Inside Story

Long war

How Vladimir Putin’s empire dream became Ukraine’s war and an international nightmare

Graeme Dobell Books 9 April 2024 3593 words

On the hinge: a woman walks past bas-relief sculptures at Kyiv’s National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War yesterday. Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo

In its third year, the Ukraine war has changed much, even as it keeps changing. It proclaims that the old international order is broken. How it unfolds and how it ends will say much about what new order, or disorder, is emerging.

Important history keeps arriving: Russia’s initial arrogance and military blunder in thinking it could invade and occupy in weeks; Ukraine’s extraordinary resistance as a nation found its steel and its soul; the world confronted by threats of nuclear war for the first time in decades; the strategic fanaticism of Vladimir Putin; the galvanised response of Europe and the United States, now overtaken by questions about Washington’s will to support Ukraine.

Such international drama is the stuff of “instant” history. And an exemplary example is War in Ukraine: Conflict, Strategy, and the Return of a Fractured World, published just last week by Johns Hopkins University Press and available as a free download here.

This is big history with a big canvas:

The war in Ukraine has altered the course of global history. When Vladimir Putin’s forces sought to conquer Ukraine in February 2022, they did more than threaten the survival of a vulnerable democracy. The invasion unleashed a crisis that has changed the course of world affairs. This conflict has reshaped alliances, deepened global cleavages, and caused economic disruptions that continue to reverberate around the globe. It has initiated the first great-power nuclear crisis in decades and raised fundamental questions about the sources of national power and military might in the modern age. The outcome of the conflict will profoundly influence the international balance of power, the relationship between democracies and autocracies, and the rules that govern global affairs.

Edited by Hal Brands, the history offers seventeen chapters by different authors, grouped in three sections: Origins and Overview; The Conflict; Global Dimensions and Implications. The aim is to map causes and essential elements and “explain how this war is reshaping the world.”

Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins, says the volume “is an effort to write history in real time.” The quality of the writing and the sharpness of the analysis mean the book does a fine job of hitting many moving targets.

Brands argues the war is part of a broad historical pattern which means that Ukraine, sitting at the hinge of Eurasia, has been at the centre of every major global clash, hot or cold, of the modern era. “Any European empire seeking glory to the east must go through Ukraine,” he writes. “Any Eurasian power expanding into Europe must do the same. So the fate of Ukraine was a vital issue in every great Eurasian struggle of the twentieth century: World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. It is no less central to the clash between Russia and the West today.”

He offers six preliminary understandings on the meaning of the war, linked to looming questions about:

The norms and conventions of the international order: Russia’s attempt at conquest could “usher in an era in which neo-imperial powers engage in the most naked forms of predation.” Will the post 1945 norm against territorial conquest be strengthened or shattered?

A double failure, years in the making: “Putin’s failure to ensure a weak, pliant Ukraine by means short of all-out conflict, and the West’s failure to deter just such an all-out attack.”

The uncertainty of war: The invasion’s outcome was highly contingent and the opening phase was full of surprises. “When the invasion began, most observers expected Ukraine to be defeated in short order. The Ukrainian military was outnumbered and overmatched; foreign governments were urging President Volodymyr Zelensky to flee. The collapse of Ukraine’s government and the success of Putin’s war plan were entirely possible.”

A fractured world: The war deepened and accelerated global division, pitting “two coalescing, rival coalitions more sharply against one another, even as other countries resisted this polarisation of world politics — or profited from playing both sides.” Will advanced democracies that have supported Ukraine, or the Eurasian autocracies that have been complicit in its suffering, have the strength and persistence needed to thrive in this age of global competition? Will the conflict fortify or fragment international order?

The return of great-power nuclear crises: “Before 2022, it had been decades since two great powers squared off in a crisis in the shadow of nuclear escalation. That changed when this war began. From the outset, Putin and his minions made threats, veiled and not-so-veiled, that Russia might use nuclear weapons if the West directly intervened in the conflict.” Will nuclear blackmail be seen to bring strategic benefits or self-imposed costs?

The war’s global legacy is yet to be fully written: “For if this conflict illustrates the contingency of major war, it also illustrates the contingency of global order.”

Looking at military operations and battlefield dynamics, contributor Michael Kofman tells a tale of two wars — the initial period versus the long war. The first period decided whether Ukraine would retain its sovereign status and identity as an independent nation, writes this Russia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, while the long war is a traditional conflict to determine Ukraine’s geographic boundaries and its economic viability:

After the first month of intense combat, the course of the war began to align with historic patterns of large-scale conventional wars, featuring prolonged periods of positional fighting, offensives and counteroffensives, sieges in urban terrain, phases dominated by high levels of attrition, and operations to break through a prepared defence.

