The war in Ukraine has slogged on for 100 days, and those who claim to know where it’s headed are kidding themselves.
Back on Feb. 24, when Russian forces invaded on three fronts, the most optimistic prediction from the Ukrainian vantage was that Kyiv would fall within a few weeks, if not a few days, but that resistance fighters would bog the Russians down in a quagmire for months or even years. No one was predicting that by June, President Volodymyr Zelensky would still reside in the capital as president or that both sides’ armies would still be locked in combat.
In some ways, the world knows a lot about what’s going on in this war (thanks to publicly available satellite imagery). In other ways, we know very little (the axiomatic “fog of war”). And in still other ways, we’re led (by sometimes faulty intelligence leaks) or misled (through press releases by various defense ministries) to think we know a lot more than we really do. This scramble of hard data, vague guesswork, and propaganda is then churned through the 24/7 news machine, which calls on experts of various stripes and calibers to keep score, declare winners and losers, and predict what happens next.
And so, early on, when the Russian army turned out to be a lot worse than many expected and the Ukrainians turned out to be a lot better, many declared that Ukraine was going to win. More recently, as the Russians shifted their strategy to focus on the eastern Donbas region and began to make advances, yesterday’s optimists turned dour and warned that Ukraine might lose unless the West stepped up its delivery of heavy armaments. Now the West is doing just that, and the contest seems to be one of time. Will Russian rockets demolish Ukrainian troop positions before the arrival of those new weapons? Will the new systems allow Ukrainian rockets to demolish Russian positions in return—or will they come too late?
But even this view is too narrow—a throwback to the “body count” comparisons of the Vietnam War’s nightly news briefings. (It now appears that Ukraine and Russia have lost a roughly equal number of soldiers, somewhere over 10,000—a fact that’s alarming but not particularly enlightening.)
Some analysts are doing more meticulous analysis, notably Michael Kofman’s battlefield updates for the research firm CNA, and the Institute for the Study of War’s near-daily “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessments.” There you can find the most fine-grained detail available on who controls what patches of territory, with what strategic consequences, in the ever-shifting front lines of lethal fire. Even so, these analysts admit that the overall picture is hazy and reveals little about who’s winning or losing in any meaningful sense.
One reason for this is that it’s unclear what “winning” and “losing” mean—or how the combatants and their allies define those terms. Zelensky has said he would be willing to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin once the pre–Feb. 24 borders are restored. Does this mean all Russian troops must leave Ukrainian territory? Does that include all of Donbas, or can the troops stay in the areas previously occupied by pro-Russia separatist militias? And what about Crimea, which most countries formally recognize as part of Ukraine but which Russia, having captured it without firing a bullet in 2014, is extremely unlikely to let go? Meanwhile, Putin and his aides continue to demonize Zelensky’s government as Nazi puppets of an imperialist West and to dispute Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign state. If Putin holds to this line, negotiations are out of the question; victory, by this standard, means not only occupying Donbas but another go at invading Kyiv and beyond—essentially Ukraine’s obliteration.
Putin’s talk could, of course, be just that: a way to consolidate support among the Russian population. He might also think that if he declared a more modest goal, Zelensky might take it as a sign of weakness and respond by stepping up Ukraine’s offensives.
In any case, neither side has an incentive to stop fighting now, especially since both sides probably detect the chance of a breakthrough in the weeks ahead. In recent weeks, Russia has been pummeling Ukrainian positions with artillery rockets, and Ukraine’s rockets don’t have the range to fire back. The new U.S. rockets President Joe Biden is sending will match the Russians’ range, and therefore shift the balance of power. It will take a few weeks, however, to ship the weapons, then train Ukrainians (probably in Poland) in how to use them. How much damage will the Russian pummeling do in the meantime?
Meanwhile, the Russians are running short on vital resources as well: manpower (due to deaths, desertions, and Putin’s decision to go to war with too few troops to begin with), weapons (a quarter of their tanks lost in battle), and, perhaps most significant, morale. Putin is not deluded about any of this. He knows that his army has performed poorly; hence his firing of at least five top generals just this week. However, he also knows—in recent weeks, a number of Western eminences and analysts have given voice to this—that the West is losing patience for this war and the economic devastation that it is wreaking worldwide. He is hoping that if he can keep up the barrage for a little longer, the patience might snap and the pressure might build for Zelensky to make some kind of deal.
Whether or not any of these hopes or fears come to pass, a larger question remains: What happens to Ukraine once the fighting stops? The devastation has been immense. Russia seems intent not so much on reoccupying the country but on wiping it out. In any case, the recovery will be extremely expensive. At the end of World War II, the United States emerged with sufficient power and wealth to help rebuild Western Europe through the Marshall Plan and other forms of aid and investment. It’s not at all clear who will have the resources and the political will to do the same to rebuild Ukraine at the end of this.
For all these reasons, the war is likely to go on for quite a while longer. And the picture of where it’s going—who’s winning—is likely to remain murky.