The Great War in Ukraine
One year gone, with no end in sight
It is difficult to write about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For me, this has less to do with the geopolitical complexity of the region or even the war’s horrors, of which there are many. As the one-year anniversary of the war whisked by and my fingers lay still, I considered, for perhaps the first time in my life, the degree of impotence inherent in my work. My words, really, were going to change nothing, and that is the nature of attempting to craft an argument about slaughter abroad. Russia certainly isn’t listening to me, and the American and Ukrainian governments have their own prerogatives, freed, for now at least, from the judgments of any prying media. This is the first war in which I have felt mature enough to cobble together an analysis. I was too young for the heat of Iraq. Afghanistan began around the same time and dragged well into my adulthood. And now here we are with Russia and Ukraine, with no end in sight.
That is the point, really. My last attempt to grapple with the war’s contours came in the late summer, when I again urged an aggressive American and European-led attempt at a diplomatic resolution to save future lives. When this piece was published, it was roundly mocked because Ukraine had launched a startling and successful counter-offensive, and the talk, in America at least, had picked up that Ukraine could win the war outright, repelling Russia from not just the land they seized in early 2022 but from the Crimea entirely. To those with the most moral clarity, always the internationalists, it was a time for belief that was almost religious in its power—certainly, at the minimum, in its defiance of a darker logic. Russia could be beaten because it had to be beaten, because that is how a narrative-driven world must resolve itself. Vladimir Putin, the vile autocrat, must be punished, and he will break, inevitably, against the tidal might of the West. “If the Ukrainians don’t simply hold out against Russia but actually defeat Russia’s massive army and force it to retreat, the positive reverberations will be felt across the globe,” Francis Fukuyama wrote last September. “Populist nationalists around the world, from Viktor Orbán to Matteo Salvini to Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump, have expressed admiration for Putin’s style of strongman rule.”
“Ukraine will win. Slava Ukraini!”
President Joe Biden’s recent trip to Kyiv reflected this zeal. Biden declared that Ukraine “must triumph,” since he’s already spearheaded the more than $75 billion in American humanitarian and military aid sent to Ukraine since the start of the war. The military aid, in particular, has continued to swell, with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, making ever escalating demands that are, barring a no-fly zone, eventually met. Among congressional Democrats, D.C. foreign policy analysts, and neoconservative Republicans, this is the unshakable consensus. Disagreement is viewed with suspicion or outright hostility; since far-right, isolationist Republicans have taken up the cause of attempting to cut off American aid to Ukraine, the idea of conditioning future packages or tapering them off is met with tremendous disdain. World War II, the convenient antecedent, is trotted out, and those who attempt to rationalize endgames for the war that don’t resemble the last ten minutes of a Netflix mini-series are dismissed as Neville Chamberlains quaking in Hitler’s wake. Appeasement, the greatest of all sins—never forget.
Yet here we are. As I write this, Russia and Ukraine are suffering heavy losses in the battle for an eastern Ukrainian city called Bakhmut. The BBC calls it a “war of attrition” which means, quite plainly, the side that can endure suffering the longest will win. The crackpot realists will tell you victory is within reach, that the American proxy war with Russia must be executed, fully, if any lasting peace is to be had. Months ago, calling it a proxy war would have also kicked up a good deal of anger—Ukraine, alone, is fighting for its freedom!—but we are beyond the point of those illusions, mostly. The United States funds the war effort, gifts the intelligence, and trains the troops. This all has the taste of Vietnamization. Perhaps it will all work out soon and Russia will be brought to heel. The economic sanctions, at last, will succeed, and Russia will be broken and isolated, a great power bleeding out.
