Is the Ukraine War Lose-Lose?
All roads lead to potentially dangerous outcomes.
It was hard not to feel the sense of poignancy to the point of emotion; the man at the helm of the fight for democracy on behalf of the Western world walking into the chambers of one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world to the shouts of “Slava Ukraini!”. Nearly one year on, it is unambiguously clear what is at stake. There is no longer any room for the “anti-imperialism of idiots” on the U.S. or British Left, nor the realist isolationism on the U.S. Right, nor the weak and hesitant German leadership of Europe. And while there is an exhaustive list of principles that British conservatism has abandoned, seeing the threat of a tyrant dictator soaking European fields with the blood of his expansionist ambition is, thankfully, not one of them.
In a paper last year, Alexander Cooley of Columbia University and Georgetown University's Daniel H. Nexon posed the pertinent question:
“…liberal democracies really do need to assume that they will not retake the catbird seat of the international order anytime soon. And so the question becomes not whether the liberal order will change but on whose terms.”
Putin is seeking to remake the world order according to his own revisionist imperial vision. It is almost exactly one year on since Russia confirmed that the illiberal world order had supplanted the post-Second World War ‘liberal international order’. The signs were all there, latent at first but increasingly visible. Georgia, 2008. Crimea, 2014. Donbas and Luhansk, 2014. Syria, 2015. U.S. and British electoral interferences in 2016. Then Ukraine. We just didn’t want to look, because we know what it would mean. Better an disquieting dream that an uncertain, painful reality.
A year on from the first major land war in Europe since the Second World War. Georgia, Crimea, Syria, Donbas and Luhansk, all served as a modern analogy of the prelude to the Second World War; a dictator with deranged ethno-nationalist delusions about the entitlements of his people to the lands of others, subsuming chunks of sovereign territory while the hapless Appeasers watched in the hope that the appetites of conquest could be satisfied without wider conflict. But we don’t take our cues from history. And so we watched as this time last year 190,000 Russian troops amassed on the border of a sovereign neighbour and we crossed our fingers and hoped that Russia wouldn’t shatter our illusions and lay bare the world we now live in.
After 20 years of conflict largely characterised by non-state actors, this war is a return to war between sovereign states, where a giant nation drunk on its own toxic nostalgia is seeking to wipe a people, her language and culture, off the map along with her borders. There are other echoes from history; the Russian military has demonstrated a Soviet-era level of incompetence not seen since their mauling in Afghanistan, and a willingness to sacrifice its personnel in the hundreds of thousands in futile slaughter (estimates of ~270,000 Russian casualties) that is reminiscent of Russian penal battalions on the Eastern Front.
A year on, and one crucial question requires some examination: what does victory in Ukraine actually look like? A war like this blends both a conflict of ideas in abstract terms with a more traditional conflict between states over territory, power, and influence. But neither Russia nor the West have any evident grand strategy, no clearly defined outcomes. Only Ukraine has provided an unequivocal definition of what victory looks like: the full restoration of Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia since 2014, including Crimea. This may be strategic posturing to allow some potential negotiating room; based on the demographics and history of Crimea, the region may be a bargaining chip Ukraine could use to help Russia save some face and declare a pyrrhic ‘victory’. But the trajectories of the past 6-months of fighting clearly indicate no such compromise would likely be forthcoming for Ukrainian territories like Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson.
While Ukraine is clear and emphatic in what victory looks like for her, however, the lack of any such clarity by the West in support of Ukraine or from Putin and Russia should be concerning, both for the potential of the war to conclude within some acceptable parameters, and for the potential of the war to escalate beyond our current comprehension of destruction, i.e., use of nuclear weapons. What looks more likely from the current vantage point is an ongoing war of attrition, with neither Ukraine or Russia weak enough to lose nor strong enough to win outright. Given how long it took for Germany to sign off on provision of Leopard II tanks (although Poland had said they would send their Leopard II’s with or without German consent), to date the main discernible strategy for the West has been to support Ukraine in not losing.
In a recent paper, Liana Fix of the Council on Foreign Relations and Michael Kimmage of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies suggest three possibly outcomes for the war:
A negotiated settled on Ukrainian terms;
Russian military defeat in the context of conflict escalation;
Russian defeat due to regime change and inability to continue the war.
