In his foundational book on the causes of war, Kenneth Waltz observed that “[a]sking who won a given war […] is like asking who won the San Francisco earthquake. That in war there is no victory but only varying degrees of defeat is a proposition that has gained increasing acceptance in the twentieth century.”
These lines ring more true today than they have in decades. Russia and Ukraine kill their soldiers by the hundreds each week, as a consequence of Russian aggression. Outrage against its murderous onslaught has galvanized the West, dusted off NATO’s image, and unified public opinion.
However, at the one-year mark of a full-blown war that has seen massive destruction, murder, rape, and the horrors of trench warfare, Western opinion and policies begin to run the risk of pursing elusive total victory at the expense of working toward durable peace.
A close look at the military, political, and moral dimensions of the war is needed to understand why it will continue unless the West settles it. A strategy for how the war can be ended without surrendering to Russia or depriving Ukraine of its right to self-defense is also derived from the analysis.
Militarily, both sides are defense dominant
The war has gone through several phases. Initially, an overwhelming Russian onslaught was predicted to break Ukrainian defenses ‘within hours’. Courageous Ukrainian resistance prevented this fate, largely by using weapons and tactics imported from the West since 2014.
Despite Russian numerical advantages, Ukraine has blunted several Russian offensives, stopped river crossings, and decimated armored columns with new tactics. Where the Russians lumped their weapons systems together based on Cold War-era doctrine, Ukrainian forces have developed a version of “network-centric warfare”: light infantry or aerial drones spot enemy armor and relay their coordinates electronically. Dispersed, rather than tightly clustered, Ukrainian artillery can then fire at these coordinates. Finally, guided artillery shells optically steer into enemy tanks, delivering one-shot kills.
This approach has proven so effective that Russian forces were beaten back from all northern front lines. Similarly, Russian advances in the East and South have been made exceedingly costly. The successful Ukrainian counteroffensives culminating in the liberations of Kharkiv and Kherson followed suit.
Against Ukrainian determination and sophistication, Russia has failed in large-scale offensive operations time and again. They have proven ineffective in their use of combined arms. They have suffered heavy casualties in the higher ranks, including several generals. Their tank stocks are so severely depleted that they now restore vehicles from the 1960s. Putin’s hopes for comprehensive victory have been crushed.
However, this does not imply that Ukraine has a tactical pathway to victory. In pitched battles and in offensive operations, Ukrainian artillery must again be concentrated, leaving it vulnerable to air attack and counter-artillery fire. Under those circumstances, the odds seem a lot more balanced, as visible in the Russian capture or Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in June, and the current fighting around Bakhmut.
The picture is similarly mixed in the air. Neither side has won air dominance over the entire theater of operations. Instead, both sides operate capable long-range radars from secure locations and effective surface-to-air missile systems. Neither side can safely overfly enemy territory. Close air support missions, which would boost offensive ground capabilities, are limited to light, unmanned aerial vehicles. In consequence, on both the tactical and operational levels, neither side can easily advance, while both sides can repel enemy attacks.
On the strategic level, neither side will quickly emerge victorious either. While all estimates of Loss Exchange Ratios paint a devastating picture for the Russians, this should not be confused with imminent defeat. Russia lost 26.6 million civilians and soldiers in World War II, and still won. Technological inferiority of Russian weapons systems and superiority in numbers is built into their doctrine, informing everything from costly tactics to affordable (i.e. expendable) tanks. Russians dying in droves and Russia losing are two separate things.
Additionally, Russia as a nation is experienced in losing until they win. From Genghis Khan, to Napoleon, Wilhelm, and Hitler, foreign invaders have wreaked havoc on Russian lands and peoples, until winter, geography, and brutal attrition turned the tides. Being able to tap into associated narratives of sacrifice for national self-defense translates into high mobilization potential and psychological resilience to otherwise absurd casualty figures.
Against this backdrop, simply hoping Ukraine will win back all its territories is naive. This is especially true for Crimea, which could realistically only be taken back if the Russian Black Sea fleet and their air force were sufficiently weakened for an amphibious assault, alongside a land-based push across heavily mined and fortified territory. Simultaneously, Ukraine would have to retain reserves to defend its entire territory. This is very unlikely to happen.
