The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
Over the past weeks, Moscow’s war on Ukraine has taken a turn. After failing to seize Kyiv, Russian forces pulled back to Belarus and Russia, leaving behind a trail of civilian casualties, and regrouped in Ukraine’s east with the aim of making additional gains in the Donbas. Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed General Alexander Dvornikov, also known as the “butcher of Syria,” to lead his country’s campaign. This week, he launched a new, more brutal military offensive in Ukraine’s east.
But as the Ukrainians begin fighting against the renewed assault, Western policy is lagging behind the reality of war on the ground. Some U.S. and European policymakers are advocating for a negotiated solution to the invasion in which both sides compromise. They are doing so even though Russia has murdered, raped, and tortured thousands of civilians, and even though giving the country control over the Donbas would mean condemning more Ukrainians to a similarly horrible fate. They are pushing for an agreement despite the fact that Russia is a bad-faith actor with a long track record of rejecting diplomatic efforts. The experience of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics suggests that Putin would use newly occupied areas as launch pads for further attacks in Ukraine and neighboring states. A negotiated solution, even if it was possible, would not bring about peace but permanent security instability in Europe.
The West understands that Moscow is brutal and untrustworthy. U.S. President Joe Biden has called the invasion a genocide, and European leaders have publicly accused Putin of war crimes. But from the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Western leaders have behaved as if they do not believe that Ukraine can defeat Russia on the battlefield and have instead pursued talks. Germany, for example, has shied away from providing tanks, and French President Emmanuel Macron has made multiple attempts to negotiate with Putin, saying that “there is no other way out [of the war] than a ceasefire and good faith negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.” As a result, Western leaders are signaling that they would be willing to accept Russian territorial gains in exchange for an end to the invasion. Despite Moscow’s stumbles, the conventional thinking goes, the Russian military is simply too big to fail.
But this assumption is false: Ukraine can, in fact, win a clear military victory. Its forces were able not just to stop Russia from reaching Kyiv; with the help of limited defensive weapons from the United States and NATO, they were able to launch counteroffensives around Kyiv, Chernihiv, and other locations in the north. Against all odds, the Ukrainian military has proved capable of doing more than holding the line; it has proved capable of forcing Russian forces to retreat.
Western leaders have behaved as if they do not believe that Ukraine can defeat Russia.
It will be up to the Ukrainians to define the full terms of victory. As President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a recent interview, Ukraine will not give up territory in the east to end the war. At the very least, this means victory would entail an immediate return to the 2014 status quo, along with a negotiated pathway to restoring Ukraine’s full territorial integrity—including the two “People’s Republics.” Crimea is a more difficult issue, but it is possible to envisage a settlement that leaves its status in contention. (This was how the Soviet Union and the West handled Moscow’s claims to sovereignty over the Baltic states, which the Kremlin then seized in 1940.)
The West must give Ukraine the weapons, training, and cyber-support it needs to achieve these aims in the short term and sustain them in the long term. The West should do so to both help the Ukrainians and help itself. Ukraine has been valiantly fighting not just for its own freedom but for the freedom of all of Europe. The United States, NATO, and the European Union are aware of what is at stake and owe Ukraine all the support they can muster.
As Biden said in his historic speech in Warsaw, the war in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine—it is a battle between democracy and autocracy. But the Western policy response has not reflected the gravity of these words. Instead, the United States and Europe have been overly cautious, contradictory, and riddled by fears that they will provoke a Russian escalation. In early March, for example, the United States assessed that sending Soviet fighter jets from Poland was an escalation and ruled it out. Yet at the same time, it decided that sending tanks from NATO allies was not, and the Biden administration agreed to help transfer them. Similarly, Washington has seemingly decided against sending U.S. air defense missile systems directly to Ukraine. But when Slovakia transferred an S-300 missile system earlier this month, it solicited little response from Moscow except a claim that Russian forces had destroyed it.
