June 3, 2022
Reading the Western press with its coverage of the war in Ukraine is like riding an emotional rollercoaster: from depth of desperation (Ukraine is about to lose) to unwarranted euphoria (Ukraine has nearly won), through periods of “nothing seems to be happening”, and then again the ups and downs of “Russia is about to collapse” to “Russia is gaining ground”, it reminds me of people having heart palpitations from watching the stock market. Every little movement is amplified, integrated as a “data point” in some grand narrative, and used to project the eventual outcome of the war. When things are going badly for Ukraine, the journalists pontificate about appeasing Putin and “being realistic”, and when the Ukrainians gain the upper hand, the articles about “we must push to military victory” and some “lessons from history about appeasement” are sure to make an appearance.
The problem with all of these is that people do not understand this war at a very basic level. This war is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. After the initial Blitzkrieg failed, the war became one of attrition. As I have explained multiple times over the past two months, this war cannot be won on the battlefield in the sense that there will be some military victory and the other side will sign instruments of surrender. Ukraine and Russia will fight until one of them is too exhausted to continue to fight. It does not matter who sits in the Kremlin — nobody there will admit defeat and make peace on terms that would restore all territories to Ukraine, whether one uses January 2014 or January 2022 to decide what these are, it does not matter.
To see what I mean, let us engage in a thought experiment. People are talking a lot about the Ukrainian counter-offensive that is supposed to come in mid/late summer after deliveries of promised weapons and training to use them have been completed. In rasher moments, people imagine this offensive would push the Russians back to the February 2022 positions. In the really crazy dreams, the Ukrainians take Crimea. Let’s set aside whether this is realistic. Here, I just want to ask, suppose all of this happens… then what?
How does Ukraine achieve peace? Why would Russia concede in these circumstances? What if it does not? The Kremlin will certainly portray this domestically as NATO having intervened on the side of the Ukrainians — since nobody can imagine how Russia could lose to Ukraine — and the liberation of Ukrainian territory as conquest of Russian lands inhabited by Russians on whom the Nazis will take terrible revenge. This is much more likely to galvanize people into signing up for service. There will doubtless be Ukrainian “terrorist attacks” on Russian soil, conveniently for the Kremlin narrative, which will also claim Ukraine is about to invade Russia, which will create the context for a mass mobilization and transitioning of the economy to wartime footing (recall that Russia is, domestically, at peace even now). Then what?
The Ukrainians cannot have their peace even if they win in Ukraine for the simple reason that Russia is too big to be compelled to accept defeat while it still has the ability to fight. The government is too ensconced in power and the elites too entrenched to be vulnerable to popular pressure even if some such anti-war sentiment were to show up (which it won’t). The only way to get Russia to end this war somehow is to destroy its ability to continue fighting, which is why the sanctioning strategy is key. The problem is that doing this takes a lot of time. It will not happen this summer, and it will not happen before the end of the year. Things have to get so bad in terms of the economy and morale that the Kremlin will find itself unable to keep fighting because of serious supply shortages and refusal to implement commands. This sort of thing does not happen over night, if it ever does.
One possibility is that if Putin is removed or dies, the political elite might expend enough energy succession conflict to be able to prosecute the war effectively. It could be that some faction might want to try gaining the upper hand by offering to make peace with Ukraine in exchange for support. But even then I cannot imagine that they would just give up all territorial gains.
The upshot of all of this is that we need to adjust our thinking to reflect the reality of a long war. This requires some discipline when following daily developments. Territories will change hands, cities and villages will be taken, liberated, taken again, and liberated again. When the Russians exhaust the momentum for the Easter Offensive, there will be another positional lull in the fighting where nothing much will happen on the frontline. The likelihood of some decisive breakthrough is extremely low. The Russians cannot conquer Kyiv, and the Ukrainians are not going to invade Russia to take Moscow. And so, the war of attrition must end on the negotiation table. There will be no “unconditional surrender” for either side, and there might be no clear peace even after the war formally ends. Either the Ukrainians decide that the western and part of the southern part of their country is not worth defending — and even then they would have to believe that relinquishing those territories would somehow bring lasting peace — or the Russians decide to give up on the idea that part or all of Ukraine “rightfully belongs” to Russia. It’s either that or one of the regime falls apart.
