A year into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, Russia has suffered a major strategic defeat, Ukraine has achieved a major strategic victory, and the West has demonstrated a combination of resolve, unity, and cohesion that few had expected. This, however, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
The war continues with no end in sight. Neither side is ready to negotiate. Both are preparing to launch major offensives in the near future. Neither side has achieved a major breakthrough in recent months that would change the course of the war. Whereas Russia’s failure to win in a blitzkrieg prompted many predictions of Ukraine’s imminent victory, lately the commentary has been about a stalemate.
Ukrainians, having tasted victory on the battlefield and united in their desire for justice and revenge, cannot accept a land-for-peace compromise. For Putin, whose war it is primarily, compromise is not an option after the humiliation of the failed campaign in pursuit of his maximalist objectives. This war was not existential for him when he began it, but it is now. He has staked his entire presidency on it and must win it. He is preparing for a long war.
The Correlation of Forces
In a long war, the correlation of forces favors Russia. In 2021, the last prewar year, Russia’s GDP was nine times larger than Ukraine’s GDP. After contracting by about 2–4 percent in 2022, the Russian economy is projected to resume growing, albeit slowly, in 2023. Successive waves of unprecedented sanctions have hurt the Russian economy and damaged its prospects for growth in the long run. But countries adapt, as Russia is doing already, with alternative supply chains, lower-tech replacements, and jerry-rigged substitutes for components it can no longer get. It is selling record volumes of oil to India and China, and it has found other buyers and acquired a fleet of tankers to bypass Western sanctions.
The prewar population of Russia was three times larger than the population of Ukraine. Russia’s territory is intact and unlike Ukraine’s, it is not under the constant threat of bombardment. Its defense factories are operating “around the clock,” and Putin has pledged to spend as much as it takes to supply his troops.
Ukraine is now in effect a ward of the EU and NATO. Notwithstanding the bravery and resilience of its people, its ability to carry on the fight depends on the West’s military and financial support. It is under relentless Russian bombardment. It has suffered catastrophic damage to its economy. Its GDP is estimated to have declined by one-third in 2022. Its reconstruction costs are projected to exceed $1 trillion. Millions of its citizens have been displaced, many of them probably permanently.
Russia has suffered massive casualties—reportedly 200,000 dead and wounded. Ukraine’s losses are estimated at 100,000. While Russian losses are reported widely, the extent of Ukrainian losses is less well known.
For Ukraine, it is a bigger loss than for Russia. These numbers do not favor Ukraine, a fact that is recognized by those who advocate for an immediate dramatic increase of Western assistance to Ukraine to enable it to achieve decisive results quickly and force Putin’s hand to negotiate on terms favorable to Ukraine.
This plan appears to be based as much on hope as on experience. The West has extended massive amounts of military assistance to Ukraine over the past twelve months. From drones and tanks to artillery shells and real-time targeting data, the United States and its allies have supplied Ukrainian armed forces with ever-increasing, ever-more-lethal hardware and support. With every new weapons system provided to Ukraine, hopes rise for a breakthrough and a decisive turn in the course of the war. Yet that decisive breakthrough has so far eluded the Ukrainian army.
The next phase of the war promises to be very difficult for Ukraine. Offensive operations are an inherently more difficult form of warfare than defense. Military analysts assess that the Ukrainian army will have to conduct them against a Russian army that has had time to recover somewhat from the setbacks it suffered last summer and fall and dig in to prepare for the widely anticipated Ukrainian offensive. Recent reports that Ukraine is experiencing shortages of artillery shells to defend against the latest Russian offensive are indicative of the likely challenges it will face once it launches its own offensive operation in the south of the country and, by extension, needs to expend ammunition at a much higher rate to press the attack.
Even if a Ukrainian offensive is successful, notwithstanding these likely obstacles and heavy losses the Ukrainian army may suffer in the course of it, the war will not come to an end. A Ukrainian breakthrough in southern Ukraine could put at risk Russia’s hold on Crimea. The peninsula, annexed illegally by Russia in 2014, represents Putin’s most important geopolitical accomplishment. Its loss would not be an acceptable option for him, let alone a bargaining chip to use in negotiating the terms of ending the war.
