Ukraine has won itself some surprising advantages in the early stages of the war but those can fade quickly if Russia settles in and continues to carry out low risk standoff attacks on civilian centers.
When you are besieged every day that you hold off your attacker is a victory. But, paradoxically, each new day also pushes you further down the hole. Medical supplies run out, food runs low, basic services cease to exist, your economy shrinks to nothing.
Of course, Ukraine has enormous lines of support from the alliance but these have limitations. Destroyed infrastructure isn’t easily restored – or restored at all, supply lines can be attacked, entire regions of the country are inaccessible even if not fully captured. Russia isn’t the only player with a logistical nightmare on their hands. Sustaining millions of people, or even tens of thousands, in a war zone is hard.
Putin has his own challenges. His conventional forces are unimpressive to say the least. Russia’s gaps in logistics, training, maintenance, planning, execution, and communication have all been exposed for the entire world to see. Escalating western sanctions have ensured that Russia will suffer tremendous economic damage over time. If there was any hope for Russia to become a respectable player on the world stage (there wasn’t much) it has now been completely obliterated. Russia is now a true rogue state – a beacon for thugs and D-list influencers and propagandists.
All of the terrifying escalatory potential in this conflict still exists but what happens if we take that potential off the table and this drags on for months (or longer)? There are assumptions that Putin needs to “win”, that he needs guarantees of neutrality, or a transfer of territory. But what if just staying in Ukraine, casually inflicting damage with standoff weapons, and slowly grinding it out is the win? This might be the only palatable option that Putin has.
This model presents Ukraine and the allies with a lot of challenges. We know that public interest in the war will fade (one of the few certainties these days) but over time we could see other risks surface. Political disruption in the West could disrupt or even fracture the alliance, NATO could be critically threatened if the pro-Putin wing of the GOP in the United States claims power, and ultimately Ukraine, facing increasinly barbaric attacks on civilian centers, could just finally reach a breaking point.
Time still favors the Ukranians, each day of survival is a victory, but as Russia stands back and indiscriminately attacks civilians, razes small towns, and chokes off increasingly large cities that advantage is likely to shift in Russia’s favor. We can continue to escalate weapons transfers and other measures, hope for a breakthrough in negotiations, fantasize about Russia burying Putin for good, and marvel at Ukrainian bravery but in the meantime I hope that we’re preparing to support Ukraine through a very long war.