How does this end? Increasingly, this question is dominating discussion of the Russia-Ukraine war in Washington and other Western capitals. Although successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson in fall 2022 renewed optimism about Kyiv’s prospects on the battlefield, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on September 21 of a partial mobilization and annexation of four Ukrainian provinces was a stark reminder that this war is nowhere near a resolution. So discussion of the Russia-Ukraine war in Washington is increasingly dominated by the question of how it might end and the ways in which this war could evolve and how alternative trajectories would affect U.S. interests. In addition to minimizing the risks of major escalation, U.S. interests would be best served by avoiding a protracted conflict. The costs and risks of a long war in Ukraine are significant and outweigh the possible benefits of such a trajectory for the United States. Although Washington cannot by itself determine the war’s duration, it can take steps that make an eventual negotiated end to the conflict more likely. The war in Ukraine is a multi-dimensional disaster, which is likely to get much worse in the foreseeable future. When a war is successful, little attention is paid to its causes, but when the outcome is disastrous, understanding how it happened becomes paramount. People want to know: how did we get into this terrible situation?
We have witnessed this phenomenon twice in our lifetime—first with the Vietnam war and second with the Iraq war. In both cases, Americans wanted to know how their country could have miscalculated so badly. Given that the United States and its NATO allies played a crucial role in the events that led to the Ukraine war—and are now playing a central role in the conduct of that war—it is appropriate to evaluate the West’s responsibility for this calamity. We will make two main arguments. First, the United States is principally responsible for causing the Ukraine crisis. This is not to deny that Putin started the war and that he is responsible for Russia’s conduct of the war. Nor is it to deny that America’s allies bear some responsibility, but they largely follow Washington’s lead on Ukraine. My central claim is that the United States has pushed forward policies toward Ukraine that Putin and other Russian leaders see as an existential threat, a point they have made repeatedly for many years. Specifically, I am talking about America’s obsession with bringing Ukraine into NATO and making it a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. The Biden administration was unwilling to eliminate that threat through diplomacy and indeed in 2021 recommitted the United States to bringing Ukraine into NATO. Putin responded by invading Ukraine on February 24th of this year.
Second, the Biden administration has reacted to the outbreak of war by doubling down against Russia. Washington and its Western allies are committed to decisively defeating Russia in Ukraine and employing comprehensive sanctions to greatly weaken Russian power. The United States is not seriously interested in finding a diplomatic solution to the war, which means the war is likely to drag on for months if not years. In the process, Ukraine, which has already suffered grievously, is going to experience even greater harm. In essence, the United States is helping lead Ukraine down the primrose path. Furthermore, there is a danger that the war will escalate, as NATO might get dragged into the fighting and nuclear weapons might be used. We are living in perilous times. While Western politicians and commentators continue to discuss off-ramps and compromise settlements, few in Moscow are under any such illusions. Those close to Putin understand that he views the current conflict as a holy war and has long since passed the point of no return. The Russian ruler will settle for nothing less than the complete subjugation of Ukraine. Throughout his reign, Putin has been driven by a deep-seated resentment of Russia’s post-Soviet decline and a burning desire to revive the country’s superpower status. Far from wishing to reestablish the USSR, he embraces traditional Russian nationalism and dreams of recreating the autocratic empire of the Czars. President Putin sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the demise of historical Russia” and has frequently complained that the post-Soviet settlement cut millions of Russians off from their motherland while robbing Russia of its rightful heartlands. This sense of grievance has fueled Putin’s obsession with Ukraine, a country whose entire existence has come to represent the alleged injustice of the post-1991 world order. President Putin is not the first Russian ruler to deny Ukraine’s right to exist. On the contrary, Ukraine denial is a common thread running through Russian history that stretches back hundreds of years and remains widespread in today’s Russia. However, few have ever embraced this doctrine of denial as fervently as Putin, who has made clear that ending Ukrainian independence is a sacred mission which will define his place in history.
No one can ignore the grim realities Ukraine faces this winter and spring. Ukrainian forces did well with outside support in 2022, and Russia suffered important losses both on the battlefield and from the economic sanctions imposed by Europe, the United States, and other powers. Nevertheless, statements such as those made by General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggesting that Russia is losing needs to be put in careful context. General Milley stated in a recent speech that “Russia is now a global pariah, and the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience. In short, Russia has lost. They’ve lost strategically, operationally [,] and tactically. He further stated in Financial Times that “It will be almost impossible for the Russians to achieve their political objectives by military means. It is unlikely that Russia is going to overrun Ukraine. It’s just not going to happen.” Such statements may be intended to build morale, but they grossly understate the challenges Ukraine now faces, as well as the challenges that the U.S. and its European partners face in creating a new security structure in Ukraine and in Europe. Promises made by the leaders of a number of countries at the Munich security conference in February 2023, including the president of the United States, cannot substitute for prompt and effective action. As Joseph Borrell Fontelles, the senior foreign policy official of the European Union, said at the end of the Munich meeting, “There needs to be less applause and better supply with arms much more has to be done, and much quicker.” Russia has suffered some tactical defeats and has lost a substantial amount of its armor—including up to half of its most modern tanks. It has suffered from economic sanctions, cuts in foreign investment, and limited access to export markets. However, Putin has not conceded defeat in the war or halted his efforts to dominate the security structure in Europe. In fact, General Milley pointed this out: “It is also very, very difficult for Ukraine this year to kick the Russians out of every inch of Russian-occupied Ukraine. It’s not to say that it can’t happen. But it’s extraordinarily difficult. And it would require essentially the collapse of the Russian military.”
