcing Ukraine to become “neutral” and “demilitarize.”

Sanctions and defense spending

“We thought the world’s economic interdependence had made this war too stupid to be waged; it turns out we humans are that stupid,” said Former U.S. diplomat Brady Kiesling. “Our response now, naturally, is to make the European and U.S. economies less blackmailable by foreign autocrats.”

Europe has plans to slash Russian gas imports by two-thirds by the end of the year, and the U.S. banned Russian energy imports. The war and sanctions have upended the global post-COVID economic recovery. The International Monetary Fund says it will downwardly revise its 4.4 percent growth forecast for the year next month.

Ukraine has also created a new European geopolitical reality. European Union leaders are meeting on Thursday to discuss financial aid to member states to offset soaring energy costs for farmers, businesses and households, as Europe searches for alternative suppliers of coal, oil and gas.

The war has also raised defense budgets. Germany announced $113bn of additional spending on its armed forces, equal to more than two years’ worth of defense spending. France, too, said it will increase military spending in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Sweden says it will almost double its defense budget to two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) “as soon as possible,” with public opinion backing NATO membership for the first time. Finland, already spending two percent of GDP, is upping defense spending.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance will double the forces on its eastern flank by placing four additional battle groups in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary.

EU countries have moved towards creating an independent defense capability in their Versailles Declaration on March 11, by agreeing to “increase substantially defense expenditures … with defense capabilities developed in a collaborative way within the European Union”.

Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras believes this crisis will further European integration, as the 2008 global financial crisis brought a closer banking union and the COVID-19 pandemic created Europe’s first common debt instrument.

“It is more likely that we will see significant steps towards further integration across critical sectors, such as defense, energy and fiscal policy,” he told fellow bankers on 21 March.

Others believe that energy decoupling from Russia and increased military deterrence will not change the thinking of a nuclear-armed former superpower.

“A war of aggression like the one Russia unleashed on Ukraine requires a serious response,” said Kostas A Lavdas, who teaches European studies at the University of Piraeus.

But Lavdas believes sanctions are only a start.

“Further cornering a dangerous autocrat who controls nuclear weapons is not the way forward,” he said.

“Providing a smart way out for both parties is the real challenge. Serious work begins after the end of the war. We need to understand why deterrence failed (because it did) … and ensure that this time we change course where change is needed.”

Endgame unclear

That way out is elusive. Ukraine and Russia signaled they might be nearing an agreement on March 16. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “neutral status is now being seriously discussed along, of course, with security guarantees. There are absolutely specific formulations which in my view are close to agreement”.

But talks are dragging on, a reflection of the difficulty Ukraine faces in giving up aspects of its self-determination – such as joining the EU or NATO – and parts of its sovereign territory, including the Donbas region and Russia-annexed Crimea.

As Russia digs in and Europe, the US, Canada and the United Kingdom raise the cost of Russia’s war, the world is also becoming increasingly polarized between a Western bloc of liberal democracies and others, like China, who do not condemn the Russian attack on Ukraine, making decisions in multilateral bodies such as the UN difficult to reach.

Jоhn Psаrоpоulоs

Аnаdоlu Аgеncy