One year has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine. It is an open question where the war is going, but we can draw certain lessons from the fight so far—some suggesting the contours of a new geopolitical world, others revealing that the world hasn’t changed as much as we have thought.
The most striking revelation is also the most obvious: that a war like this can still happen in the middle of Europe. One reason for President Biden’s hesitancy to send tanks to Ukraine is that the U.S. stopped building tanks in the early 1990s. The Pentagon has recently ordered contractors to sextuple the production of ammunition and artillery shells, because no one thought we needed to prepare for a war where both sides fired a million shells a month, and many more rounds of ammunition than that.
In the mid-2000s, the U.S. Army’s training center stopped putting troops through the rigors of “combined-arms operations”—the coordinated maneuvers of tanks, infantry, and artillery. Instead, it set up mock villages where troops would practice the complexities of “counterinsurgency.” Iraq and Afghanistan were seen as the templates of modern combat. Nobody foresaw a reprise, even in miniature, of the First or Second World War. (Fortunately, the Army restored much of its traditional training several years ago.)
Another lesson of the war has been that, like it or not, European defense—and, therefore, a coherent Europe more broadly—is dependent on the United States. A few years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron pushed the idea of “strategic autonomy,” a European defense force free of American domination. It was a valid goal; the U.S. seemed to be an unreliable protector, with then-President Trump speaking publicly of pulling out of NATO and abandoning all treaty obligations. It is a valid goal now, as Trump is running for president again and as many congressional Republicans push for isolationism.
Yet, when it comes to European security, the war in Ukraine has highlighted, more than any event since the end of the Cold War, the indispensability of the United States. Without U.S. weapons, training, intelligence-sharing, and diplomatic coordination, Kyiv would have tumbled long ago and the councils of Europe would be negotiating with Moscow for the resumption of cheap oil and gas—not because they would want to, but because they would have no choice.
That said, the war has built no case for unbridled American power. To the contrary, it has also underscored the necessity of allies. Most of NATO’s European members have stepped up to the challenge. They have boosted their defense spending (after decades of half-filled promises to do so), secured alternative sources of energy to the point of ending their dependency on Russia, and provided what aid they can—certainly more than anyone might have expected—to Ukraine’s war effort. The allied support for Ukraine has been as effective, legitimate, and popular as it is, precisely because it is an allied effort—not, as Putin has tried to portray it, a campaign for American supremacy.
Ukraine has fought far more valiantly and effectively than anyone had predicted at the start of the war—and Russia has fought much more incompetently. Ukrainian forces have recaptured more than half of the territory that Russia occupied in the war’s first month. Russia has begun its much-awaited offensive, but it has made little headway, whether due to the inexperience of its newly mobilized troops or to its general inability—witnessed throughout the war—to mount coordinated offensives against any resistance.
Still, despite the morale-building talk of an inevitable Ukrainian victory and Russian defeat, both sides are stuck in a stalemate, and the war is likely to persist for a long time. Each side has cause to believe that it can win—or at least that the other side can lose. Putin hopes that he can exhaust Ukraine by throwing enough human cannon fodder at its front lines and hurling enough missiles at its cities. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hopes that his troops and his people can survive the onslaught long enough for the next round of U.S. and NATO weapons to arrive—the more potent tanks, fighting vehicles, missiles, drones, and air-defense systems that could help Ukraine mount not only a stronger defense but a tide-turning counter-offense.
Some have urged Biden to send more long-range weapons, or even for U.S. and NATO troops or pilots to intervene in the war directly. Biden and other Western leaders stop short of doing so for one reason: Russia has nuclear weapons, and Putin may use them if the West crosses such a bold “red line.” In a way, this is unfair: Russia can bomb Ukraine, but Ukraine can’t bomb Russia in return (except for some isolated sabotage operations behind enemy lines). But this is the reality of nuclear deterrence: it deters not just nuclear attacks, but certain kinds of conventional attacks as well. Deterrence works both ways. Putin, for instance, has refrained from attacking supply lines bringing NATO weapons in from Poland.
So how does the war end? Almost certainly not in the way of a “total war,” with Ukrainian tanks rolling into Moscow in the same way that Allied tanks rolled into Berlin in 1945, for the reason stated above.
More likely, the war will end the way most wars in history have ended—through a diplomatic settlement. This will likely somehow involve the fate of Crimea and the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine—the disputed, Russia-annexed territories where this war started back in 2014. One can imagine a variety of possible solutions: internationally supervised referendums; a grand bargain where Russia keeps Crimea and Donbas but Ukraine joins NATO and the European Union; some mix of the above, with Crimea and Donbas deemed a demilitarized zone patrolled by international peacekeepers.