What is clearly not on the list is an outright Russian military victory, which was thwarted by Ukraine’s heroic resistance, strategic cunning, and Western weaponry. Since at the very least it seems that the West is committed to not let Ukraine lose (which is, of course, a big difference from helping them to their stated definition of victory), it appears we can at least conclude that Russia’s full initial ambition will not be realised. As Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently outlined, Russia’s ‘Plan A’ was clear in February 2022; a swift, decisive invasion and annexation of Ukraine in entirety. And when this not only failed to materialise, but effective Ukrainian counteroffensives from September reclaimed large swathes of initially occupied territory, it turned out that Russia had no other plan. In an attempt to shape a pyrrhic victory, Russia then held sham elections and annexed four Ukrainian regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson) in declarations of “independence”. This turned the war in Russia’s conception from one aiming at the conquest of Ukraine to one of “defending” Russia against “Western aggression”.
However, the lack of a complete Russian takeover of Ukraine (Putin seemingly believed the invasion would pass off as Crimea did in 2014), according to Stanovaya, created a vacuum of clarity for what a satisfactory outcome may look like for Putin and Russia. And that vacuum holds dangers. The ensuing war of attrition in eastern and southern Ukraine, and absence of clarity from Putin, has created a dangerous shift in the balance of Russian elite power circles around Putin, with pro-war hardliners like Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group mercenary army, or Ramzan Kadryov, the leader of Chechen paramilitaries, holding more sway in the trajectory of the war. To quote Stanovaya:
“Putin, having failed to implement every part of his plan so far, has become more dependent on those who invested in this war, who have become a part of this war, who justify it, push it, and lose their people in the fighting.”
For the outcomes proposed by Fix and Kimmage, this at least removes one option from the table: a negotiated settlement on Ukrainian terms. There is little such possibility of a negotiation restoration of full Ukrainian territorial integrity, including ultimate accession of Ukraine in the EU, with Putin in power and/or the pro-war Russian faction waiting in the wings to oust Putin and pursue an even more unhinged prosecution of the war. More particularly, Russia’s nuclear capacity, and rhetoric of willingness to use nuclear weapons, combine to mean that Russia have little incentive to negotiate or to agree to a peace on Ukrainian terms.
Which brings up the second possible outcome; that of an ultimate Russian military defeat in the context of escalating scale of the conflict. However, a total Russian military defeat seems unlikely, at least at the current levels of Western military support. Historically, the outcome of major wars comes down to the ability to replace lost manpower, materials, and ammunition. Russia remains better placed to achieve this, for now. In a paper entitled Russia's Dangerous Decline, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Michael Kofman of the Center for a New American Security called attention to the fact that most of the Russian capabilities that concern the West remain untouched: tactical nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, electronic and cyber warfare capacities. While the war so far has been catastrophic for Russian personnel losses and certain capabilities, e.g., tanks and mechanised transport, Russia is amassing another mobilisation of half-a-million men, manpower Ukraine can never hope to match.
Despite the clear tactical superiority of the Ukrainian military to date, billions of arms being pumped into Ukraine, and highly effective counteroffensives that have reclaimed much of the initial territories lost in February-April last year, Russia still retains large chunks of Ukrainian sovereign territory. With more manpower and materials to wilfully throw into the meat-grinder, it is difficult not to look at the history of Russia’s military endeavours to see why a total Russian defeat is not an easy prospect. Russia has never won a war with anything but sheer scale of demographics and industrial resources. Russia’s strategy in war has always been akin to tying her wrist together with her enemy’s and slitting them both, knowing that her opponent would bleed out before she did.
Nevertheless, this second possible outcome is plausible; Ukraine can win on the battlefield, but a battlefield victory by a Ukrainian military is contingent on increasing military arms from Western powers. Inflicting such a military defeat on Russia is only going to be in the context of, militarily and politically, this war being more overtly “the West vs. Russia” than it even currently is. At least now there appears to be consensus among policy analysts that we can call this for what it is. However, a combination of continued Russian battlefield failures and the increasing pressure on Putin from the pro-war hardliners who have manoeuvred influence in the Kremlin means that the Russian nuclear threat is credible. Russia has little incentive to back down. In another paper by Stanovaya, the author highlighted the fact that Putin's threat of nuclear weapon use was:
“...part of a deliberate campaign to intimidate the West but also a demonstration of the growing determination among the most committed, ambitious pro-war elements of Russia’s elite and society that the war must be won no matter what.”
