Three months after Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine began, the Russians have failed to achieve their objectives. U.S. officials now expect a war of attrition, with neither side capable of a decisive military breakthrough. How the war will conclude remains unclear.
On February 24, Russian forces invaded Ukraine from the north, including from Belarus, from the south out of Crimea, and from the east. The multiple axes of attack suggested that the Russian military aimed to quickly capture the capital of Kyiv, depose the democratically-elected government, and occupy perhaps as much as the eastern two-thirds of Ukraine.
The Russians failed. Their forces reached the outskirts of Kyiv but retreated at the end of March. The Russian army’s thrust toward Odesa bogged down around Mykolaiv after three weeks. In May, Russian forces attacking Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city and located just 25 miles from the Russian border, were pushed back, having entered only the city’s outskirts.
The Russian military finally secured control over Mariupol in mid-May, when the last Ukrainian forces surrendered after a valiant resistance. Weeks of indiscriminate Russian shelling and bombing have left Mariupol, a predominately Russian-speaking city where almost half of population was ethnic Russian, absolutely devastated.
Following their retreat from Kyiv and northern Ukraine, Russian forces have concentrated on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. After six weeks, they have made some progress but at considerable cost against determined Ukrainian defenses.
Military analysts ponder whether the Russian army will soon become a spent force — exhausted by heavy casualties, high equipment losses, poor morale, and weak logistics, and incapable of mounting another major offensive operation. The Kremlin’s decision not to declare a full mobilization makes it difficult for the Russian military to replace combat losses. U.S. officials see Russian President Vladimir Putin stubbornly digging in, discern no negotiating path in the near term, and expect a war of attrition, with the sides slugging it out but neither able to score a convincing victory.
Ukraine appears to have already won in one sense: virtually no one believes the Russian military capable of taking Kyiv and occupying one-half to two-thirds of the country. Ukrainians are returning to the capital, and life there has begun to take on an air of normalcy. However the war concludes, an independent and sovereign Ukrainian state will remain on the map of Europe.
Beyond that, things become more difficult to predict. The Kremlin has now focused on taking full control of the Donbas, a substantially downsized goal from its original invasion aims. Moscow may have to further reduce its Donbas objective to full control of Luhansk oblast but not all of Donetsk oblast. Russian forces in southern Ukraine have begun preparing defensive positions.
Ukrainian forces, bolstered by a growing flow of weapons from the West, have carried out successful counterattacks as well as conducting a stout mobile defense. However, transition from defense to a full-scale counteroffensive aimed at driving the Russians out of the territory they have occupied since February 24 would pose a tough challenge. In that case, some of the advantages that favor the defense would accrue to the Russian military.
A military stalemate that could perhaps drag on for many months more thus appears the most likely scenario.
A negotiated settlement offers one path to end a war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared ready for compromise on key questions in March, for example, offering to set aside Kyiv’s ambitions of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and accept neutrality. But his Russian counterpart did not take up the possibility to secure a neutral Ukraine and perhaps other gains.
In retrospect, that may turn out to be a missed opportunity for Moscow. Ukrainian attitudes toward negotiation have hardened since March. That reflects growing confidence in the abilities of the Ukrainian military and outrage at Russian war crimes, such as the wanton destruction of Mariupol, and atrocities in places such as Bucha and Borodianka. Public anger almost certainly limits the freedom of maneuver that Zelenskyy might have in considering possible concessions.
While Kyiv in March offered a proposal that suggested a readiness to compromise on Crimea, illegally seized and annexed by Russia in March 2014, Ukrainian officials now insist on full restoration of Ukraine’s borders as of 1991. The West should support that position and reject the Kremlin’s attempt to redraw international borders by force of arms.
Whether Kyiv would sustain that position if the war drags on is unknown. Barring a total collapse of the Russian military (not to be excluded, but unlikely), it is difficult to see how Ukraine can muster the necessary leverage to regain Crimea. A senior Ukrainian official privately said in September 2014 that perhaps Kyiv should let the then-occupied part of Donbas go — “they don’t think like we do” — but he quickly added that no serious Ukrainian official could say that publicly and expect to survive. In a recent private discussion, a Ukrainian politician did not argue for giving up Crimea and Donbas but noted that regaining those territories would bring a liability: the return of three or four million pro-Russian voters, which would prove disruptive for Ukraine’s politics.
How Ukraine resolves this dilemma is a question for the Ukrainian government to decide. Zelenskyy has left the door open for diplomacy. If Moscow changes its approach and moves to a serious negotiation, Zelenskyy will have to weigh the balance of his desire to end the killing of Ukrainians, the imperative of protecting Kyiv’s positions of principle vs. the possible need for compromise, and the potential political blowback if Ukrainians believe a compromise concedes too much to Russia.
Only Zelenskyy and his government can weigh the trade-offs and make that delicate decision. The West should follow Kyiv’s lead in any negotiation, not pressing Ukraine to accept a settlement it does not want and not objecting to a settlement that Kyiv favors and believes meets Ukraine’s interests. Western countries will have to decide what to do about sanctions on Russia; some may wish to maintain sanctions even after a settlement, though the West should be sensitive to sanctions-easing if Kyiv says that is necessary to secure an otherwise acceptable deal.
Of course, this is an academic discussion as long as the Kremlin remains uninterested in serious negotiation.
Ukraine did nothing to provoke or justify this war of choice, a choice made by Putin. It is a tragedy for the country, one that has resulted in the death of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians and enormous material damage to infrastructure, homes and apartments, and commercial and industrial facilities. (This could also become a tragedy for countries around the world that depend on Ukrainian food exports that are now blockaded.)
The war has also proven a disaster for Russia: tens of thousands of soldiers killed and wounded, major equipment losses, international isolation, sanctions that are inflicting real economic pain, and a galvanized, reinvigorated, rearming NATO that will soon welcome Finland and Sweden into its ranks. Moreover, NATO could well decide to make the presence of alliance forces on its eastern flank (e.g., in the Baltic states and Poland) permanent rather than rotating. Putin’s war will not succeed in bringing Ukraine closer to Moscow’s orbit; it is instead imbuing a hatred towards Russia in Ukraine that will take decades to overcome.
The war has a clear victim and a clear aggressor. It is in the West’s interest that the Kremlin fail in its attempt to subjugate Ukraine and deny Ukrainians the right to determine their own course. That means continuing to provide the Ukrainians the means to defend their country and drive back the invading Russian army. That also means ratcheting up sanctions to accelerate the havoc coming to the Russian economy due to Putin’s disastrous decisions.
In the end, the desired outcome to this war would see the Ukrainians forcing a Russian withdrawal or, at a minimum, getting Moscow to agree to a negotiated settlement on terms acceptable to Kyiv. Ensuring that Russia’s aggression fails and that Ukraine achieves one of these outcomes should be primary goals for the West.
Originally for Brookings Order from Chaos blog