The annexation of Crimea was popular and welcomed by an overwhelming majority of Russians. Unlike Donbas, where the fighting has continued since 2014, Crimea was never contested militarily by Ukraine following the annexation, though it was not recognized by Ukraine as part of Russia. During the eight years preceding the February 24, 2022, escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Russian public had accepted the Kremlin’s slogan “Krym Nash” (“Crimea Is Ours”). In the eyes of the Russian public, the prospect of losing Crimea would lend credence to Putin’s claims that the war is being fought in defense of the homeland.
In the past twelve months, there has been a great deal of speculation about Russian red lines and what actions by Ukraine and its Western supporters might cross them. The sinking of the Moskva, the blowing up of the Crimea bridge, and strikes well inside Russian territory were all accompanied by speculation about where those Russian red lines were and what might finally trigger a massive retaliation or even prompt Putin to order nuclear strikes against Ukraine. Putin did escalate—he ordered a partial mobilization and launched a bombing campaign against Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure. But, thanks to Ukrainian resilience and ingenuity, the effects of this escalation proved to be less severe than had been feared, especially after Russian officials resorted to nuclear saber-rattling. The worst—a direct attack on a NATO country or a nuclear strike—did not happen, even though those suspected red lines had been crossed. This in turn led to arguments that Russia had no red lines and that they were self-imposed by the West, as well as speculation about why Putin had not yet ordered nuclear strikes.
Nobody knows what could prompt Putin to resort to nuclear strikes. He no doubt understands the gravity of such a step, including the prospect of a direct NATO military response. But if there is one contingency that could move him to take it, the prospect of losing Crimea is a leading candidate among various such grim scenarios. It would amount to not just a defeat, but a humiliating defeat. Far from forcing Putin to negotiate at that point—aside from whether Kyiv would be inclined to halt its offensive with a major symbolic victory within reach—the loss of Crimea or its prospect would likely prompt him to resort to nuclear strikes. Thus, a Ukrainian breakthrough in the south of the country could be as likely to trigger a dramatic escalation of the war as to end it.
Same Goals, Different Strategy
Putin started the war betting on a short and decisive campaign. Russia was favored to win quickly. A year later, he is betting on the opposite—to wage a long war against Ukraine, exploiting the advantages that Russia’s size, resilient economy, and relative security from retaliation afford him. Victory on the battlefield has proved elusive. A counteroffensive in Donbas, combined with the ongoing campaign of terror against Ukrainian cities and towns and destruction of the country’s infrastructure, is his next best options.
From Putin’s perspective this is likely to be a viable strategy for the next phase of the war. He faces little pressure at home from a docile public mostly approving of his handling of the situation in general, supportive of the war, and accepting of the narrative the Kremlin has used to justify it. The Russian leader is probably betting that Ukraine will eventually be unable to endure a true war of attrition and that the West will lose patience with it and curtail its support for Ukraine.
A change in strategy, however, does not mean a change in Russian war aims. Ukraine, not Donbas, is the prize.
A year into the war, its main result is that Putin has achieved exactly what he had hoped to prevent from happening, if his rationale for the war is to be accepted at face value. He has created on Russia’s doorstep a country that is united in its hatred toward Russia, full of resolve to resist the invasion, and committed to eventually defeating it no matter the cost. Before the war, one of Putin’s chief complaints was that NATO was pumping Ukraine full of weapons. Those prewar supplies were minuscule compared to the quantities of advanced weaponry NATO allies have been sending Ukraine to fight off Russian aggression. Ukraine has a competent, battle-hardened military. It has resolved to join NATO, and even if that does not happen in the near future, it has already developed close security ties with the alliance, which is actively discussing what security arrangements it can offer Ukraine to bolster its capabilities for defense and deterrence against Russia.
Having accomplished all that, Putin has turned his war into Russia’s war. He will depart the stage one day. His successor will have to deal with the legacy of his rule over Russia. That legacy will include an untenable situation on the country’s southwest border. If the war is over by then, and regardless of the terms on which the war ends, it is impossible to imagine that Ukraine will reconcile with Russia in ten, twenty, thirty years, possibly ever, after the trauma and devastation inflicted on the country by Putin’s aggression. A hostile Ukraine entrenched in the Western camp and in effect turned into its militarized outpost on Russia’s doorstep, jeopardizing Russia’s access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, is not something any future Russian leader is even remotely likely to tolerate. If not a war, this is virtually certain to become a long-term, tense geopolitical standoff, the forward edge of the larger standoff between Russia and the rest of Europe. Putin’s war will thus become Russia’s war.
