The West should settle in for a long war in Ukraine
It is clear the war in Ukraine is not going the way Russia expected. Ukraine’s brave resistance was far stronger than Moscow, or indeed many in the world, expected and Russia’s performance, at least thus far, is far worse than anticipated.
Now, eight weeks into the war, both of those presumptions may change and the West should prepare for the likelihood of a longer war than either Moscow, Kyiv or Washington expects.
Russia’s multi-front “special military operation” has largely stalled, necessitating a reevaluation of objectives. It appears that the siege of Kyiv has ended, and greater focus is on the eastern part of the country including Donbas and Mariupol. Concurrently, Russia’s appointment of a new commander, General Aleksandr Dvornikov, (militarily late, to be sure) is reflective of a possible reassertion of grip by the military over the operation. Here, analysts like Michael Kofman at the national security research organization, CNA, are particularly instructive.
Taken together, the new command appointment, the likely narrowing of campaign objectives and the expected shortening of supply lines and rearmament of degraded battalion tactical groups, suggests that the war may be entering a new phase — one that presages a much longer campaign than the West anticipates. While the battle lines are largely fluid and will remain so, the progress of the war suggests that neither side will be able to achieve a satisfactory outcome.
Ukraine is unlikely to secure the total victory that some in the West are increasingly suggesting is a possibility. It is important to manage expectations. Ukraine will likely end up well-supplied and well-armed due to the West’s support but there is a limit (hitherto unreached) for Kyiv to maintain the fight. It is unlikely that the United States or NATO will put troops on the ground as doing so will undoubtedly be seen as escalatory and risk further expansion of the conflict.
Across the battle lines, Russia has sustained significant casualties and lost a great deal of kit, is facing sustained economic pressure and Moscow’s ability to sustain its tempo of operations remains to be seen. The sinking of the Moskva notwithstanding, Russia will likely continue to retain control over the nearshore waters off Ukraine’s coast for the foreseeable future. As Russian forces retreat closer to its borders and territories over which it already exercises control, it will be able to dig in and establish new hardened frontlines that Ukraine will be unable to penetrate. Moscow will retain the ability to launch long-range periodic strikes, but the bulk of Ukraine will be beyond the reach of Moscow’s forces.
That this battlefield situation has been reached is due wholly to the bravery of the Ukrainian armed forces, backed by considerable arms from the West. Indeed, the West should be applauded for its steady and escalating support of Ukraine. The Biden administration’s calibration of assistance versus potential escalatory risk is notable and appears to have struck an appropriate balance — at least for the time being. In recent weeks as the momentum on the ground has shifted, the administration and other countries have increased the type of weapons being sent to Ukraine, going from anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to MRAPs, howitzers, and T-72 tanks.
The limit of this focus and consideration has, however, been limited to arms and kit, largely at the tactical and operational levels, with a wary eye on the strategic risk of such increased support. There are, of course, questions that remain about that aid and assistance. How long Ukraine will be able to sustain its defense and prosecute its offense is unclear. Is there a point at which Western arms and assistance is exhausted or no longer strategically palatable? Will Western aid reach the undefined “red line” for Moscow and, if so, what comes next? Is the West prepared for a frozen front and ongoing, but low-term conflict in Ukraine?
There appears to have been little thought given to what comes next, beyond the immediate military considerations. What does an economic support package for Kyiv look like? How much money will be needed to rebuild Ukraine’s cities and restart its economy? What relief efforts are needed for refugees in Poland and other neighboring countries, and how will conditions be established for those refugees to return home? What about those refugees who do not wish to return to Ukraine? From where will these funds come at a time when Europe and the United States are facing increasing inflation, continued supply chain issues and domestic pressures at home? Is there a limit to that financial support?
At the same time, will Russia forever remain disconnected from the global economy, further driven to the autarky for which many in the country have advocated, or will a national mobilization be necessary? What will conditions for reconnection entail? How can robust support for Ukraine be sustained once Western citizens ‘move on’ from the war?
Politically, questions remain as to how the war will terminate in the longer term. How will this conflict be resolved, and can it be resolved in the face of such atrocities like Bucha? Can Moscow and Kyiv reach an agreement that will be politically viable for the Ukrainian people if, as President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested, it will be put to a national referendum? What do negotiations look like over the long haul if neither side can prevail, as now appears to be the case?
The temporal horizons of this conflict need to dramatically expand. It is, of course, prudent to focus on the immediate needs of the Ukrainian armed forces, but that is only one element of this conflict. At the same time, thinking in terms of weeks or months is insufficient, as the challenges Ukraine and the West face will almost certainly not be resolved in that time.
Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a George Mason University National Security Institute fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.