As the war becomes more a marathon and less a race, says Kofman, the factors of “manpower, materiel, money, and mobilisation capacity cast a long shadow over the arc of a conflict.” And now, in 2024, Russia has “a growing advantage in manpower, equipment, and ammunition.”

Russia’s military resilience and adaption is described by Dara Massicot from the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Despite severe casualties, poor field conditions, and commanders of varying quality,” she writes, “Russian soldiers mostly continue to endure their circumstances inside occupied Ukraine.”

During the disastrous opening months of the war in 2022, Massicot notes, some units abandoned equipment and positions while on the offensive, yet these units were later reconstituted and redeployed to the front. “Desertions as of early 2024 have been growing, but they still constitute only a small percentage of overall combat strength inside Ukraine,” she writes. “There have been no mass refusals of orders or cascading refusals along the front lines, even during the collapse of the Kharkiv front in 2022.”

On the whole, Massicot finds, Russian positions have “not capsized due to poor morale or lack of resilience, even as units are likely underperforming as a result of prolonged exposure and stress and lack of rotations.” She suggests that Russia may conclude that it has the resilience to outlast Ukraine and the West:

A strategy for Ukraine centred on attrition or punishment has thus far proved insufficient against an adversary willing to absorb upwards of 350,000 casualties of varying severity and losses of 13,000 pieces of equipment over the past two years. Russian leaders remain willing to pay high costs in personnel and equipment for modest gains and do not appear all that concerned about challenges to domestic stability.

The initial Russian invasion failed to deliver a quick, decisive victory, and the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive suffered the same fate. The two sides are now in war of attrition.

Describing the changing war strategies, Thomas G. Mahnken and Joshua Baker write that Russia’s transition to a “deep defence” signals Moscow’s preparation for a long war. Mahnken is a professor at the Johns Hopkins and head of Washington’s Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, while Baker is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

In this long war, they note, “Russia’s frontline troops seem to be well resourced and more willing to defend their positions.” Ukraine and its Western backers face a war that “closely resembles the great wars of the twentieth century,” conflicts rooted in “ideology and fuelled by nationalist desires.” The determinants of success in long wars are different from those in short wars:

Whereas surprise, new ways of war, and operational virtuosity loom large in short conflicts, victory in protracted conflicts often hinges on other factors. Sound strategy and operational art are always at a premium, but success or failure in protracted wars often hinges on one side’s ability to out-produce the other, maintain its societal cohesion while undermining that of its adversary, and gather and nurture a coalition while disrupting that of the enemy.

The ability of the United States to influence the war was vividly shown when Washington denied Moscow any chance at shocking Ukraine into submission. The “unprecedented warning” issued by US intelligence agencies, outlining Russia’s plans and preparation before the invasion, is described by Alexander Bick, who served in the Biden administration as director for strategic planning at the National Security Council and as a member of the policy planning staff at the State Department. Bick argues that timely US intelligence and military support deprived Russia of any element of surprise, and was critical in the defence of Kyiv.

Bick set up a Washington team of government experts, a “tiger team,” in December 2021 to consider the consequences of the threatened Russian invasion and produce a “playbook” of US responses. The starting point was a list of objectives developed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and given to the president in October 2021:

1. Avoid a kinetic conflict between the US military and NATO with Russia
2. Contain the war inside the geographic boundaries of Ukraine
3. Strengthen and maintain NATO unity
4. Empower Ukraine and give it the means to fight

Two weeks before the first Russian tank crossed the Ukraine’s border the tiger team playbook approved by the Biden in the second week of February laid out a “comprehensive picture” of the US response plan and roles. Bick says the experience offers a caution about any ability to predict future events:

In devising our planning scenario, the Tiger team got the scale, geography, and timing of Russia’s military operations almost exactly right. But we were wrong on almost everything else. We overestimated the Russian military, underestimated Ukraine’s capabilities and resolve, and failed to anticipate the extent to which fear and public revulsion would reshape European politics in favour of tougher response options, some of which seemed out of reach only days before.

During the first year of the war in 2022, the Biden administration proclaimed that Russia had suffered a major strategic failure. The optimism declined in 2023 as Russia blunted Ukraine’s offensive.

