Some six months since the start of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the emergence of three realities in the war is forcing Washington to wrestle with some hard choices.
The first is that the combination of Ukrainian courage and U.S. technology has proved quite potent in blocking Russia’s attempt to conquer the bulk of Ukraine. American air defense support has denied Russia the air superiority essential to the rapid advance of its ground forces. American anti-tank weapons and targeting intelligence have prevented Russia’s armor from sweeping into Kyiv, and Russia has suffered significant personnel losses, particularly in its officer corps. Putin has been forced to downsize his battlefield ambitions and rely on a barrage of stand-off artillery and rocket strikes to slowly grind down Ukraine’s defenses in its Donbas region.
The second is that despite this defensive success, Ukraine has been unable to build offensive momentum and force the Russian military to withdraw. The delivery of advanced American artillery, rocket and missile systems has certainly helped Ukraine to strike Russian supply lines and weapons platforms, but its infantry has not been able to muster the numbers required to seize ground defended by Russian forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insists that his long-promised offensive against Russian forces near Kherson will change this picture. But a near-term Ukrainian victory in the war is difficult to imagine.
The third is that American efforts to strong-arm Putin into retreat by crippling the Russian economy and isolating him on the world stage have sputtered. Western sanctions are no doubt hurting Russia; the International Monetary Fund forecasts a 6 percent decline in Russia’s GDP this year, and its technology sector faces a grim future. But this compares to a greater than 40 percent economic plunge in Ukraine. Russia’s currency is stronger today than it was before the war, despite President Biden’s vow to “turn the ruble into rubble.” Russian earnings from energy exports have actually grown thanks to higher oil prices and reluctance outside the West to join sanctions. Putin is persona non grata in the West, but he is hardly a pariah in the rest of the world, as his scheduled attendance at the G-20 summit meeting in Indonesia in November will attest.
Meanwhile, the economic fallout from the war is landing on the West as well as on Russia. Americans are grappling with higher gasoline and food prices. Europe is facing not only the prospect of a cold winter, but also significant disruptions in key industries, as sanctions-related shortages of natural gas and other Russian commodities take their toll on the construction, metals, and automotive sectors. Germany, highly dependent on Russian energy supplies, is headed toward significant economic turbulence in the coming months if current trends continue.
These realities have reshaped Putin’s strategy. Recognizing America’s advantages in battlefield technology, Putin has turned the conflict into an endurance contest that plays to Russian strengths. He is relying increasingly on China and the Global South to outflank Western sanctions, while counting on the vaunted pain tolerance of the Russian people to outlast Western political resolve.
And he is apparently calculating that, even with sustained Western support, Ukraine cannot match Russia’s reserves of manpower, munitions and economic resilience in a war of attrition. Putin may be unable to conquer Ukraine altogether, but he can turn it into a bleeding wound for years to come, unable to mend itself and in no condition to join NATO.
Unless we change the terms of engagement, time may well be Putin’s ally in Ukraine. What choices do we have to counter his moves?
Tightening the economic noose around Russia will be ineffective. Any faint hopes we may once have entertained for winning China’s support against Russia were destroyed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) recent visit to Taiwan. Western sanctions on Russia have proved to be an economic bonanza for India, which is eagerly purchasing Russian oil at discount prices and reselling it in Europe. On balance, the Global South is far more alarmed by perceived American economic and cultural imperialism than by Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Military escalation in pursuit of a Ukrainian victory would be an enormous gamble. Washington’s large cadre of hawks insists that we should “pull out all the stops by providing Ukraine the means it needs to prevail.” But this almost certainly would require much more than simply sending longer-range artillery and rocket systems. Ukraine needs massive help operating and maintaining these systems, equipping and manning its air force, and training and expanding its ground forces — all time-intensive tasks that could drag the United States more deeply into the fighting. Those advocating all-out military support for Ukraine presuppose that Putin would accept defeat rather than risk a direct — and possibly nuclear — clash with NATO. If that assumption were proved wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Fostering political change inside Russia is at best a long-term endeavor. But if Washington means to encourage opposition to Putin, its current approach is backfiring. Even Russians who have no love for Putin and lament the rupture in relations with the West have been shocked by the degree of Western animus toward the Russian people and culture in recent years. The United States is doing little to appeal to Russia’s citizenry or to show that we are open to improved relations in return for improved Russian behavior. Washington’s recent announcement that it is establishing a separate military command to oversee the aid mission in Ukraine appears to bear out Putin’s messaging to Russians that their fight is with the United States, which is intent on Russia’s demise.
As long as we are unwilling to steer toward a compromise settlement — which, as Kyiv itself proposed early in the war, would have to involve some form of armed neutrality for Ukraine — we face a choice between escalating our involvement and engaging in an endurance contest in which Putin likes his chances. Neither approach is likely to end well for Ukraine or for the United States.