Thankfully, there are signs that—at least on security assistance—the United States is becoming more assertive. Washington has already provided more than $3 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since February 24. On April 10, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration would take “aggressive action” to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield. In the days that followed, the White House announced two $800 million package of direct military support, for the first time providing armored personnel vehicles and I-155 artillery, heavy weapons that the Ukrainians have requested for weeks and that will be critical on the front lines.
These are steps in the right direction, but Ukraine needs much more if it is to have a chance of pushing Russia back in the east. Concretely, this means that the administration must move quickly and in coordination with allies to provide Ukraine with more of the weapons it is requesting, especially long-range drones, air missile defense systems, fighter jets, and bombers. Ukraine’s greatest weakness has been in air defense, which has allowed Russia to decimate Ukrainian cities. The United States and NATO have said that they will not enforce a no-fly zone because it would put NATO forces in direct confrontation with Russian ones, but the alliance should not rule out a limited no-fly zone with clearly stipulated rules of engagement aimed at protecting humanitarian corridors. Despite concerns that a no-fly zone of any kind would lead to direct confrontation with Russia, escalation in not inevitable if NATO clearly defines the scope of the operation—security for humanitarian passages in very limited geographic areas—and communicates this publicly and privately to Moscow. At the very least, allies should provide Ukraine’s forces with the ability to impose a no-fly zone themselves over the country’s own airspace.
Europe, in particular, must do much more to supply weapons to Ukraine. The European Union has committed 1.5 billion euros in security assistance since the February invasion, but that pales in comparison with the 35 billion euros the bloc has paid Russia for energy over the same period of time. Germany has ostensibly committed to sending more heavy weapons to Ukraine, but it has yet to deliver any, and it does not have a clear timetable for doing so. Indeed, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has said that weapons deliveries from government sources have reached their limit and that it will not send tanks to Ukraine because it is afraid of depleting its stock. Other allies who are willing to send Soviet-era, heavier weapons have also raised concerns about depleting their military reserves and are looking to the United States for replacements.
Europe, in particular, must do much more to supply weapons to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, then, hinges on Washington’s ability to ensure supply lines not just to Kyiv but also to allies on NATO’s eastern flank. The United States will need to establish channels to all these countries in a way that is consistent, sturdy, and deep. In his testimony to Congress, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that he expects the war in Ukraine will be a long-term conflict spanning years, and so Ukraine must have a steady supply of arms for its immediate needs and to ensure it has the ability to defend itself in the future. Washington will need to ramp up military production, reduce delays in foreign military sales, and work with allies to increase their production capacities of lighter weapons and supplies—such as body armor and spare parts. It may also need to train Ukrainians to maintain and fly F-16s and operate other Western-made weapons systems. NATO also has a key role to play in replacing weapons and conducting training. The alliance can and should create a mechanism for gathering and distributing resupplies from and to member states. It must also establish a hub, perhaps in Poland or Romania, where it can provide training to Ukrainian forces on how to use new equipment.
But helping Ukraine win will require more than just military support. Putin claims that the West’s policy of “economic blitzkrieg” on Russia has failed. The United States and Europe should prove him wrong by quickly ramping up economic sanctions on Russia, which are currently not strong enough to have an immediate effect on the military trajectory of the war. Washington should impose secondary sanctions on Sberbank, Russia’s top bank, which might force countries and firms currently doing normal business with Russia to curtail their exposure. And the United States and its allies must fully sanction all of the ten largest Russian commercial banks—including Gazprombank, which handles energy transactions for the gas monopoly Gazprom.
Targeting Gazprombank and Gazprom is especially essential. The ultimate Achilles’ heel of the Russian economy is energy exports, which fuel Putin’s war chest. Lithuania has become the first European country to stop imports of Russian gas, and Poland announced that it will end Russian coal imports within the next few weeks and phase out oil and gas imports by the end of the year. The rest of the continent is slowly coming along; in response to the atrocities in Bucha, the European Commission proposed a ban on Russian coal imports. Although this is a good start, as long as gas continues to flow from Russia to Europe, the continent will remain beholden to Moscow. The United States must pressure Europe to end its energy dependence more quickly. This won’t be easy, given how reliant the continent is on Russian gas. The EU economy will take an immediate hit for ending this relationship, but the hit to Russia will be exponentially greater.