Ukraine has every incentive to fight on. As does Russia, of course. If the U.S., Ukraine, and NATO view the clash in existential terms, so does Vladimir Putin. The World War II analogies never made much sense to me because there is no Russian blitzkrieg, no lighting march across Europe. Even before American cash and weaponry arrived, Russia was bogged down in its old Soviet satellite; Ukraine, clearly, was as far as Putin could go, even if he longed for much more. Within the month, the battle lines had largely been drawn. World War I was always the conflict that most resembled this one, with its multi-national entanglements and brutal clashes over limited terrain. Like the Great War, each side is dug in, grinding far away from the prospect of peace. Russia is the aggressor and must prove to its people it was all, somehow, worth it. Ukraine is infused with the weapons of the West and all of its liberation mythology; Zelenskyy believes, publicly at least, this will all end with Russia retreating from the Crimean Peninsula Putin annexed nine years ago. Each leader responds to domestic pressure. Like any autocrat, Putin is wary of a war effort gone sour or any attempted putsch. Zelenskyy, who has displayed his own dictatorial tendencies, is an ex-comedian who was deeply unpopular before Russia marched into his land. Now he draws comparisons to Churchill.
The difference between now and 1914 is nuclear weapons. Russia has the largest stockpile on Earth, followed by the Americans. For a year, each side has been blithe about the danger of climbing the escalatory ladder and bringing the conflict ever closer to the one act of war that could annihilate tens of millions overnight. We are, for a variety of reasons, at a more dangerous point than we were for most of the Cold War. Putin is more erratic and isolated, from the West at least, than any Soviet leader of the postwar period. The Americans, bereft of foreign policy minds who have firsthand recollections of the Cold War and how close nuclear Armageddon actually came, press onward, issuing larger and larger checks for the war. Strangely, it has been left to the RAND Corporation, no hub of peaceniks, to spell out the reality before us. To little notice in the American media, the think tank broke explicitly with the foreign policy consensus and questioned the wisdom of a protracted conflict without any American-led bid for a diplomatic settlement.
Linking aid to Ukrainian willingness to negotiate has been anathema in Western policy discussions and for good reason: Ukraine is defending itself against unprovoked Russian aggression. However, the U.S. calculus may change as the costs and risks of the war mount. And the use of this U.S. lever can be calibrated. For example, the United States could level off aid, not dramatically reduce it, if Ukraine does not negotiate. And, again, a decision to level off wartime support pending negotiations can be made in tandem with promises about postwar sustained increases in assistance over the long term.
What is verboten in March 2023 may not be so verboten in November 2023. Or it may take longer—part of the challenge of this war, as RAND explains, is its limited clarity, how each side may exaggerate what it is able to do in the months and years to come. Internationally, Russia is not nearly the pariah the Americans and Europeans hoped it would be. China is happy to do business with a long-time trading partner, even better if the United States is irked. India has not pulled away Russia. Turkey has gladly blown a hole in the sanctions regime, selling goods to Russia. Many other nations have chosen neutrality, including Brazil and Pakistan. When this war eventually ends, Russia will be a weakened nation, having lost many thousands of troops. One day, Putin will die, and his ironclad hold on public opinion may give away to an opposition that drives his acolytes from power. But that day is not close; the most hawkish in the West want regime change in Russia now, as if there’s a guarantee Moscow doves are waiting in the wings to spell Putin. Sometimes, instead of freedom fighters, you merely get a General Sisi.
The fantasy, one year in, is that Russia will simply retreat and vanish. One of the very largest nations on Earth, once a ballast of the postwar global order, rich in oil and human life; where is it going, exactly? More than 140 million live there. The army can always conscript more young men. In a just world, Russia will be vanquished from the Donbas and Crimea. But we do not live in that world. No one knows, exactly, what a peace settlement will look like. What can be stated is that it will probably not meet the demands of Ukraine and NATO today. The March 2023 policy minds would call it capitulation. They have a right to do this, just as the rest of the world, along with the American taxpayers funding a war against Russian imperialism, has a right to ask when this is all supposed to end and how we get there. We, we—I use the first-person plural intentionally. The nuclear threat involves us all. We are the children and grandchildren of a world that once witnessed atomic devastation. Eight decades on, the technology offers death on a scale none of us can fathom. We must start, at last, to understand the stakes.