Even if the Russian front lines were to collapse under relentless attrition, they could still attack from within their own borders. Low-cost Shahed drones procured from Iran have already terrorized Ukrainian civilians and severely damaged energy infrastructure. Updated Russian fighter jet tactics center around employing long-range missiles from high altitudes against Ukrainian aircraft which have no options for return shots.
These attacks could only be prevented if Ukraine engaged in shooting air-defense missiles into Russian airspace and resorted to counter-battery fire into Russian territory. This, in turn, would justify escalation from the Russian perspective. Their official nuclear doctrine states that they will use nuclear weapons in defense of their territory if conventional attempts to do so fail. Total Russian defeat in Ukraine with subsequent open hostilities across the border is a very dangerous goal to aim for.
Politically, the war is self-supporting
In addition to the military gridlock, both sides have been captured by the war politically. The Zelensky government is overwhelmingly supported, both domestically and internationally. However, Zelensky governs a coalition spanning the entire political spectrum on the promise of leading Ukraine to victory. Once he shows willingness to compromise, his support base could easily fracture.
Putin is in a very similar situation: Russian propaganda has dabbled in various narratives including a prevention of genocide in the Donbas, fighting Ukrainian Nazis, but it has recently settled on the evergreen of war rhetoric: defense against foreign aggression. Every Russians’ life is allegedly being defended in Ukraine. Should Putin signal readiness for peace, this false narrative would begin to work against him, as the dehumanized enemy would suddenly have to be presented as a reasonable partner in international politics.
Regime change in Russia has been presented as a possible way out. Mitigating this risk has created a severe dilemma for Putin, visible in the ‘partial mobilization’ that struck a balance between war effort and maintenance of the home front. A theoretical general mobilization was speculated to massively destabilize Russia politically. But the moment of popular dissent has come and gone. Hundreds of thousands have left Russia. Many who remain will keep their heads down, and many more have bought into Russian propaganda.
With a popular uprising looking increasingly unlikely, fragmentation of the Russian federation has been portrait as a possible substitute. Already, separatist moods in the peripheral republics are fueled by the disproportionate share of casualties that fall on ethnic minorities. A general mobilization could take things one step too far. The Russian state has probably not been this weak in deterring centrifugal forces in a century.
However, if Russia disintegrated, the outcome could be very dangerous. The last thing this planet needs is a Yugoslavia the size of Russia with thousands of nukes strewn around its territory. Against the backdrop of Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, no separatist region would want to part with its weapons. This would be the ultimate nuclear proliferation nightmare with an open time horizon for total global calamity.
The military question of how Russia can be beaten in the field is therefore accompanied by the political question of what good it would do to push it into full mobilization, political disintegration, and toward the use of nuclear weapons from its territory.
From a humanitarian angle, the war must simply stop
The moral case for fighting the Russians heavily rests on the horrendous atrocities committed by their soldiers. Extrajudicial killings, sexual assaults, and attacks on non-military targets have been documented. Intuitively, this suggests we should kill some Russians to make it right. The hard truth is that crimes cannot be avenged by war. Military force is neither capable nor intended to generate justice.
A ceasefire is required to stop the killing now, and truth commissions must start the long process of figuring out who did what to whom. The current war does not offset the Russian crimes, it perpetuates them as more killers and rapists are forged in the trenches and pardoned from Russian prisons in exchange for fighting in Ukraine.
While victims of rape and murder deserve much of our attention, the soldiers marching to their graves must also factor into the humanitarian calculus. On the Ukrainian side, the men in uniform get blown to pieces by Russian shells, or their positions get hit with theromobaric weapons, which incinerate them, rupture their lungs, or force burning gas down their airways. The Russian tank crews whose deaths are paraded around on social media do not fare much better. They are trapped inside steel coffins which can burn out slowly. At least thousands must have survived the initial hits, and then burned alive before suffocation or heart attack eased their transition into eternity. Like everyone else, the men in the trenches need peace.
