foreign interests

The War in Ukraine Looks Unwinnable (for Everyone)

What is it good for? Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

The first week of Russia’s war in Ukraine has offered some cause for optimism and inspiration (especially when viewed through a smartphone in a peaceful country). The Ukrainian people have resisted imperial domination with awesome courage. In so doing, they have surprised their enemies and allies alike. Vladimir Putin patently underestimated the Ukrainians’ investment in national sovereignty and liberal democracy, apparently betting that he could take Kyiv with a small fraction of his armed forces and little heavy artillery. This miscalculation enabled Ukraine to impose heavy losses on its invaders and deny Russia dominance of its airspace and major cities through the first five days of combat.

Ukraine’s demonstration of resolve proved contagious. Initially, the West’s sanctions against Russia were less than meets the eye. But that changed over the weekend, when Europe and the U.S. announced that they were freezing all Russian central-bank assets and evicting Russian banks from the international payments system known as SWIFT. These moves will impose heavy losses on many of the West’s capitalists, and higher prices on its ordinary citizens. In an age when myopic nationalism has sometimes looked like the only alternative to amoral capitalism, it is heartening to see international solidarity triumph over pecuniary calculations.

Funnel these uplifting developments through social-media feeds that algorithmically foreground stories of Ukrainian heroism and Russian humiliation, and you might well see an impending triumph for democratic forces.

As of this writing, however, a remotely happy ending to the war in Ukraine looks unlikely.

The Ukrainians’ heroic struggle has already succeeded in humiliating Putin and hobbling his nation. It is hard to name a strategic priority of Putin’s that his own invasion hasn’t undermined. Putin has long sought to divide his Western adversaries and weaken European unity. The war in Ukraine has done the opposite. He has aimed to crush pro-Western sentiment in Ukraine. His aggression has cemented it, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seeking Ukraine’s admission into the European Union. Putin has cultivated an alliance with China to counterbalance American power. The invasion has led Beijing to distance itself from Moscow; China has thus far refused to support the ruble from Western attack, and called for the protection of civilians in Ukraine. Finally, the legitimacy of Putin’s regime is founded, in no small part, on its success in shielding ordinary Russians from the economic turmoil that they suffered during the 1990s (thanks partly to America’s market-fundamentalist advice). Now, Russians are seeing their living standards collapse overnight.

So, Putin’s war of aggression will almost certainly be remembered as a disaster for Russia and a stain on his legacy. But just because Russia is poised to lose this war does not mean that someone else is going to win it.

It is possible to imagine a scenario in which Ukraine emerges from this crucible with its sovereignty intact. By most accounts, the Russian public and army were not prepared for the kind of war that they now confront. To the extent that Putin primed his nation for an armed struggle, it was against a hollow client state in Kyiv that would fall with relatively little complaint from the Ukrainian populace. A prolonged, bloody regime-change war against a nation of 44 million people — one that has deep cultural and kinship ties to the Russian population, and that committed no offensive act against the Russian state — is a very different proposition. There is virtually no popular buy-in for that kind of conflict among the Russian people. In a survey of 3,245 Russians taken in December, only 8 percent of respondents agreed that Russia should “send military forces to fight against Ukrainian government troops.”

Putin is already facing an extraordinary amount of domestic dissent, given how aggressively his regime punishes subversion. Multiple Russian celebrities have criticized the war. On Tuesday, a municipality in central Moscow condemned it as a source of “shame” that “cannot be washed away.” In an apparent sign of the regime’s insecurity, Russian authorities took Moscow’s leading radio station off the air Tuesday while restricting access to the website of a major television station. Meanwhile, there are scattered reports of Russian soldiers surrendering en masse or sabotaging their vehicles to avoid combat.

It is therefore conceivable that a combination of mass infantry defections and domestic unrest might lead Putin to accept a negotiated settlement that leaves the bulk of Ukrainian territory under Kyiv’s wholly independent authority.

