No End in Sight?

By Rafael Hoffman

Ukrainian soldiers pass by houses ruined in the Russian shelling in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Libkos, File)

Ukraine impressed the world with its steadfast resistance to Russia’s invasion. Its successful defense of Kyiv in the first weeks of the conflict, last summer’s counteroffensive that retook significant territory, and its ability to hold out over a long winter of blackouts and attrition have proven how wrong the Kremlin was about what to expect from Ukraine.

Yet even as the steadfastness of Ukraine’s army and people impress their supporters, after nearly a year and a half of war, questions mount over the struggle’s future.

Casualties mount to the hundreds of thousands. Millions have been displaced. The Battle of Bakhmut ground into an unwinnable bloodbath with Russia ultimately gaining the upper hand in the now-destroyed city.

The United States has poured over $75 billion into Ukraine’s war effort.

Even as Ukraine moves toward another summer counteroffensive, few think it will result in the decisive expulsion of Russian forces that President Volodymir Zelensky seeks. Russia does not seem anywhere near winding down its attack, with hundreds of thousands of new recruits placed to reinforce their lines.

Against this grim backdrop, more are asking, whither the Ukraine War?

‘As long as it takes’

A Ukrainian soldier is seen in a trench at the frontline near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, May 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Libkos)

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, America’s most memorable offer of assistance was the evacuation plan that Mr. Zelensky bravely rejected, saying he needed “ammo, not a ride.” Since Ukraine repelled Russia’s attempt to take Kyiv, military aid flowed generously from the U.S. and NATO countries. President Joseph Biden repeatedly said that America plans to support Ukraine with what it needs for “as long as it takes.”

Ukraine defined its goal as expelling Russia from its territory, including the Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and areas of the Donbas under de facto Moscow control since separatist fighting started there the same year. The U.S. and allies are in Ukraine’s corner for its success on the battlefield but have defined it more vaguely.

Hein Geomans, a professor at Rochester University and director of its Center for Conflict and Cooperation, said that the West’s steady weapons supplies demonstrate their objective.

“The goal is not to let Russia win, to make it clear to the world and to Russia’s population that Russia lost. I think they’ve played their hand pretty well given the circumstances,” he said. “People in the administration are smart and they don’t want to say ‘we must liberate all of Ukraine.’ What happens then if they want to force Ukraine into a deal with Russia? So, they’re careful not to get tied down, and try to walk the line carefully.”

While the U.S. feels its goals are best served by decisive Russian defeat, the likelihood of such an outcome remains unclear. Should the present stalemate continue, adjustment in strategy and goals might become increasingly necessary.

“[The U.S.] has a clear strategy of providing aid at a pretty high and consistent level with a stated goal to support Ukraine in its effort to drive Russia out of all Ukrainian territory,” said Mark Cancian, a Senior Advisor in the International Security Program at the Center for strategic and International Studies. “But that’s a very ambitious strategy and it’s not clear that Ukraine will be able to conquer all that territory; at some point there might have to be negotiations.”

Recent U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan largely failed to achieve their presumed goals and are now viewed negatively by many Americans. Some blame the path these conflicts took on failure to clearly define national interests and keep strategy in line with those aims. Ukraine presents a different situation, with American supplies and funding on the ground, but no troops. Still, at a time when the U.S. global role is increasingly questioned, many feel the nation has a lot riding on Ukraine.

“It’s one of those moments in history when countries are hedging their bets and the U.S. has a vested interest in coming out on top, notching a win for liberal democracy,” said Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Many have cast the West’s focus on Ukraine as a battle to uphold the “rules-based” world order that has roughly governed foreign affairs since the end of the Second World War. At a time of rising global competition, many strategists also argue that blunting Russia’s invasion is also crucial, signaling to China that its designs on Taiwan will be met with Western resolve.

“The international norms have to be enforced,” said Professor Geomans. “It’s a make-or-break time for rules-based order to send a clear statement that aggression will not stand.”

However, not all accept that the West’s interests align perfectly with Ukraine’s desire to reclaim all its territory, including areas under Russia’s control for close to a decade.

“I would be cautious not to overstate the interests at stake,” said Dr. Kupchan. “Some think that if Russia has any of Ukraine that’s the end of rules-based order. Really? Without Crimea, it won’t be viable? I don’t think that holds up under scrutiny.”

At several junctures of the war, Mr. Zelensky requested larger quantities of arms and more advanced military hardware. These requests led to several instances of White House hesitancy, usually resulting in an eventual decision to send the requested items, as happened with Abrams tanks, F-16 fighters, and certain missile systems. Some accused the administration of giving Ukraine enough not to lose, but too little to win.

James Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, said that Ukraine’s performance testifies to the adequacy of Western aid.

“Has Ukraine been overrun?” No, so then it’s adequate,” he said. “There’s more to do in terms of building up its air force so it can control its airspace and increasing its mobile ground forces capabilities. [What the U.S. has done] could have been done faster, but when all is said and done, it’s not the ugliest wartime story.”

Dr. Kupchan said that he supported giving Ukraine “what they need,” but cautioned against overstating expectations.

“There is no silver bullet,” he said. “F-16s will help, but they won’t be a game changer. Long-range missiles will help, but they won’t ensure victory. Russia has numeric superiority and more material. There is no weapon system or group of weapon systems that will suddenly enable [Ukraine] to win.”

TellTale Counteroffensive

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gestures during a meeting with President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Late last summer, Ukraine launched a two-pronged counteroffensive which recaptured the city of Kherson in the south and pushed back Russian lines significantly in the northeastern region near Kharkov. Those campaigns proved to Western supporters that Ukraine’s troops were capable of taking the offensive and retaking significant amounts of territory.

Ukraine’s freezing winters and muddy spring make those seasons difficult for combat and much of the past month’s fighting focused on Russia’s campaign to take the Donbas city of Bakhmut, which it won at great cost to both sides.

As more voices in the West question whether Ukraine’s struggle is grinding into a stalemate, its campaign may not only be about retaking ground, but determining the future of Western support.

“In two months, we’ll know what Ukraine is able to accomplish,” said Mr. Cancian. “If they’re able to take a big chunk of territory like last year, [the U.S. and allies] might say they can win. …Maybe not in a single offensive, but bite by bite they could take back the country. But, if they get tied up in Russia’s defense lines, you will see a lot more unease about a forever war.”

Whose Side is Time On?

Most in government and mainstream foreign policy think tanks remain publicly committed to focusing on the battlefield as the best place to accomplish their goals in Ukraine.

Yet, there is a growing camp warning that Russia holds an advantage in a long war, no matter how well armed Ukraine is.

“America knows that a war of attrition is bad for Ukraine. They have a much smaller population that can get ground down. That’s why aid should be focused on trying to help Ukraine overcome a war of attrition, with combined arms like tanks and planes that can be used together,” said Professor Geomans.

However, some question the narrative that time is on Russia’s side.

“In the larger sense it’s not clear whose side time is on. You could make the argument that it’s on Ukraine’s side as they get more weapons and training from the West while the Russians are getting worn down and weaker,” said Mr. Cancian.

A factor that has some thinking that the West’s interests might lie in a shorter war is the specter of escalation. The use of nuclear weapons is a saber the Kremlin has repeatedly rattled. Recent drone strikes within Russia and incidents like Ukrainian missiles that misfired into Poland have left hours of dangerous doubt that Russia had fired into a NATO country.

“This war’s been through some dangerous moments, and it could escalate,” said Dr. Kupchan. “I don’t think Putin is thinking about using nuclear weapons now, but if Ukraine were on the cusp of taking Crimea, maybe he would.”

There is a general lack of understanding about Mr. Putin and his advisors’ thinking on Ukraine, including how seriously to take threats of atomic weapons and attacks on Ukraine’s Western supporters.

Mr. Cancian said that he felt guidelines laid down by both sides make the catastrophic scenarios unlikely.

“Both sides put down red lines. No NATO troops in Ukraine, no Western support for attacks on Russia. On Russia’s side, no attacks on NATO territory,” he said. “As long as we stay on our side of Russia’s red line, I don’t worry so much about escalation.”

Perilous Paths

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, speaks as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov attend a meeting with senior military officers in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. (Sergey Fadeichev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Another factor central to the growing debate is where America’s key interests lie in the war and to what extent they have been accomplished by supplying Ukraine with the materiel it needed to effectively beat back Russia’s invasion. Russia began its invasion on the premise of a weak Western response and quick Ukrainian collapse. As Mr. Putin’s army was already routed from its original goal, some feel the U.S. has little more to accomplish in Ukraine.

“America’s goals in broad terms were to clearly defeat Russia’s attempt to pull Ukraine back into its sphere of influence and, if possible, to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” said Dr. Kupchan. “The first and more important one, in my mind, has been largely attained. The second might be elusive when it comes to the battlefield, which is why I argue that Ukraine might be better off working towards securing its sovereignty at the negotiating table after we see what it accomplishes with its summer counteroffensive.”

