On February 24, one year will have passed since the Russians invaded Ukraine. With the conflict settling into a grinding war of attrition, both sides have marked the anniversary with an escalation of both rhetoric and armaments. Any chance for peace—for even a cease-fire, much less a settlement—will require a dramatic intercession by countries not enmeshed in the conflict.
As the anniversary approached, President Joe Biden rallied the allies with meetings in Poland and a dramatic trip to Kiev. At stake in this conflict was not simply Ukrainian independence, he declared, but “the freedom of democracies throughout Europe and around the world.” The United States and its allies, he pledged, would stand with Ukraine to the end. Russian President Vladimir Putin also went all in, arguing that Russia faced an “existential threat” from the US and its allies.
The rhetoric of the two leaders was measured compared to that of the evangelists of war. Eliot Cohen, a dean of the neoconservatives, argued that the US response “stumbled” because “Western leaders have given too much credence to their fears of Russian [nuclear] escalation.” He urged shipment of new and more powerful arms to Ukraine, a crackdown on ambivalent allies like Turkey and Hungary, and a wartime mobilization of the defense industry to ramp up supply. With a full commitment, he argues, a Ukraine that is “free, whole and secure can be rebuilt from the carnage,” and Russia will suffer “a well-deserved and thorough defeat.”
The Washington Post editorial board has asserted that the “the United States and its closest allies are effectively at war with Russia in Ukraine,” and that any outcome other than a complete Russian defeat would be a “moral travesty” that would “deal a potentially lethal blow to the principle on which Western stability and civilized international conduct rests: that sovereign states cannot be invaded, subjugated and subjected to mass slaughter with impunity.” Therefore it is time to take the wraps off, arm Ukraine with “advanced Western fighter jets” and longer-range missiles able to strike Crimea.
“A principal lesson from the past year,” the Post editors assure us, “is that the risk of escalation is overblown.” Putin has “nothing left to escalate with other than manpower and nuclear weapons,” and he “is very unlikely to resort to the latter.”
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas topped the lunacy, arguing that “NATO countries must take control of Moscow and forcibly rewrite the mentality of Russian citizens so that the Russians will never be a threat again.”
Before the zealots of war goad us to Armageddon, a sober correction is in order. As the Kennedy School’s Graham Allison asks in The Washington Post, if the “freedom of democracies in Europe and across the world” is at stake, why haven’t NATO forces joined the fray in Ukraine?
Obviously, Biden quickly determined that the US “would not fight World War III” over Ukraine and risk a direct conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. Even the Post’s bellicose editors express thanks that the conflict remains “indirect” and praise Biden for keeping it that way.
Moreover, most of the world—and most of the world’s democracies—don’t believe that democracy, freedom, and “civilized international conduct” are at stake in Ukraine.
While 141 of 193 countries at the UN voted to condemn Russia after the invasion, only 33 have imposed sanctions on Russia. A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population lives in countries that have refrained from condemning Russia. They, the conservative Economist concluded, “tend to see the conflict as a conflict between autocrats and hypocrites.” The rest of the world hasn’t put Iraq and Libya into the memory hole.
This skepticism has real-world consequence. The sanctions on Russia, designed to bring it to its knees, have thus far had limited effect. The IMF reports that the Russian economy suffered a slowdown last year but projects 0.3 percent growth in 2023. Russian oil exports have increased, with India and China, among others, taking advantage of discount prices to increase their imports dramatically. Meanwhile, bankruptcies are rising across Europe, with rising fuel and food prices taking a rising toll. Germany, paying 40 percent more for energy in 2023 than in 2021, is projected to have little or no growth. Der Spiegel warns that “the economy is sliding almost uncontrolled into a crisis that could permanently weaken the country.”
In the Global South, the rising price of fuel and food have taken an even bigger toll—with most countries laying the blame on the sanctions, not on the Russians.
Ukrainians have paid the highest price. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimates that they’ve suffered over 100,000 casualties from the fighting, plus some 30,000 civilians. The UN estimates that about one-third of the country has been displaced, with over 7 million outside the country. The economy has lost more than 30 percent of its GDP, despite billions in aid from the US and its allies. After its initial reverses, Russia has set about systemically destroying much of the country’s vital infrastructure. Estimates of what it might cost to rebuild Ukraine now reach $750 billion.
The Russians, too, have paid a heavy price for their aggression. They’ve lost an estimated 200,000 in casualties on the battlefield. Their lucrative energy markets in West Europe have been cut, and are unlikely ever to recover. Putin’s military has been embarrassed, exposed as weaker, more backward, less formidable than Western intelligence predicted. NATO has been revived—with Finland and Sweden seeking to join, and with Germany and others rebuilding their militaries. The invasion has sparked a renewal of Ukrainian nationalism. Putin has sentenced his country to a new Cold War and a new isolation.
At the end of one year, the conflict has turned into an unstable stalemate. Bolstered by new if raw soldiers, Russian forces seem to be making small gains at a terrible cost. Ukraine’s forces are girding for a much-advertised Russian spring offensive. The United States and its allies are rushing to supply new weapons—including modern tanks—hoping it’s not too late.
How does the war end? Ukraine says it will negotiate only after Russia agrees to provide it with territorial integrity, to punish war criminals, and to provide compensation for the invasion. Russia says it will negotiate only if Ukraine concedes the four areas it claims to have annexed, about 20 percent of the country.
In the West, while pressure for escalation in elite circles grows, popular support for the war begins to flag. A recent Morning Consult poll in the US, for example, show both Democrats and Republicans rank Ukraine below the top five of the country’s most pressing foreign policy concerns. Republican House leaders have declared that there is no “blank check” for Ukraine. As the presidential campaign heats up, Republicans have begun attacking Biden for focusing on defending Ukraine rather than our own borders.
Despite the anniversary rhetoric, Ukrainians may find that the United States, in the words of one senior Biden aide, “can’t do anything and everything forever.”
If the stalemate continues—even after the projected spring offensives—perhaps then a cease-fire might be arranged.
Any broader settlement will probably require third-party mediation and guarantees. Putin isn’t about to trust Western leaders, particularly after the admission that the Minsk agreements were designed simply to buy time for the Ukrainians to rearm. Ukraine’s leaders won’t trust Putin, particularly after his repeated denials of any intent to invade. China has offered to mediate, calling for a return to Minsk II, but given its alliance with Russia, would need to be balanced by nations from the West.
When pushed by Biden to send weapons to Ukraine, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva reportedly responded, “I don’t want to join this war, I want to end it.” Perhaps Brazil, India and South Africa might lead a group of neutral nations to help broker an agreement.
Commentators have suggested that Korea, where the two sides are divided by armistice without any formal end to the war, and Germany, where the formal division was enforced by troops on the ground from the major powers, provide models for a settlement. Any settlement would have to include security guarantees, UN patrols to enforce the boundaries, and a commitment to rebuild Ukraine. Who pays the price for that is likely to be a major obstacle to any arrangement.
As it stands, Ukraine seems committed to fight so long as the US and its allies keep supplying it with weapons and economic support. Putin appears ready to steadily escalate the destruction in Ukraine. As the war heads into its second year, the grim reality is that there is no end yet in sight.