Discussing US strategy in Ukraine, Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute says Biden’s aim was “to provide extensive but limited support to Ukraine for as long as it takes.” US policy had five main elements: disclosing intelligence information, rallying international support, imposing economic sanctions, isolating Russia diplomatically, and providing military assistance to Ukraine. But Biden, she charges, was principally concerned about limiting American risk rather than maximising Ukraine’s power.

Schake was one of 130 former Republican national security officials who signed a 2020 statement endorsing Biden and claiming President Trump was unfit to serve another term. She offers what can be read as a measured Republican critique of Biden’s Ukraine policy. Her sharpest charge is that the US didn’t “adjust its strategy over time to tighten the noose around Russia until Putin lost on the battlefield.” The refusal of Trump-inspired (or fearful) Republicans in Congress to vote for more military aid to Ukraine seems to indicate that Trump’s policy is to loosen the noose completely.

Delay in delivering weapons and ammunition, Schake writes, was “most tragically and visually evident in Russian construction of defences in late 2022 and early 2023.” Biden’s strategy had the enormous benefit of incurring no American casualties while showcasing American leadership in upholding international order, Schake judges:

Unquestionably without the crescendo of effort undertaken by the Biden administration, Ukraine would have lost its war and been extinguished as a nation. Nonetheless, by early 2024 the Biden administration found itself in a similar position strategically to the Bush administration in 2005: having committed enormous resources to a war effort that was not succeeding and probably could not attain success on the current trajectory, the government remained intellectually unwilling to adopt approaches that might produce a better outcome. And as in George W. Bush’s Iraq war, Joe Biden’s presidential administration was now inseparably tied to the war in Ukraine: should the effort fail, it would look of a piece with the disastrous denouement of American involvement in Afghanistan.

The largest conventional armed conflict in Europe since the second world war has changed Russia as much as Ukraine. The mind of Vladimir Putin conjured up the war and his determination drives the conflict. His dream is to reconstruct the Russian empire that dissolved with the ending of the cold war.

Moscow will challenge Europe and US so long as Putin is in power, and most likely well beyond his departure, argues Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Centre for a New American Security:

Putin is reorienting Russia around the cause of confrontation, first with Ukraine but also with the United States and NATO. He is reshaping society, has put the economy on a wartime footing, and [has] doubled down on partnerships with like-minded partners, especially in China, Iran, and North Korea. These changes will not easily be undone. Confrontation with the West has become the organising principle of Russia’s domestic and foreign policies, and Putin points to Russia’s “existential struggle” with the West as the primary justification for his regime and its actions. Even if the fighting in Ukraine subsides or ends, Putin will require confrontation to keep his regime in power.

Putin’s “strategic fanaticism” is the focus of the chapter by Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. He starts with philosopher George Santayana’s famous observation: “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

Strategic fanaticism stems from obsession and a readiness to go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy that obsession, says Freedman. “Since 1991 Russians have been reluctant to accept Ukraine as an independent state. This turned, under Putin, into a conviction that Ukraine could only be allowed sovereignty so long as it was deferential to Russia’s wishes, accepted a degree of economic integration, and stayed clear of Western institutions. When that could not be guaranteed, it should be dismembered and punished.”

Putin has ensured that that Russia will be hated and distrusted by Ukrainians for generations, Freedman judges, and Putin’s aim of a compliant government in Kyiv is now beyond his reach.

Anne Applebaum of the Atlantic magazine attacks the myth that the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault. She says that Americans, accustomed to seeing themselves at the centre of every story, imagine that Western foreign policy choices and decisions “are central to the centuries-long power struggle between Russia and Ukraine.” Joined to that myth, she argues, too many in the West give tacit assent to the “Russian argument that Ukraine is not a real country and does not have a right to sovereignty.”

Looking instead at what Putin and his cronies proclaim, Applebaum says, reveals “a Russian elite that believes smashing Ukraine and smashing treaties will alter forever a world that they perceive to be dominated by the wealthy democracies, especially the United States. This nihilism is reflected directly in the systematic brutality of Russian troops on the ground.” The Russian occupiers have “repeatedly demonstrated their intention to eliminate not only the Ukrainian state but also Ukrainian identity and culture.”

Any instant history of a war in progress must confront the ultimate question: how will this end? Applebaum’s answer is that only Russian defeat will deliver a decisive conclusion:

A military loss could create a real opening for national self-examination or a major change, as it so often has done in Russia’s past. Only failure can persuade the Russians themselves to question the sense and purpose of a colonial ideology that has repeatedly impoverished and ruined their own economy and society, as well as those of their neighbours, for decades. Yet another frozen conflict, yet another temporary holding pattern, yet another face-saving compromise will not end the pattern of Russian aggression or bring permanent peace.