There is currently no way to predict when and how the war between Russia and Ukraine—which has become a proxy war involving the U.S. and its strategic partners – will end. Ukraine has not sustained its counteroffensives against Russia and has made some gains in the recent fighting. More importantly, Ukraine has not recovered most of the territory it lost in 2022, and Putin’s Russia is conducting a major military build-up. The result is that Ukraine now faces a bitter war of attrition against steadily growing Russian forces, facing ongoing missile and air attacks on Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructure as Russia seeks to win through superior mass. Over-optimistic rhetoric aside, the United States and its strategic partners recognize this. They are rushing to try to provide the right kind of military and financial support Ukraine needs to survive and have any chance of pushing Russian forces and occupiers out of Eastern Ukraine. No grand strategy for the Ukraine war can have meaning unless Ukraine can win its near-term battles at the military level, and this is only part of the story. The immediate need is for Ukraine to win the fight, or at least check Russian advances, but it is all too clear that Ukraine may need sustained military and civil aid for years to come. In addition, it will need massive aid in economic recovery once the fighting ends. NATO needs to make a massive effort to rebuild its forces to deter Russia from any further military adventures. The only time Ukraine and the West will be able to seriously claim a true victory is when, and if, the fighting ends in an acceptable peace. This means the United States and its partners need to look beyond the current battlefield. They need to determine what grand strategy they should pursue to shape the longer-term course of the war and its lasting outcome. Ukraine may need years of continuing military and civil aid to survive and years of further civil aid after any halt to the fighting. The United States and its allies also need to be far more realistic about how long a war could last and how long Ukraine will need major amounts of aid. The West needs to clearly recognize that one key element of an effective grand strategy is to support Ukraine with the aid it needs for as long as it takes. Today, focusing on the short-term aspect of the fighting, and on Ukraine’s near-term military needs, has created a growing risk that legislature and public opinion will cut aid to levels Ukraine cannot survive. At the same time, the need for an ongoing effort to shape and implement an effective grand strategy for the war in Ukraine goes far beyond the fighting in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has become a proxy war between Russia and the United States and its European allies. This ensures that the course and outcome of the war will affect every aspect of U.S. and European relations with Russia and that success in aiding Ukraine cannot be separated from Russia’s broader ambitions in dealing with Belarus, Moldovia, and NATO European states—especially those nearest Russia and Belarus. More broadly, the course of the war and its outcome will have a major impact on Russia’s nuclear build-up, its rejection of arms control, its ties to China, and its relations with states outside Europe and the rest of NATO. It is far from clear that any form of end to the fighting can prevent a new Cold War that will last at least as long as anyone like Putin leads Russia. Nevertheless, an effective grand strategy must still end the fighting and achieve real peace. Such a search offers at least some hope. Furthermore, relations between Russia and the West have been so thoroughly poisoned that it will take many years to repair them. In the meantime, that profound hostility will fuel instability around the globe, but especially in Europe. Some will say there is a silver lining: relations among countries in the West have markedly improved because of the Ukraine war. That is true for the moment, but there are deep fissures below the surface, and they are bound to reassert themselves over time. For example, relations between the countries of eastern and western Europe are likely to deteriorate as the war drags on, because their interests and perspectives on the conflict are not the same. With the cost of war rising for Russia and Ukraine, as well as for the world, it is in the interest of both parties for a deal to be reached as soon as possible. But what would a de-escalation or an end to the war look like, and what would it mean for the two countries?
Finally, the conflict is already damaging the global economy in major ways and this situation is likely to get worse with time. These economic shocks will affect the politics of every Western country, undermine liberal democracy, and strengthen its opponents on both the left and the right. The economic consequences of the Ukraine war will extend to countries all over the planet, not just the West. As The UN put it in a report : “The ripple effects of the conflict are extending human suffering far beyond its borders. The war, in all its dimensions, has exacerbated a global cost-of-living crisis unseen in at least a generation, compromising lives, livelihoods, and our aspirations for a better world by 2030.” The time has now come to put an end to this war, before the world is dragged into a global conflict with disastrous consequences.