‘Checkmate’ between Russia and Ukraine


While the eyes of the world are currently focused on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the second anniversary of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine is approaching.

The situation on the ground currently appears to be static as neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians want to negotiate at this stage.

Prof. Theo Neethling, attached to the Department of Political Studies and Government at the University of the Free State, describes the situation on the ground as “checkmate”.

“The Russians have occupied parts of territory in the south-eastern part of Ukraine and they are biting there. However, Ukraine has shown in the past two years that they are not going to simply allow Russia to take Ukraine.

The Ukrainians have been conducting a reasonable counter-offensive for the past six months and were even able to win back small portions of territory. However, they cannot drive out the Russians.

“So things are not really moving forward or backwards at this stage.”

Jaco Kleynhans, head of international liaison at the Solidarity Movement, agrees with this. Kleynhans believes that Russia is currently slightly on the front foot.

He explains that Russia was able to overcome its initial challenges with, among other things, weapons and is now in a much better position than 18 months ago to supply weapons to its soldiers.

“The Russian economy was also able to grow last year. You will see that Russia’s economy has degenerated into a war economy. Large factories that once produced other products are now producing weapons.

Meanwhile, Russia is exhausting Ukraine economically and militarily, says Kleynhans.

The Ukrainians are receiving fewer weapons from the West by the day, while its economy has almost halved in size in the past two years.

“Morale in Ukraine is relatively low,” says Kleynhans. The area has naturally been largely depopulated and it is winter. It is currently a very depressed area.”

More than half of the Donetsk region, including the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, is currently under Russian control. Russia therefore occupied a reasonable part of the territory it wanted, but not all of it, the experts point out.

Kleynhans as well as Neethling suspect that Russia’s pres. Vladimir Putin underestimated the West’s support for Ukraine.

The expectation was that Russia – which has the world’s second largest army – would overwhelm Ukraine. However, with the help of the West, Ukraine could have ensured that the Russians occupied only limited parts of Ukraine, says Neethling.

“Suddenly Ukraine has a chance.”

However, Kleynhans says the Americans are now getting “crazy”. “Especially the Republicans. The Americans do not want to supply more weapons. They also feel that Europe is not doing enough. However, Europe simply does not have enough weapons to supply Ukraine.”

Armin Papperger, CEO of the German defense company Rheinmetall, said earlier this week that domestic production cannot meet Ukraine’s demand for weapons and ammunition.

According to Papperger, it will take Germany ten to 15 years to replenish its own stock alone.

End not in sight

Kleynhans believes that the war between Russia and Ukraine could continue for another ten or 20 years if it continues as it is now.

Neethling also believes that a diplomatic solution is out of the question at this stage, since neither pres. Zelenskiy or pres. Putin is not going to wave the white flag.

“Ukraine is not going to give in because they have made tremendous sacrifices when you look at the loss of life and damage to infrastructure. If Putin gives in, it will have a tremendous negative impact on his presidency.

“Thousands of Russian soldiers who lost their lives. He can’t just withdraw after all that loss of life. He will have to bite the bullet.

However, Neethling believes that the upcoming American election can steer things in the right direction.

“It is common knowledge that the US pres. Joe Biden’s administration has consistently supported Ukraine. However, Trump is not so keen to support Ukraine.

“I think Putin is keeping his fingers crossed that Trump comes back to power.”

Kleynhans believes that there is currently only one solution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and that is peace negotiations.

“The two parties must simply be forced to talk to each other and the US can play a big role.

“However, the problem is that the US (and Europe) does not talk to Russia. There is no conversation.

“This is actually a war between Russia and the West rather than Ukraine. Russia wants to keep NATO away from its borders. That’s what this war is about.

“So a bigger settlement between Russia and the West is actually necessary, and it’s not something I can see happening soon.”

Thousands dead

The exact number of deaths since the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not known, as neither camp makes these figures available.

The figures are believed to be withheld from the public to avoid undermining morale among the troops and the wider public.

The New York Times however, reported in August last year that around 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the war and between 100,000 and 120,000 were wounded. For these figures, the authoritative publication cited American officials.

According to these same American officials, 120,000 Russian soldiers have died since their invasion of Ukraine. Between 170,000 and 180,000 were wounded.

Information on the exact number of civilians killed since the beginning of the war is also currently unreliable. This is because no independent count can be made due to a lack of access to Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia.

In June 2023, the Ukrainian authorities said they could only record 10,368 civilian deaths, whose bodies were found.

Oleg Gavrych, a top assistant to the cabinet chief of pres. Volodymyr Zelensky, says the death toll is probably five times higher. “About 50,000 deaths.”

Ukrainian authorities believe the siege of Mariupol from February to May 2022 claimed at least 25,000 lives, many buried in mass graves.

The important southern port city is still under Russian control at this stage.