Yet precisely because Putin’s strategic interests have been so thoroughly degraded over the past week, this endgame seems less likely than not. After this war, a genuinely sovereign Ukraine — especially one shorn of its most pro-Russian, eastern provinces — is certain to be more hostile to Russia and more closely aligned with the West than it was before the conflict commenced. In other words, a truly independent Ukraine has never been a more threatening prospect to the Kremlin than it is now. So long as Putin remains in power, and Russia retains overwhelming military dominance over Ukraine, it’s hard to see Putin granting Ukrainians’ anything more than a heavily circumscribed sovereignty. Perhaps, if Russian forces are sufficiently bloodied, Putin might be willing to countenance an independent Kyiv that is formally committed to “neutrality” between Russia and the West. Should Ukraine make that concession, however, they will have suffered a form of defeat.

The other route to Ukraine’s triumph would be for the present crisis to trigger Putin’s overthrow. If this is the best-case scenario, from a liberal internationalist perspective, it lies in close proximity to the worst-case scenario; dictators who feel their grip on power slipping are not known for their martial restraint. How a tyrant with access to a large nuclear arsenal might behave with his back against the wall is not a fun question to contemplate.

Regardless, this scenario strikes most Russia observers as extremely unlikely. As the Financial Times notes, two decades into Putin’s reign, Russia’s oligarchic elite is now dominated by men who owe their wealth to state-run banks and energy concerns rather than to independent fortunes. Their dependence on Putin’s good graces and the stability of his kleptocratic regime is overwhelming. According to close associates of the oligarchs who spoke with the FT, “any form of dissent” among the Russian business elite “has become a distant prospect as Putin’s power becomes near-absolute.” Meanwhile, ordinary Russians are so thoroughly disenfranchised by Putin’s repressive state, it would be extremely difficult for them to foment the leader’s ouster, even if he didn’t enjoy a significant degree of popular support.

Rather than propelling Putin to the negotiating table or out of office, Ukraine’s surprising strength has instead led him to embrace a more brutal military strategy. Over the past 48 hours, Russia has begun leveling civilian infrastructure in Kharkiv and Kyiv. As of Tuesday afternoon, a 40-mile-long military convoy of armored attack vehicles stood 20 miles from Kyiv. Its apparent intention is either to encircle the capital — starving its residents of food and energy until their will is broken — or to launch a frontal assault on the city.

Thus, at this moment, the most likely outcome of the war is a pyrrhic Russian victory. Putin has the weapons to prevail militarily in the initial conflict. But how he plans to build a remotely stable or legitimate puppet government atop the rubble is hard to see. Russia cannot win this war in any meaningful sense. A protracted occupation of a vengeful Ukraine will weaken Russia economically and geopolitically. The invasion itself has already inspired heightened interest in NATO membership among Russia’s unaligned neighbors. Germany has already moved to increase its military spending. And across the West, attempts will be made to reduce domestic reliance on Russian fuel exports. Putin can deliver a defeat to the Ukrainians, but not a victory to his own people.

If both Russia and Ukraine appear poised to lose this war, the same holds true of the world at large. One can perhaps find silver linings if one squints. It is possible that the West’s demonstrable willingness to subordinate prosperity to the defense of a democracy will reduce the probability of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

In the immediate term, though, the cost of food and energy is set to surge for consumers worldwide. In the world’s poorest regions, such inflation is liable to have a body count. Russia and Ukraine are collectively responsible for roughly 30 percent of the world’s wheat and 19 percent of its corn. They are also major suppliers of fertilizer at a time when global crop production is already suffering for a lack of that critical input. In Afghanistan, millions were already at risk of famine before the current spike in food prices. Sanctions and warfare are all but certain to depress Russian and Ukrainian agricultural production for some time to come.

War can produce breathtaking heroism and heartbreaking solidarity. But it primarily generates waste and suffering. Vladimir Putin has committed a grave crime against the entire world. The near certainty that he will lose this war is cold comfort, given the probability that everyone else will too.

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The War in Ukraine Looks Unwinnable (for Everyone)