The West: No Good Options
Russia has suffered multiple strategic setbacks in this war. It has lost its position as Europe’s preeminent energy supplier, some maintain, for good. Russian leverage against Europe has diminished dramatically. Its reputation as a re-emerging military power has been damaged. Its position in the Baltic was dealt a serious blow when Sweden and Finland announced their plans to join NATO. Its anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) bubble over Crimea, once thought to be formidable, has been pierced, reducing it to yet another Potemkin village. NATO has been re-energized, and a new consensus has emerged: the war has driven the final nail in the coffin of the old, pre-2014 security model in Europe when it was still possible to cling to the remnants of the post–Cold War security order in Europe. If the Kremlin cares at all about its soft power, it will take decades, if not generations, to rebuild.
However, Russia’s losses do not translate directly into gains for the United States and its allies. It is tempting to conclude that the war presently being waged on the territory of Ukraine actually benefits the United States and Europe—their major adversary is being weakened while the West only expends treasure (and not too much of it at that); Ukraine is doing all the fighting while Western militaries learn valuable lessons from the battlefield; the NATO alliance has received the wake-up call it desperately needed; and the war has effectively taken one great power out of competition.
But no matter how appealing this cold-blooded rationality may be to some, it ignores the reality of a long war in Europe and the moral aspect of pretending to wage a war against Russia at arm’s length, with only Ukrainian lives at stake. It ignores the risk of escalation, even if not nuclear, and the possibility of NATO joining the fight directly. The idea that the West can just give Kyiv the tools to “finish the job,” despite its Churchillian ring, is not grounded either in history or in reality: Great Britain could not finish the job alone when Churchill, in February of 1941, pleaded for the United States to send arms. The job was finished only after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war later that year, and it took four more years. And the same is true now, given Russia’s major advantages over Ukraine in a long war of attrition. Worse yet, Russia’s military stature has been diminished, but its reputation as a dangerous and unpredictable neighbor brandishing nuclear weapons has been reinforced. Neither the United States nor its NATO allies are prepared to be drawn directly into this war.
That leaves the United States and its allies without any good options as the war enters its second year, except to ramp up military support and hope for the best. It is not morally right to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian, but it is not right either to dictate to Ukrainians what they should settle for in their just war. A land-for-peace compromise is not an option for them, especially since it is unlikely to bring them the kind of stable, durable peace they need and deserve. They would live under a constant threat of renewed Russian aggression.
Russia does not appear ready for a compromise either. Ukraine’s terms for negotiations with Russia—restoration of 1991 borders, reparations, and war crimes tribunals—are nothing short of demands for an unconditional surrender. Russia accepting these terms is not even a remote prospect.
Having pledged—repeatedly—to support Ukraine “as long as it takes,” the United States and its allies have effectively delegated the task of defining the goals in this war to the Ukrainian leadership. In the current highly acrimonious political atmosphere, any suggestion that U.S. goals should be anything other than a complete Ukrainian victory and complete Russian surrender is certain to trigger charges of betrayal from multiple quarters, even though American and Ukrainian interests are not 100 percent aligned.
The war can continue along three possible scenarios: a stalemate; Ukraine wins; or Russia wins. The first scenario in effect becomes a forever war, perhaps something similar to the permanent standoff on the Korean Peninsula. The second scenario carries with it the risk of a dramatic escalation by Russia, which in turn could prompt NATO to become directly involved in combat. The third scenario too carries with it the danger of a direct NATO-Russia confrontation as the prospect of Russia prevailing on the battlefield will lead to calls for NATO to become involved in order to save Ukraine.
Of the three, the first scenario—forever war—is the path of least resistance associated with the least immediate risks. However, betting on a stalemate without giving serious thought to the other two scenarios would not be a sound strategy. Besides, the forever war scenario carries with it many other threats and challenges for the United States and its allies, ranging from Russian interference in regional crises and fragile states to the collapse of arms control and the breakdown of global efforts to contain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of their delivery. Living with rogue Russia means living dangerously.