The groundwork for drawing either Russia or Ukraine to negotiations remains distant and some remain wary of encouraging such an approach. Any settlement would likely award Russia at least de facto control of some of the territory it captured and, as such, some feel a settlement fails to effectively deter Russia or others from future aggression.

“There are already voices and will probably be more as time goes on to negotiate now and stop the killing. That all sounds great, but a ceasefire plays into a partial Russian victory,” said Mr. Cancian. “[Russia] should have learned its lesson, but I don’t think they did. Putin wanted to conquer the whole country and failed, but he controls the narrative in his county so effectively that it’s not clear they would learn their lesson if he can walk away saying we took a bite out of Ukraine and fought back NATO.”

For the first year of Ukraine’s war, the idea of the West using its funding leverage to push Mr. Zelensky towards negotiations was relegated to the fringes and labeled quasi-sympathy for Russia. As the war drags on with little end in sight, it is becoming a more respectable position.

“Wars generally move to the table when a stalemate of sorts emerges and neither side thinks they can gain by keeping up the fight,” said Dr. Kupchan. “[…that time might come at the end of this fighting season when Ukraine will feel it’s given war its best shot] and Zelensky and his team might be ready to say, it’s time to look for a way to end this.”

‘A lot of Losers, and no winners’

A hypothetical negotiated settlement between Russia and Ukraine could take one of two forms. A formal peace deal would end the conflict by finding terms that both parties agree to, such as Russian withdrawal from lands conquered since February 2022 in exchange for Ukrainian recognition of Moscow’s sovereignty over Crimea and an autonomous zone in parts of Donbas that were under separatist control since 2014.

Such an agreement would bring stability, but is highly unlikely, as neither country is likely willing to make major concessions.

Far more likely would be a ceasefire which would stop the fighting along the present lines of engagement (or what they will be after the upcoming counteroffensive), likely establishing an internationally monitored demilitarized zone between the two sides. This scenario does not expel Russia from Ukraine and lends itself to volatility, as a minor violation can fan into a renewed war. Yet, it is a way to stop the shooting and allow Ukraine to rebuild without either Kyiv or Moscow compromising on territorial claims. In the meantime, the West would continue to arm Ukraine to make it clear that renewed fighting would be costly for Russia.

Some point to North and South Korea as a prime example of how such an agreement can bring a tense but lasting peace. Still, some fear a ceasefire would only provide a respite for Russia to recharge and renew its attempt to conquer Ukraine.

A possible sign that talk of a negotiated settlement is on the horizon is news that Ukraine, the U.S., and NATO allies plan to meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, to discuss their joint war effort. Part of that will likely define Ukraine’s terms for peace. Yet, if the meeting ends in rallying around Mr. Zelensky’s maximalist position, it might keep the door mostly shut on negotiations.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a speech on a recent trip to Finland, nearly took talks off the table.

“A ceasefire that simply freezes current lines in place and enables Putin to consolidate control over the territory he’s seized, and then rest, re-arm, and re-attack — that is not a just and lasting peace,” he said. Mr. Blinken also said that a negotiated settlement should make Russia partner in the massive expenses of rebuilding Ukraine’s economy — a term that few think Mr. Putin would accept.

Even in the event of a shift in Western thinking that looks to push Ukraine to a settlement sooner, many are skeptical that Russia would engage in serious negotiations.

“Russia already lost this war and Ukraine already won, but only Russia can decide when the fighting ends,” said Dr. Carafano.

No shortage of impediments stands in the way from Russia’s side. The nation has a historically high tolerance for losses. Its population is under minimal pressure, as sanctions have had only a minimal effect on its economy and there are no major attacks within its borders. Furthermore, Mr. Putin has given Ukraine and the West little reason to accept his word, making it necessary for other nations to guarantee any peace terms.

“Negotiations might start after this campaign, but I think they’ll fail, because there’s no deal Russia can accept,” said Professor Geomans.

Many experts, even skeptics of pushing toward negotiations, concede that the West’s position will likely have to be revisited based on the results of Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive.

Dr. Kupchan argued that looking toward the end of the fighting season as a time to move toward the table was not only in the West’s interests, but in Ukraine’s as well.

“I’d rather see Ukraine as a secure and prosperous democracy with 90% of its territory than in a state of perpetual war fighting to retake the remaining 10%,” he said. “Time is not on anybody’s side. I see lots of losers and no winners. For that reason, I think it should come to an end sooner rather than later.”

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