Finally, the United States must deploy cyberoffense capabilities to disrupt Russia’s military campaign. Ukraine’s cyberdefenses—much like its overall defenses—have performed far better than anticipated, repelling denial of service attacks and identifying malware before Russia could deploy it. Ukraine has also mobilized an army of independent cyber-hacktivists to attack military and critical infrastructure targets in Russia. And Washington sent out “cyber-mission” teams in the lead-up to the war to support Ukraine’s cyberdefense capabilities. But the United States can do much more to bolster Ukraine’s offensive capabilities while covertly deploying U.S. assets to jam Russian military communications on the battlefield, especially weapons systems’ communication links, and disrupt day-to-day financial operations in Russia. This would effectively force Russia to fight a war on two fronts—one on the literal battlefield and the other in the cyber-domain—further depleting the government’s resources.
Winning in Ukraine won’t be cheap, materially or politically. The United States will need to spend more than the $14 billion that Congress committed to Ukraine last month to achieve all these aims. It will need to pressure its allies in Europe. And it will have to manage more nuclear saber rattling from Moscow by sending clear messages about what Washington will do if Putin resorts to using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, rather than constraining itself by promising not to take certain steps.
Although the United States must consider Moscow’s nuclear capacity as it formulates policy, the country cannot be deterred by Putin’s bluffs, as it sadly has been. (The Biden administration, for instance, ruled out sending MiGs to Ukraine as too “provocative.”) It is dangerous if the Russian president believes he can use these weapons to intimidate the United States from defending its allies and interests, especially because Putin’s objectives go well beyond establishing control in Ukraine. In his long speech before launching the February 24 offensive, Russia’s president made clear that he would like to have sway over all the states in the former Soviet Union, including NATO members in the Baltics. If Putin can successfully frighten the United States and win in Ukraine, he will feel emboldened. The likelihood of a Russian offensive against a NATO member will then increase significantly, as will the risks of an even greater international catastrophe. The costs of defeating Putin in Ukraine may be high, but they are far lower—and far less risky—than the costs of defeating him in Estonia.
A resounding win in Ukraine would be a victory for democracy over authoritarianism.
Ukrainians will, of course, pay the ultimate price for victory. The more they resist and fight back, the more that Putin will work to inflict greater pain on civilians and destroy the country’s infrastructure. But as the country’s response to recent Russian actions in Bucha shows, the Ukrainians are a difficult people to break. The more brutal the Kremlin’s tactics get, the more the Ukrainian people are willing to fight for their homeland. So long as they believe that they can win, they will sacrifice a tremendous amount on behalf of Europe. Ukraine’s allies are morally obligated to support their efforts.
They are also strategically obligated to help; there is more in this war for the West than just creating a Ukraine whole and free. If Ukraine can win, the ultimate result will be a weakened Russia, without the military capabilities to launch further aggression against neighboring states. This is by itself an essential outcome. Russia’s war in Ukraine is the greatest threat to the transatlantic alliance in decades, and defeating Moscow is critical to protecting global security. It is also important for protecting liberal values and ideals. At a time when democratic institutions are under stress, a resounding win in Ukraine would be a victory for democracy over authoritarianism—a chance to revitalize liberalism, as the Biden administration aims to do.
Creating more “frozen conflicts” (which are never actually frozen) is not the answer in Ukraine. The United States has a window of opportunity to shift the trajectory of the war in the country so that Russia is forced not just to stop but to fully retreat. This will require swift action and resolute vision, with a laser-beam focus on victory. Now is not the time for handwringing and timidity.