The war means that the European Union has shifted from a “peace project to a war project,” according to Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Where “most European countries could not imagine a war breaking out between European states,” he writes, the war changed the way that core nations in the EU think about their identity. A “truly geopolitical Europe” is emerging, Leonard argues, that will “fundamentally reshape the European security order and the idea of Europe along with it.” A Europe that sought to escape history must confront bloody history on its doorstep.

Leonard’s prediction is that the European Union will keep expanding to eliminate “the problematic buffer zone between Europe and Russia,” producing a “sharp definition of Europe’s borders.” A bigger, stronger European Union with a geopolitical role shaped by the war would be “a union able to defend itself against military threats, wield its economic power more effectively, renew itself politically while maintaining its legitimacy, and emerge as an equal partner to the United States.”

In Ukraine today, winter has turned to spring and Russia prepares to mount a major offensive, as it did last year. Last month, Moscow finally abandoned the fiction that it is mounting a “special military operation,” instead expressing the truth that it’s at “war.”

The language shift is aimed at Russians as much as the rest of the world. Russia may have the upper hand militarily — it occupies almost a fifth of Ukraine — but Moscow’s nod to reality is about the huge casualties Russia has suffered and an economy forced on to a war footing.

Ukraine has pushed back Russia’s Black Sea fleet and uses drones to hit targets in Russia. But in the ground war, the Economist reports, Russia is firing at least five shells for every Ukrainian one: “There is an alarming possibility that a big new Russian push in the next few months could punch through Ukraine’s defences and deep into the country.”

The blockage of the Biden administration’s US$61 billion military-support package by Trump-leaning Republicans in Congress means Ukraine may not have the weapons to match its will to fight. Even in a war of attrition, something eventually shifts.

The war has been all about the fighting, with no negotiation. The how-this-ends equation means the conflict must reach a moment when the talking starts. The desired end point for Kyiv is a permanent resolution with Russia, based on a recovery of Ukraine’s territory. That vision sees Ukraine turning away from Russia to consolidate its democracy, to join the European Union and eventually NATO, and begin the decades-long work to rebuild a shattered country.

A senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stephen Kotkin, writes that a country can win the war and lose the peace: “Ukraine winning the peace is an armistice and an end to the fighting as soon as possible, an obtainable security guarantee, and European Union accession. In other words, a Ukraine, safe and secure, which has joined the West.”

A less-optimistic (but highly likely) version of what negotiation will deliver is an armistice along a line of control, with much of Ukraine’s land and people in Russian hands. That is the recipe for a semi-stable but uneasy armed stand-off, with Ukraine winning neither the war nor the peace.

Much of history’s reckoning for Russia’s has already arrived, however the war plays out on the battlefield. Putin failed to achieve the objectives he proclaimed in 2022. His nation has paid a huge cost in lives and treasure. The would-be tsar has united Ukraine in its hatred for Russia. And Putin’s lust for empire means Europe won’t trust Russia long after Putin is gone.

The war demonstrates the limits of US support but has energised Europe in ways that seemed impossible before the invasion. A Russian leader who sought to crush Ukraine and frighten off NATO forever has instead given the alliance new life and purpose and brought NATO closer to Russia. Appalled at Putin’s savage ambition, Finland joined NATO in April 2023 and Sweden joined in March 2024. NATO says the next three nations in line to join are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine.

In setting up this admirable attempt at instant history, editor Hal Brands imagines two possible futures.

One sees a properly supported Ukraine that blunts Russian attacks, retakes the offensive and eventually wins a tolerable peace. In the other, Russia grinds its enemy down, even if it never takes Kyiv or conquers most of Ukraine.

How the war ends, Brands says, “will determine the degree to which Putin’s Russia — already a vengeful, embittered revisionist — emerges from this conflict empowered or enfeebled.”

Some of the history, though, is already in clear view, as Brands concludes: “Nothing that happens next is likely to fundamentally change the global fragmentation the war has caused. But how the conflict is resolved will have vast consequences for Ukraine and the world.” •

War in Ukraine: Conflict, Strategy, and the Return of a Fractured World
Edited by Hal Brands | Johns Hopkins University Press | US$32.95 or free download | 328 page