The raging war also has unacceptable knock on effects world-wide. A breakdown of tourism due to the recent pandemic is currently compounded by high prices for wheat, fertilizer, oil and gas, due to the war in Ukraine. New conflicts and uprisings could be sparked by economic collapse or a repetition of the proxy fighting during the Cold War. This future must be averted.
In summary, the military, political, and humanitarian considerations all suggest that the war is a self-perpetuating catastrophe, which must be ended intentionally. Putin and Zelensky are locked into narratives of “total victory” and “fighting for survival” to unite their domestic audiences. Neither one can strew to far from this line, without risking removal from power. True agency only lies with the West.
Promoting peace by tying weapons to diplomacy
From the start of the war, Western weapons and tactics have turned the tide on the battlefield, but Western policies have never exceeded their initial reactive stage. Public and political discourse is seemingly locked into virtue signaling, where the simple promotion of diplomatic efforts is heavily criticized as morally wrong.
What is totally lost in this emotional reaction is that the conflict parties will continue to fill the ground with bodies for as long as the West is stuck in supporting the status quo. This is a price too high to pay for national pride and moral righteousness. Instead, the West should set an example for assertive diplomacy in the name of global peace. NATO should understand its agency in defining a “day after” that at least holds the promise of durable peace. The phantom image of a peace agreement is already beginning to take shape and must be pursued relentlessly by all diplomatic means.
Against the backdrop of its failed invasion, Russia cannot begin to hope it will ever have uncontested control over additional territories seized in 2022. Major parts of Ukraine have resisted the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II at unimaginable cost, and even a cessation of hostilities with the Ukrainian state could not prevent a protracted Ukrainian insurgency after a future settlement. Therefore, the sham referenda conducted as a pretext to annexation must be recognized as null and void. Only a withdrawal of Russian forces from the occupied East will bring peace.
However, the Donbas region has seen a genuine popular uprising in 2014, generously supported by Russia. To settle the conflict there, a heavily mandated UN mission will be required to keep the peace. In recognition of the local opposition to the Ukrainian government, a fully demilitarized and temporarily semi-autonomous region must be negotiated, modeled after Kosovo. After a decade-long mission, a heavily monitored referendum could be conducted to decide the future of this region.
Ukraine as a whole must obtain very strong security assurances from the West and pose a heavy conventional deterrent against future Russian aggression. However, its neutrality and unwillingness to join NATO must also be assured to Russia. Especially nuclear weapons, which were not tolerated in either Cuba or Turkey during the Cold War, cannot be tolerated in Ukraine based on the same geopolitical reasoning.
To generate peace on these premises, NATO should approach the war as a de-facto Hegemon, rather than a half-hearted belligerent. It should utilize carrots for the Ukrainians and sticks for the Russians to steer the conflict toward resolution without compromising Ukraine’s right to self-defense. Diplomatic channels must remain open and both sides must abdicate their maximalist goals. Failure to do so on the Russian side should be linked directly to increased supply of modern weapons and munitions to Ukraine.
This could amount to a temporary escalation of the conflict, but this is preferable over an open-ended trickle of arms into the ocean of attrition war. NATO would temporarily and openly support Ukraine to achieve a state on the battlefield closer to a reasonable post-war demarcation. Once this is achieved or Russia credibly commits to compromise by giving up controlled territory, Western supply of munitions should swiftly decrease.
Diplomatic compliance by the Ukrainians should be rewarded with guarantees of post-war reconstruction efforts, financed by the West. In light of Russian numerical superiority, Ukraine’s future security infrastructure will require a qualitative military edge similar to the one Israel currently holds in the Middle East. Granting access to the associated weapons systems after the war should be made conditional on Ukraine’s willingness to compromise for peace now.
The success of this approach is not guaranteed, but it is far better than accepting the certainty of death that the war will bring in the spring. Both sides are gearing up for major offensives, and Russia could easily mobilize half a million men in the next wave. The darkest parts of European history could repeat themselves, unless we pursue a realistic solution to the war.
- Sebastian Schutte is a Senior Researcher at PRIO.