This growing influence of the pro-war Russian elites in the trajectory of the conflict illustrates the issues with the final potential outcome proposed by Fix and Kimmage; that regime change in Russia would bring about domestic instability and an inability to continue to prosecute the war. What is overlooked in this analysis is the emergence of the hardline, far-Right, pro-war Russian nationalist factions. Regime change could very plausibly mean an escalation and intensification in the pursuit of military conquest, and with a large nuclear arsenal at the disposal of the likes of a Prigozhin or a Kadryov. At the most basic level, it is clear that even if Putin is overthrown, no pro-Western leader will replace him. Instead, we would be relying on a scale of domestic turmoil within Russia, a Shakespearean tragedy of Titus Andronicus proportions, that pursuing the war in Ukraine would become a logistic impossibility.
Regime change is also not, unlike the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, going to come about by bottom-up popular uprising. If it does happen, it will be a top-down overthrow orchestrated by Russia's elites. Part of the problem within this potential scenario is the Russian public itself, what Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment termed Russia’s “pliant majority”. To quote Kolesnikov:
“…ordinary Russians prefer to bury their heads in the sand and find some bizarre rationality and truth in the regime’s logic. People do not want to be on the side of evil, so they designate evil as good, thereby forcing themselves to believe that Putin is bringing peace...the brutal authoritarian regime under which they live imposes certain norms of behavior and has no intention of disappearing, toning down its repression and propaganda, or bringing an end to the war.”
Western journalists are careful to portray the Russian general population of hapless victims of propaganda, and there is truth to this, but it is a narrative that only washes so far, given the thousands fleeing the country to avoid conscription. The uncomfortable truth is that, beyond the odd dissident journalist, there is hardly any grumbling from the Russian diaspora, no organised protests by Russian expats. Consider the contrast in recent months with thousands of Iranians packing Trafalgar Square and cities all over the globe, waving Iranian flags in protest against the Islamic Republic; where is the Russian equivalent of this? To force increasing pressure and domestic instability within Russia, European states still have the diplomatic nuclear options at their disposal; suspend visas for all Russian citizens independent of whether they have known ties to Putin’s regime (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland, have already taken this step). Russia’s ostracisation from the international community must be complete and merciless, including access to major sporting competitions.
On the issue of regime change, history does offer some suggestions. Twice in the period of just over a century have ill-begotten wars resulted in seismic shifts in Russia’s political landscape; the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese war set in motion forces that the First World War finished off with the 1917 overthrow of the Tsars. And the disintegration of the Soviet Union came at the end of a decade-long military defeat to the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Both of these outcomes, however, were at the end of protracted conflict and domestic turmoil. Andrea Kendall-Taylor’s research with Erica Frantz suggests that in the post-Cold War era, authoritarianism persisted after the decline of a long-standing leader in 75% of instances. We can leave the 1991 dreams of democratic Russia in the mud of Ukraine; the end of Putin is unlikely to herald in any new democratic resurgence in a country that has no understanding of itself except through autocrats and strongmen.
Where does this leave us? With the emerging dominance of pro-war factions in Putin’s circles, there is also evidence of hesitancy and lack of direction in the Kremlin. Per Stanovaya:
“Putin’s statements during his press conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 14 imply that Moscow is returning to its previous “wait and see” tactics: Moscow does not have the resources to advance, remains limited in its capability to carry out massive missile strikes, and can only count on freezing the situation, hoping to gain some time to regroup its forces.”
By process of elimination - Putin won’t negotiate a peace on Ukrainian terms and regime change would be a potential disaster if the pro-war faction take power - it seems that Ukrainian military victory is the way this war ends in favour of both Ukraine and democracy. That the threat of nuclear weapon use looms large over this outcome further emphasises the need for a battlefield victory for Ukraine to be as swift as possible, before the strength of the pro-war faction in the Kremlin grows further, and while Russia is on the back-foot stalling for time, manpower and materials. In this period of Russian disarray and hesitancy, the hope would be that this hesitancy extends to pressing the red button. Ukraine could offer up Crimea as a deterrent and renounce all claims to this territory, allowing Putin to declare a pyrrhic victory to his beleaguered public.
Yet, all outcomes may be lose-lose. We remain at the mercy of a madman and his rogue, failed sate.