Just over a month into the war that Russia started against Ukraine, Moscow’s original strategy – its political goals, the way it has used its military, and the military resources it has committed – has failed. Like most governments faced with policy failures, Putin’s regime will not admit to missteps, but it is adjusting the elements of its strategy in light of current reality. This reality includes ongoing stiff military and political resistance from Ukraine and a united political, economic, and military front by western states led by both the United States and Germany. All of this suggests an extended conflict even if, at some point, hi-intensity combat diminishes. The conflict will include long-lived sanctions and a significant disruption and reorientation of global energy. The Russian economy, including its energy exports, will be diverted and highly constrained, and the Ukrainian economy will be significantly diminished and targeted over the long-term by Russia.
War is a highly uncertain enterprise and predicting its outcome after one month of fighting between two significant states – one with substantial outside support – is fraught. What is clear, however, is that Russia’s initial goal of a short, sharp war with low Russian casualties and the overthrow of the Ukrainian government is no longer achievable. In Russian public pronouncements, we have begun to see a redefinition of what victory Moscow may find acceptable. While still subject to revisions based on the ongoing situation on the ground and internationally, those conditions now seem to involve control over the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk), including control of the port city of Mariupol as well as substantially destroying – through use of long-range artillery and missiles – other major cities and Ukrainian industrial areas. Achieving even these more limited aims will mean yet more significant death of Ukrainian civilians and destruction of large amounts of infrastructure, ongoing losses of Russian military equipment and soldiers, and long-lasting sanctions against Russia.
In his speech this past weekend in Warsaw, President Biden framed the war as a long one that would not be won in days or months. He called for unity among the G-7, NATO, and the EU to be committed to sanctions and political and military measures against Russia for “… years and decades to come” if necessary. He acknowledged that such a strategy on the part of the west would have costs, and that he was willing to lead both domestically and internationally to pay those costs, whether they were direct military aid to Ukraine or supporting increased U.S. gas production and export to shore up Europe’s stores before next winter. While domestically, Republicans criticized President Biden for not doing enough, the U.S. reaction, and the support of its European allies in the form of NATO and particularly in Germany, has been unprecedented. Even with some domestic criticism, President Biden and the executive branch hold the foreign policy tools to continue to escalate the economic, political, and military costs for Russia.
An open question is whether the increasing economic pressure on Russia, combined with ongoing delivery of military equipment to Ukraine, will lead Moscow to escalate further. Such moves could include kinetic attacks on European infrastructure or lines of communication through which arms shipments are occurring or less attributable cyber-attacks or the laying of sea mines on approaches to LNG terminals in the Baltic Sea. Putin may welcome a NATO response to such provocations, hoping to galvanize Russian public support. The U.S. and its allies will be cautious in this regard, understanding these risks which could – ironically – lead to yet further Russian escalation. This struggle will not be over anytime soon.