But all these notions seem like the stuff of fantasy for now. There can be no diplomatic solution as long as both sides calculate that they can gain more by continuing to fight than by laying down arms to negotiate.
In which case, it’s fair to ask whether aiding and abetting the fight is worth the horrible costs. To Ukrainians, it’s a war for national survival; the stakes are as high as they can be. But what are the stakes for us? Some right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats think we should stop sending arms, which they see as fueling the flames, and force both sides to the peace table. This would be tantamount to a Ukrainian surrender, as we have no leverage to bring Russia to the table. Still, it’s an arguable point. Ukraine, after all, is not a member of NATO; we have no treaty obligation to help defend it from attack. So why should we?
President Biden has answered the question several times. His stirring speech this week in Warsaw emphasized the need to stand up for sovereignty, democracy, and the right of people to defend themselves against aggression. These are principles worth standing up for, even if the United States hasn’t always done so.
But there are also less lofty, more pragmatic reasons for helping Ukraine. Were Russia’s troops to win, Putin would probably not order them to march on and conquer the Baltics, Poland, or beyond. For one thing, those are NATO members, and he would have to fear devastating retaliation. For another, his army would have had enough trouble dealing with Ukraine, right on its border; to stretch supply lines farther west would cross a bridge too far.
But a victorious Putin—having defeated the Ukrainian army, overthrown Zelensky, and occupied Kyiv, despite vast resistance and NATO-supplied arms—would gravely demoralize the Western alliance, erode the very notion of a common defense, and intimidate many Western powers into accommodating Moscow’s interests. It would also inspire other leaders—not least China’s Xi Jinping—to believe that they can get away with acting on their territorial ambitions, that even American-aided defenses can only go so far or last so long. This new realization would very likely drive many U.S. allies to lose trust in our “security guarantee” and build their own nuclear arsenals as a deterrent to a foreign adversary’s attack—which could, in turn, propel a multitude of regional arms races around the world.
Some might shrug at this scenario. In fact, during his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump did shrug. At a televised Town Hall, he said that he would end the U.S. commitment to defend Japan and South Korea. When a moderator noted that those countries would respond by building their own nuclear weapons, Trump said maybe they should, since “it’s going to happen sometime anyway.”
Much of the world is shrugging as well. Many countries outside what might be called Trans-Atlantica—Europe and North America—seem indifferent to the war’s outcome. This includes countries that are otherwise allied, or at least friendly, with the U.S.—India, Brazil, South Africa, and Israel. The war doesn’t affect them directly. They have interests in maintaining trade and diplomacy with all the combatants, including Russia, and so they do. Because the world is no longer split in two, the U.S. has much less leverage to sway their behavior than it would have had during the Cold War.
Which leads to the other power in this conflict—China. The war has put its president, Xi Jinping, in an awkward, though potentially powerful, position. Just weeks before the invasion, he and Putin signed a declaration of a Moscow-Beijing partnership with “no limits.” The war has exposed some limits. Xi has kept Russia afloat economically, buying its energy and selling it high-tech components—but he has not sent Russia any weapons. He wants to see the U.S. pour more of its military power into Ukraine, so it has less ability to counter Chinese pressure in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. At the same time, he doesn’t want to tie himself too closely to the aggressor in what could be a losing war. More broadly, he wants to open ties of investment and influence with European leaders, many of whom are alienated by his support of Russia.
Xi claims to have a plan to end the war peacefully, though he’s so far been light on the details. He and Putin may meet soon, ostensibly to discuss it. Zelensky says he’s interested in seeing it, too. U.S. officials say they have intelligence that Xi is considering sending arms to Russia. If he does, that could tip the balance of power in Moscow’s direction, not decisively, but substantially. Putin might think that would bring an end to the war more quickly. But it would more likely incite the U.S. to send still more arms to Ukraine, thus escalating the war—and kill Xi’s prospects for good relations with Europe.
On the other hand, if Xi puts forth a plausible plan for an end to the war—which would have to involve Russia’s withdrawal from Ukrainian territory that it’s occupied since the war began—and if he pressures Putin to accept it, then China could emerge as a major power in Europe, a mediator with the demonstrated clout to make peace where Washington and the United Nations proved themselves unable. Taking this tack would mean relieving the pressure on U.S. military forces, allowing them to focus once again on China’s ambitions in Asia. But the trade-off might be worth it. We shall soon see which path Xi chooses—or if he has the power to pressure Putin in this way.
There may be some dramatic breakthrough in the weeks or months to come—the death or overthrow of Putin and the rise of a more conciliatory successor, the death of Zelensky and the subsequent dispiriting of the Ukrainian people, or the emergence of China as an effective mediator. Otherwise, we are likely, in February 2024, to be marking the second anniversary of this bloody, brutal war.