In many wars, there comes a point when the warring parties wonder what they have gotten themselves into. According to some opinions, Vladimir Putin reached this stage in September. After a series of military failures, the Russian leader showed anger – even panic.
Putin is said to have regained his equanimity by now. The first anniversary of the Russian invasion fell this week, so the Western alliance supporting Ukraine is having difficult discussions.
At public events at the Munich Security Forum over the weekend, Western leaders exuded confidence and determination. The overall messages could be summed up as “onward to victory” and “unconditional support for Ukraine”.
But in private life, there is an uneasy debate about a series of open questions. Which side of the battlefield has the initiative? Can Russia be forced to accept peace on terms acceptable to Ukraine? If the war drags on, will Ukraine and its Western backers have the staying power they need?
On the plus side, the war turned out much worse for Russia than had seemed plausible on the eve of the invasion. At the time, it was widely assumed that Putin would win very quickly. But the Russians are stuck and suffering heavy losses.
The Western alliance, which had spent most of the Cold War worrying about Russian tanks sweeping across Europe, realized that Russia could not even take and hold Kharkov, 50 km from its border.
But while the Russian military performed worse than expected, the Russian economy performed better. When steep Western sanctions were imposed, it was widely predicted that Russia would suffer an economic contraction of 20 percent or more. In this case, the economy is expected to shrink by 3-4 percent – and may grow in the following year. The fact that the sanctions are not truly global has made them relatively easy to circumvent.
In contrast, the Ukrainian economy is in deep trouble and dependent on Western aid. Because of this, they are influential Western analysts to argue that time is not on Ukraine’s side – and that if Kiev wants to win, it must do so quickly. In Munich, there were frequent calls to give Ukraine all the help it needs to go on the offensive this spring and inflict a decisive defeat on Russia.
According to a hopeful scenario outlined by some Western officials, if Ukraine pushes Russia back to the gates of Crimea, Putin could be forced to the negotiating table. In the best case, this can be done by the summer.
But embedded in this scenario are some leaps of faith. For now, the Russians are making small advances on the battlefield. The Ukrainians will soon be forced to withdraw from Bahmut, where a brutal conflict continues. A Ukrainian counterattack is widely expected. However, the Ukrainian armed forces are short on ammunition and lack some of the equipment they may need to make quick gains – especially fighter jets.
Even if the Ukrainians get ahead, there is no guarantee that peace talks will follow. Faced with further humiliations on the battlefield, Putin is trying to escalate the conflict rather than admit defeat. Although rumors that the Russian leader might be using nuclear weapons have faded in recent months, they have not been completely ruled out.
Another form of escalation that is moving up the list of Western concerns is that China might change its position and start supplying Russia with weapons. That possibility may increase if Putin appears to be on the verge of defeat.
It is also clear that there is a latent disagreement between Ukraine and its Western allies regarding the aims of the war. The Ukrainians insist they want to retake all Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea. Western officials do not publicly oppose this goal. But privately, few people believe that the recapture of Crimea is a realistic war goal.
Some argue that the West’s critical role in supporting Ukraine means that the United States and its allies can push Kiev to the negotiating table whenever they see fit. In practice, however, Ukrainians have such moral capital that Western governments are reluctant to overtly pressure them, especially if they are moving forward.
Ukrainians still have to reckon with the possibility that Western support will erode over time. Both Republicans and Democrats in the large US congressional delegation in Munich were adamant that US support for Ukraine is rock solid. But the US presidential election could change the atmosphere. The political climate in Europe could also change if populists make further breakthroughs
Russia, of course, relies on this. As one Western official puts it: “Putin thinks we lack strategic patience and will eventually lose interest.”
But just as Moscow hopes that Western resolve will crack, Ukraine and its allies are watching Russia closely for signs of reluctance or threats against Putin. Since each side has some reason to hope that the other will crack, both have an incentive to continue fighting.
It is right to call for a quick resolution to this war. It may be more realistic to expect a long conflict.