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As the Ukraine War finishes up its fourth week, the radical indeterminacy and high drama of the initial phase is giving way to a grim new reality. Russia is clearly unable to achieve its initial military goals—toppling the government and subduing the whole country outright. Indeed, it seems less and less likely to be able to get the Ukrainians to accept a lesser form of capitulation: a declaration of neutrality, demilitarization, and the cession of the previously occupied Crimea and Donbas to Russia outright. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has recently been ruling out compromising on territorial integrity.
As the famous nuclear strategist, the late Thomas C. Schelling, observed, both violent and nonviolent conflict are best understood as a process of bargaining. Especially in open war, no statement should be taken as irreversible. Zelensky's current statements were unthinkable weeks ago, when the thoroughgoing shoddiness of the Russian armed forces was not yet fully apparent. Emboldened on the battlefield, he is asking for more. On the other hand, firm statements such as Zelensky's encourage the Russians to alter facts on the ground. In doing so, they hope to force Zelensky to amend his ask.
The grim new reality of the war is not that it will be more predictable. It may yet yield unexpected tensions and escalations. At time of writing, a Russian ultimatum for Ukrainian forces in Mariupol to surrender had expired. Moscow had not specified what could happen to the city if Ukrainian fighters did not capitulate. Would a new phase of indiscriminate bombing—or even worse, the use of chemical weapons—be next? And how would the West react should Russia choose to exterminate everyone left behind in the city? A French general today said that while a no-fly zone remains out of the question, perhaps the West should consider hitting Russian rockets and artillery surrounding Mariupol with a set of Tomahawk missiles.
In addition, the war could take other unexpected turns. Earlier today, the POTUS Twitter account warned that Russia was exploring cyber options in retaliation for our sanctions and ongoing aid to the Ukrainians. The shape a cyberwar might take is difficult to game out, in no small part because of plausible deniability. Russia has gone to great lengths to cultivate a network of state-affiliated and sponsored cyber-criminals with access to cutting-edge tools that could make everyday life quite unpleasant for individuals on both sides of the Atlantic. Given the state of the conflict, however, it's quite likely that plausible deniability might not carry much water at this point: any attack by an affiliated organization would probably count as Russian. And though the U.S. has extensive options for retaliation, it would have to choose carefully how to respond. The kind of lose-lose tit-for-tat cyber conflict that sees essential civilian infrastructure going down in both Russia and the United States could easily materialize.
In many ways, we are in uncharted territory already. But should the worst kinetic or cyber escalatory spirals be avoided, another deeper reality seems to be emerging: the Ukrainian war is settling into a stalemate. It's possible that Russia's army will collapse, or that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be felled by a coup, but it's never wise to plan around a low probability event coming to pass. Instead, it's likely dawned on many in the Kremlin that Russia's best chance for securing any lasting gains is to complete its conquest in the east of the country.
A sizable part of Ukraine's army, referred to as the Joint Forces Operation (JFO), is still arrayed against Russian occupiers along the old line of contact in the east, where the 2014 war stalled out. Should Mariupol fall, the Russian troops stationed there could turn their attention to surrounding, and then exterminating, the JFO. As the British think tank RUSI notes, destroying the bulk of the Ukrainian army might even present the Russians with a glimmer of hope: occupying Kyiv might not be necessary.
[W]e might consider what figures like Jomini and Clausewitz postulated in the context of their own time: that armies and not cities are a nation's center of gravity. The destruction of armies tends to lead to a broader collapse of will that makes sieges unnecessary. In 1940, for example, German forces did not besiege Paris; having encircled the French army in the field and decisively beaten it, this became unnecessary.
Of course, the JFO is well dug in, having been in active conflict for the better part of eight years with Russian-backed insurgents. Russian success here is no less certain here than Putin's initial dreams of rolling into Kyiv largely unopposed. But should the Russians really lean into this fight, including using chemical and perhaps tactical nuclear weapons, it's likely they would ultimately prevail.
What happens after that is of utmost importance. An exhausted and badly bruised Ukraine may choose to amend its bargaining position, and sue for peace closer to Russian terms. That, of course, is for the Ukrainians to decide. But many questions will still remain for the West. To what extent will a "victorious" Russia be allowed back into the international system on semi-normal terms? Some sanctions will presumably have to be lifted if an uneasy peace is to break out. Which ones? How soon? And what will relations with Russia look like?
From my perspective, the West ought not be hasty in facilitating anything like a lasting peace. To do so would be to reward Russian aggression—and would probably lead to another, more far-reaching war in the near future. If we are faced with some kind of truce negotiated between Ukraine and Russia, we nevertheless shouldn't expect any kind of long-term normalcy returning to the international system. Europe in particular ought to be steeling itself for a generational confrontation with Russia. This war, however it ends, has ushered in a new reality. The post-Cold War vision, where free trade and open societies would transform societies across the globe, should be consigned to the ash-heap of history. Even should Putin somehow exit the scene, Europe will still have a wounded, angry, revanchist neighbor at its doorstep, perhaps humbled in its ambitions but not likely deterred from future adventurism. Europe will have to think anew about its own security, and make provisions for meaningfully contributing to it. The United States will remain as a military backstop, but Ukraine has not changed Washington's broader calculus about the importance of pivoting to Asia and China.
Unfortunately, I can already envision a scenario where European leaders, and some in Washington, try to put this "crisis" behind them and get back to the bigger project of rebuilding the liberal world order of their fantasies. This vision—of an "unserious generation" of policymakers not recognizing the moment for what it is—has been haunting me since at least late last year. Talk to European leaders today, and you can already get a whiff of this mentality. They are rightly worried about the costs, and unpleasant transformations, that a lasting standoff with Russia will impose on their societies. But instead of facing these challenges head-on, they are fantasizing of rebuilding a world that has been thoroughly and irretrievably destroyed by this spasm of violence.
Even if we avoid a nuclear holocaust or a cyberwar dystopia—neither of which are foregone conclusions—nothing will be the same again. The extent to which we convince ourselves otherwise will determine just how bad things will get the next time around.