As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second year, it increasingly resembles an earlier example of imperial hubris, the Global War on Terror launched by George W. Bush, which became the quagmire known as the Forever War. Russia has failed to subdue Ukraine and institute regime change. But Ukrainian resistance, fueled by patriotic fervor and NATO assistance, has only been partially successful in rebuffing the invasion. Some territory has been regained, but Russia still occupies about 20 percent of Ukraine. The war is being fought in Ukraine, which means it is Ukraine’s landscape and infrastructure that are being devastated. Russian bombs are turning a significant part of the country into a barely inhabitable hell on earth.
Early in the war, pundits floated optimistic scenarios that could end the war: A popular revolution or a palace coup could overthrow Vladimir Putin; sanctions could cripple the Russian economy; China could pressure Russia to retreat. None of these dreams have turned into reality. In fact, Putin has used the war to strengthen his hold on power and marginalize critics of the regime. The Russian economy has proved surprisingly resilient in the face of sanctions. Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed “very real concern” that China might provide Russia with lethal aide.
The human cost of the war has been immense. Last fall, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that both Russia and Ukraine have lost roughly 100,000 soldiers, with an additional 40,000 civilians killed. These numbers, which have only increased since Milley made them, should be especially worrying when we ponder what a war of attrition means on Ukrainian soil. Russia’s population of 143 million is more than three times as large as Ukraine’s population of just under 44 million. Putin, a vicious autocrat, will not be deterred by further bloodshed. Further, he’s found a way to replenish the soldiers lost in the war by enlisting mercenaries through the Wagner Group, a private military with close ties to Putin.
It’s here that the parallels between Russia’s Forever War and the USA’s Forever War become strongest. Some of the same soldiers have fought in both wars. The Wagner Group is recruiting former members of the Afghan military, who were initially trained by the United States to fight the Taliban. Although they lost that earlier struggle, these hardened soldiers can help keep Ukraine a killing field for many years to come.
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The prospect of Ukraine as a site of a Forever War seems more plausible than some of the rosier forecasts offered by the mainstream media. The New York Times published a remarkably muddled editorial, which acknowledged that there would have to be a diplomatic solution at some point but offered only the vaguest sense of what a settlement would look like. According to the Times,
Only diplomacy can achieve anything resembling a viable peace settlement. Ultimately, that should be the goal of all support for Ukraine. It is the only way Russians can start to reverse their economic and social alienation from Europe, and the only way Europeans can reaffirm the postwar order that brought them decades of relative stability, prosperity and security.
The editors of The Washington Post offered a slightly more hawkish version of the same argument. While acknowledging that the war is currently a “stalemate” and sanctions have not worked, the newspaper suggested that continued “escalation” (sending more weapons, sharpening economic sanctions) will eventually force Putin to negotiate.
In a wide-ranging and exceptionally thoughtful interview with The New Yorker, the historian Stephen Kotkin, best known as a biographer of Joseph Stalin, cast a cold eye on the notion that more of the same can lead to a negotiated peace. Kotkin notes that a war of attrition can continue indefinitely unless Russia’s military production capability—its ability “to resupply and produce more weapons”—is damaged. But there are no plans to take the war to Russia, a prospect the Biden administration rightly shies away from because it could lead to nuclear war.
Building on this insight, Kotkin makes the provocative point that Ukraine’s war aims—“to regain every inch of territory, reparations, and war-crimes tribunals”—would require a much larger war than anyone now contemplates. “So how would Ukraine enact that definition of victory?” Kotkin asks.
They would have to take Moscow. How else can you get reparations and war-crime tribunals? They’re not that close to regaining every inch of their own territory, let alone the other aims.
The alternative is a scaled down set of war aims, although one that refrains from ceding Ukrainian claims to its territory. As an alternative to victory, there is the model of the Korean War of a long-standing truce with ultimate goals kept for a future date.
We want to build a South Korea-style Ukraine, part of the EU, behind the DMZ, where there’s an armistice, not a settlement; where there is no legal recognition of any Russian annexations unless there’s some type of larger bargain, peace settlement; where the Russians make significant concessions as well and there is the move toward an actual security guarantee rather than discussion and promises of a security guarantee.
This is a much more concrete negotiating strategy than the path offered by editorialists at the Times or the Post. It would also be a bitter pill for Ukrainians to swallow. The fact is, Putin’s invasion is a war crime in and of itself, one that led to many other war crimes conducted by the Russian army. Invading another country without reason is the most serious transgression of international law imaginable. The decision to stall the pursuit of justice can’t be made lightly. In an ideal world, Putin would face justice in the Hague. But we live in a far from ideal world.
Against the demands of justice stands the grim reality of a bloody, ongoing war. A Forever War in Ukraine that lasts as long as the American Forever Wars in the Middle East would leave Ukraine a wasteland for decades to come. An armistice would open the door for the needed reconstruction of Ukraine, a moral imperative that will cost hundreds of billions in aid. The rebuilding of Ukraine will be a political matter as well as an economic one. It will include the integration of Ukraine into the European Union.
Putin’s war aim is to conquer Ukraine and keep it in Russia’s sphere of influence. An armistice along the lines suggest by Kotkin will not only give Ukrainians breathing room to rebuild their country. It will also be a way to thwart Putin’s agenda.
In October 1952, Dwight Eisenhower ran for president on the promise, “I shall go to Korea.” The implication was that he’d be willing to personally intervene to negotiate an end to the conflict. Two months later, President-elect Eisenhower made the trip he had pledged to. Now, Eisenhower’s successor Joe Biden has traveled to Ukraine. It’s a sign of support for Ukrainian independence, but also could be the start of negotiations.