The largest war in Europe since World War II has become a slugfest. Russia is pulverizing Ukrainian cities with missiles and artillery; Ukraine is slamming Russian tanks and supply lines with drones and small arms. Tens of thousands are likely dead on both sides. But that doesn’t mean the fight is grinding to a halt. To the contrary, the rubble and bloodshed are likely to thicken in the coming days and weeks.
For here is the gruesome fact: The commanders and combatants on each side have reason to believe that, if they hold out a little bit longer, the other side will collapse—and thus they can gain a few more concessions, and tout something resembling a victory, when they both tumble, exhausted, to negotiate the terms of peace.
Each side probably does have a breaking point. The Ukrainians figure that the Russian forces—many of them marooned and thinly stretched—will eventually run out of food, ammunition, and other supplies, without which they can no longer fight. Meanwhile, the Russians figure that the Ukrainian resistance will eventually run out of steam, cities will fold, and the besieged government in Kyiv will surrender.
This phase of the war is basically a race to see which side crumbles first. Ukrainian generals guess that the Russian troops could run out of supplies by the end of this week. A pending new round of arms deliveries for Ukraine—including the $800 million worth of new weapons announced last week by U.S. President Joe Biden—should refresh the resistance for some time.
Yet the massive outflow of refugees, the savage killings of civilians, the endless bombing and shelling, and the prospect of more troops moving from Russia’s eastern regions toward the war zone must be taking their toll on Ukrainian citizens too.
No one knows how many people—civilian and military—have been killed so far. On Monday, the Moscow newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted the Russian ministry of defense as saying that 9,861 Russian servicemen had been killed and 16,153 wounded in the three weeks that this war has been slogging on. By comparison, Russia lost 15,000 troops in its decade-long war in Afghanistan.
However, the newspaper swiftly issued a statement that this was false information loaded on the news site by a hacker—an explanation that only raised more questions. (For instance, if there really was a hacker, was the information they inserted real, or disinformation designed to demoralize Russian readers?) The Ukrainian government claims 15,000 Russians have been killed already. U.S. intelligence puts the number around 7,000. Nobody really knows.
Still, whatever the precise numbers, an abundance of verified data—photos, iPhone footage, satellite imagery, and so forth—reveals, all too clearly, that the level of death and destruction on both sides has been staggeringly high.
It’s unclear how long this can go on. Yet it’s still less clear who can stop it. There is no overriding entity that can step in, knock heads together, enforce a cease-fire, then impose or moderate a political settlement. The United Nations was created to do this sort of thing, but even if it had sufficiently large peacekeeping forces (which it doesn’t), Russia is one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, so it couldn’t be a neutral party.
Nor are there any countries with sufficient power and leverage to fill this role in the same way that, say, President Jimmy Carter corralled the leaders of Egypt and Israel into peace talks at Camp David in 1978. Maybe if President Biden and China’s Xi Jinping jointly imposed a deal on Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, something would come of it—but first, Biden and Xi would have to get on the same page, and that seems a long way from happening.
Meanwhile, neither side is ready to surrender. Zelensky has said he is open to direct talks with Putin. Earlier this week, Putin outlined a four-point peace plan, but it wasn’t serious. It called for Ukraine to give up plans to join NATO, acknowledge Russian ownership of Crimea, demilitarize, and denazify. Zelensky has already offered to drop his dream of joining NATO (a significant concession); Crimea might be an issue for realistic negotiation; but Putin’s two other demands are nonstarters. Demilitarizing would mean removing all Western-supplied weapons, which might have been an interesting item to discuss before Putin’s invasion, but it’s a nonstarter now. And since Putin claims that Kyiv is run by Nazis, denazification would mean the removal of Zelensky and his government from power—and that isn’t happening either.
Maybe this war will come to a sudden halt if Russia’s troops run out of gas or the Ukrainian resistance loses its will. For now, both sides seem to be settling in for a long and violent grind.