In this war, Ukraine must be able to rely on Western support for the foreseeable future — and there are a lot of questions about the West’s ability to hold it together. Putin’s regime, on the other hand, will soon have to deal with the reality of a true economic collapse. China is reportedly exploring ways of helping Russia without running afoul of the sanctions, and what happens if Xi decides to fish in troubled waters and move on Taiwan while the US is distracted in Europe? Are we going to abandon Ukraine to rush to support Taiwan? The Russians are clearly hoping to provoke some escalation there since only yesterday their Foreign Ministry stated that Russia considers — and has always considered — Taiwan an inseparable part of China. Meanwhile, the Taliban are poking the Russians in the back by pressing on Tajikistan, a most unwelcome development for Moscow. Unlike the situation with the Chinese, however, Putin can just bribe the Taliban by paying tribute.
One possible explanation for the astonishing duplicity of Germany and France (Scholz and Macron just had another three-way call with Putin a few days ago — neither country has sent any meaningful military aid in two months) is that they believe that Europe will have to deal with Russia no matter what happens in Ukraine, and that if the US gets distracted by China or by domestic turmoil (or electoral politics), then Western Europe might find itself having to deal with Russia on their own. Getting ahead of the US on this does not make much sense, unfortunately, which is why these leaders are trying to sound tough on Russia while doing very little to actually upset Putin. They still, however, understand that Russia cannot be beaten militarily, but it can be brought low economically. And so it goes that they keep tightening the noose while playing footsie with Putin and hoping that Ukraine will bleed Moscow white.
All of this sounds pretty discouraging for Ukraine in the sense that victory — however defined — is not around the corner, just behind some great summer offensive. I think many Ukrainian commentators do not quite understand that the US lend/lease program is crucial not because it will provide magic overwhelming power in July but because it will provide a steady supply of arms and aid that will enable the Ukrainian army to hold its own in the field so that Kyiv would not be forced into concessions before the Russian economy compels Moscow to offer better terms.
To compel a belligerent to accept certain terms, one must be able to convince them that continuing the war would be worse than agreeing to these, presumably unpalatable, conditions. The study of the causes of war tends to internalize the Clausewitzian view that war is directed (not controlled) by political goals, national moods, and chance events. The more explicitly rationalist approaches focus on the beliefs and expectations of the opponent in the search of ways to demonstrate to them the futility of prolonging the conflict. I have my doubts about the effectiveness of this: it seems rather indirect and convoluted — having to persuade someone to stop fighting. It is far more direct and effective if one were rendered incapable of doing so because then the fighting would stop irrespective of one’s wishes. Clausewitz denigrated the idea of “total war” — meaning a fight until the opponent is disarmed — but a war of attrition is precisely this: fighting until one side cannot muster the resources to continue because of economic, political, or social collapse. I happen to believe that the current war is like that, and it is a fool’s errand to seek some quick fixes. Unfortunately, I have no idea why some wars evolve to be like that while most end in less than six months. This is something that begs for more research, so I will just go with my intuition now.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan did not end because the Soviets were persuaded that they could not win or because they lost 15,000 men, but because the government wanted to invest its resources in domestic reforms, and could not do this while fighting the war. The Russian war with Japan at the turn of the 20th century did not end because the Tsar abandoned his goals but because he had to deal with an attempted revolution. Russia fought (while losing) in the First World War literally until its government was overthrown in a communist coup, and the communists needed to fight a civil war to consolidate power, so they were willing to make insane concessions to the Germans. And the list goes on.
One worrying implication of this is that because Russians tend to lose due to domestic developments rather than battlefield defeats (although such defeats certainly worsen the domestic situation), each loss has a rather temporary aspect to it — it is conditional on the Russian government’s inability to pursue its goals, and so the unpleasant consequence is that the agreements (or cease-fires) extracted from the Russians under such (temporary) disability are subject to revision when said disability disappears. This means that any potential opponent knows (and must expect) that the Russians will likely come back to rectify whatever shortcomings they believe the agreement has. It is never truly over with the Russians, and so there can be no talk of “demilitarization” for Ukraine. Kyiv will have to have enough capability to ensure its survival even if the Russians attempted a come-back.
Everything depends on the internal situation in Russia, and it just isn’t possible — at least for me — to predict how it will unfold. By the same logic, everything also depends on the internal situation in Ukraine, and the politics of the Western alliance, which in turn are affected by other international developments like food shortages, energy prices, and third-party behaviors (China!). We have little choice but hunker down and let the processes unfold, hoping that we can outlast the Russians.