Inside Story

Russia’s war against Ukraine: a longer view

With the full-scale invasion entering its third year, the stakes remain high

Mark Edele 22 February 2024 1546 words

Members of the Veryovka Ukrainian National Honoured Academic Folk Choir performing on 31 January outside an apartment block damaged by Russian shelling in Borodianka, Kyiv region. Pavlo Bagmut/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Alamy

Russia has been waging war against Ukraine for ten years now, if we start the clock back in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine’s east. The war remained geographically contained for its first eight years, though, and when the conflict became frozen life went on largely as normal in Kyiv, Lviv and elsewhere in unoccupied Ukraine, even if soldiers kept dying at the frontline.

This state of affairs came to an abrupt end with Russia’s all-out invasion on 24 February 2022. Not only did the fighting reach deep into Ukraine’s heartland, but life far behind the frontline also became militarised. Russia frequently bombards civilian infrastructure as well as cities in a type of terror warfare intended to break the will of Ukraine’s defenders. There is no longer any hinterland.

How long will this slaughter last? In August last year I warned against overly optimistic expectations, writing that “supporters of Ukraine’s democracy should prepare themselves for long-term, costly support.” Another six months on it is even clearer that patience and endurance will be needed if we want to see Ukraine survive and strive. We have to stop thinking in terms of short and decisive campaigns. This war has become a war of attrition.

Like Vladimir Putin, we need to think in the geographical and historical categories of what historian Timothy Snyder has memorably called the “bloodlands” — the vast territories between Russia in the east and Germany in the west, with Ukraine in the middle. This viewpoint expands the time horizon dramatically. The last three wars fought in this region were far from short campaigns. The first world war’s “eastern front” lasted from August 1914 to March 1918. The wars of the Romanov succession began in Central Asia in 1916 and elsewhere in 1918, only ending, depending on the region, in 1920, 1921, 1922 or even 1923. The German Soviet war — constantly invoked by Putin both in the run-up to the war and during Russia’s continuing cultural mobilisation — extended from the (northern hemisphere) summer of 1941 to the spring of 1945.

Hence, the normal duration a full scale military conflict in this part of the world seems to be three to four years. Ukraine has survived two so far.

But it’s not just the region’s history that suggests a long haul. Once battle lines are fully entrenched, conventional war takes time. The first world war’s western front was bogged down in costly trench warfare, with massive casualties but little territorial gains, for four years.

By the time the second world war rolled around, military specialists in all armies had found the technical means to overcome trenches, barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements. And yet it took the Allies close to a year after the invasion of Normandy in 1944 to defeat Germany, a country under assault from the east by the steamroller of the Red Army, from the south by the United States, British Empire forces and the Free French, and from the air by indiscriminate attack by the combined power of the US and British air forces. Both Ukraine and Russia are in much stronger positions today.

Historical analogies are miserable predictors. But they matter when historical actors think in and through them. Putin is an avid reader of history, constantly pondering where he fits in. He thinks in categories and time-spans informed by Russia’s historical experience.

While he didn’t expect Ukraine to resist so effectively and survive the initial onslaught, he had long prepared his country for a drawn-out conflict with the outside world. One indicator is the effort his regime spent on making Russia’s food system relatively independent of outside supplies. At a time when everybody praised the virtues of globalisation and international networks of trade and mutual dependence, Putin insisted Russia should be able to feed itself.

As a recent study points out, this is the kind of food system you build when you expect a long-term confrontation that might throw your country back on its own resources. Putin embarked on it over decades, at a time when barely anybody in Europe could imagine a war of this magnitude on the continent.

Putin also entrenched his dictatorship, also an anticipation of war. First came the slide towards authoritarianism that began on the first day of his presidency. More recently came its acceleration. The death last week of opposition figure Alexei Navalny is just the latest escalation of a massive crackdown that began in 2021 and quickened with the start of the all-out war in 2022. Russia is now a full-blown dictatorship.

Thus entrenched in the Kremlin, Putin expects the democracies of Europe to have the shorter breath. The way Ukraine has become a political football in US domestic politics might well feed this expectation.

We need to appreciate that this is Putin’s theory of victory: to pound Ukraine with artillery and air attacks; to bleed the defenders white by sacrificing large numbers of his own citizens; and to wait until “the decadent West” loses interest and returns to business as usual, depriving Ukraine of the weapons and economic support it needs to defend itself.

As things stand, he might well be proven right. As I wrote a year ago about the then unlikely prospect of a Russian victory:

Winning the war would require Russia to ramp up its military production and mobilisation of manpower and increase the quality of its training and leadership. It could do that over the long run, just as the Soviet Union did during World War II… It could do so particularly if some of the countries which today are sitting on the fence decide to defy the United States, NATO and the European Union and circumvent or ignore sanctions; the United States reverts to isolationism; NATO disintegrates into squabbles between its members; and the European Union implodes among disagreements between old and new, and rich and less prosperous nations.

This pessimistic scenario has not yet come to pass. Yes, Russia currently has the whip hand. It has massively increased its armaments production, found ways around sanctions and continued to field large numbers of men while avoiding all-out mobilisation. Meanwhile, the United States has shaped up as the weakest link in the chain of democracies supporting Ukraine.

But Russia has not won yet. Ukraine still has “a viable theory of victory,” as two leading military analysts recently wrote. Its military has become expert at war by attrition, which it fights intelligently, minimising its own losses while maximising the enemy’s. Supplied adequately, it will become even better at this terrible art, denying Russia victory and eventually turning the tide.

For this to happen, though, Ukraine needs the continued support of the outside world: from NATO countries, from the Europeans and from friends further afield, such as Australia. But these friends need to appreciate that this war is now a war of attrition. And those wars are not won in a day or a season.

What about negotiations? A strong commitment to long-term support should unite all friends of Ukraine, no matter whether they think that ultimately the war will end in Kyiv’s forces retaking all occupied territories, if necessary by military means (the current official Ukrainian position), or in a negotiated settlement of some sort, with compromises on both sides.

There are indeed models for a negotiated peace which, while painful, might satisfy Ukraine and guarantee its safety rather than simply giving Russia breathing space to rearm for the next assault or the chance to insist on Ukraine’s unconditional capitulation. The much-discussed “West German” solution is one such proposal. It proposes that Ukraine be divided into a democratic west with some of its eastern territories occupied or even annexed by Russia. The west would be integrated into NATO and the European Union and developed with a massive aid program similar to the Marshall Plan. This is certainly not an acceptable solution for either side at the moment, but it might well become one once exhaustion eventually sets in.

The key term here is “eventually.” Negotiating now only aids Russia in its imperialist and anti-democratic goals. Forcing Ukraine to negotiate at a moment when, with delayed and insufficient support from its democratic friends, it is on the defensive amounts to asking a democratic nation to surrender to a dictatorship. Negotiations are best held from a position of strength. If not backed by the ability to resist and indeed to inflict damage, talks with a militarily stronger opponent quickly lead to a loss of territory and sovereignty.

The Ukrainians learned this lesson in 1918 when they signed the first treaty of Brest–Litovsk with the Germans and Austrians, who subsequently occupied the country and squeezed out food reserves to feed their own war effort. The Russian Bolsheviks learned the same lesson shortly thereafter, when, devoid of the fighting force they themselves helped dissolve, they had to sign a punishing peace with the Germans just to get out of a war they could no longer fight. And, in an instance of remarkable historical justice, the Germans learned the same lesson in 1919, when they could do nothing but sign the famously unfriendly Versailles treaty.

Ukraine needs to be helped to avoid such a situation and negotiate from the position of strength, if a negotiated settlement will indeed end this war. •