The War Drags On
Not only has the war changed, but so have the combatants.
The Russia-Ukraine War is in its second phase of slower, more protracted violence. The announcement of an agreement between the combatants for the release of Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea is a definite sign that we are no longer in the first phase, the period of liquid possibilities, and the anticipation of quick results, that occurs at the beginning of every conflict. Attritional war is now such a fact of life in Ukraine that Russia and Ukraine can reach understandings like these, while the shooting, bombing and shelling continues unabated. We also see the second phase in the reduced prominence of news stories from the war. Where the invasion once dominated the headlines, it has clearly dropped in priority, as competing crises (inflation, political instability in the United States, etc.) now appear more frequently “above the fold.”
What also happens in these secondary periods of conflicts is the increase in the stakes for both combatants. Ukraine, NATO, and the United States have all indicated that too many have died, fled their homes, or have ben tortured or raped for there to be any acceptable compromise. Even the full withdrawal of Russian forces may not be enough, since the perilous status quo ante is what led to the Russian invasion in the first place.
As wars progress, not only does the nature of the war change, but so do the combatants themselves. Before the invasion, the name “Ukraine” denoted a relatively impoverished country with a government that inspired doubts. Now, Zelensky’s government inspires determined resistance within Ukraine, along with the admiration and support of the Western world. The nation is mobilized to support that government, and the collective destiny of the country, in a way that it had not been before. Standing right behind Ukraine is a newly reinvigorated NATO, itself transformed by the war.
Russia has undergone a somewhat different transformation. The invasion of Ukraine was truly Putin’s war — his decision, based on his mystical notions of Russian hegemony, based on his overoptimistic expectations of how successful his strategy would be. To say that he lacks the support of the Russian population that his adversary has would be an understatement. There is still a kind of social contract, based on the support of influential Russians based on continued energy-driven prosperity and widespread graft. There is still support from average Russians for Putin, but there are question marks about how honest and durable that support may be. (For example, how much does the fountain of lies erupting daily from Russian state media generate honest support? Are people responding in the affirmative out of enthusiasm, fear, or fatalism?) Sanctions and, for some Russians, the war’s offensiveness and failure have created strains that thus far have remained mostly subterranean. It’s impossible to say, under these circumstances, if that matters for the future of Putin.
It’s far less ambiguous how Russia has changed as a regional and global actor. Putin has taken Russia, in the eyes of much of the world, from being a troublemaker to a pariah and a far greater perceived threat. Even if no domestic threat emerges to Putin, his acceptability to the rest of the world has certainly changed. No amount of nuclear sabre-rattling will change that fact of international life. He has deepened his dependence on China, but lost any possibility that the rest of the world would be willing to do business with him. The questions now center around how expensive is it for countries dependent on Russian oil and gas to switch to different providers, or how many more corporations will pull their trade out of Russia. Doing business with Russia is off the table, as is any normalization with Russia in other ways. Even if there is a slim possibility of improvement, as long as Putin sits in the Kremlin, it isn’t likely to happen for a long, long time.
One thing has remained a constant: the Russian way of war, based on daily brutality. It has proven far less effective in Ukraine than in other theaters — and even in those, like Chechneya, it took a long time to have the desired result. Of course, Ukraine isn’t Chechneya: the Ukrainians have far more international support than other Russian victims had. The scale of the Ukraine war is much larger, putting more strains on the Russian military than those other conflicts. And, of course, the repercussions for Russia itself have been much greater. However, Putin and his subordinates clearly feel that they have no other choice than to continue bombing shopping malls, apartment blocks, and schools. They don’t see withdrawal as an option. Given the inadequacy of their armed forces, other operations are not feasible. And, of course, the meat cleaver approach is what they know.
If the Russians had seized Kyiv in the first weeks, if the West had been intimidated out of supporting the Ukrainians, if NATO had been weakened instead of strengthened, if the Russian military had not been hollowed out by corruption and incompetence…If, if, if. Too many wars start with optimistic assumptions that don’t pan out in reality. The predictable result is the hardening of positions, leading to a narrower set of acceptable conditions for the war’s end. And when they emerge from the conflict, the combatants will not be the same.