Over two months into an unprovoked preventive war launched against a country that was not an imminent threat (or even a direct military threat), Russia has failed to overrun Ukraine. But it has inflicted significant physical damage and thousands of casualties, both military and civilian. And against stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, the Russian military is bogged down, having reportedly suffered tens of thousands of casualties and the loss of a naval warship. It’s probably safe to say that this is not what Vladimir Putin expected. So what should we expect from here?
First, it should be abundantly clear that this is not Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg of Poland in 1939. Nor is it the Cold War scenario of Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap to overrun Western Europe. So, those analogies are misleading at best, and unhelpful — even harmful — at worst. In other words, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the start of World War III or a threat to the fabric of democracy.
It is also important to acknowledge that the war in Ukraine is not a direct threat to U.S. national security. That is not to say that Russian military action in Ukraine isn’t threatening, but it needs to be put in proper perspective to understand appropriate responses and possible courses of action.
Paramount to that perspective is the fact that Russia has a strategic nuclear arsenal on par with the United States. That means direct U.S. military intervention could lead to a U.S.-Russia military confrontation that risks nuclear war. So far, the Biden administration acknowledges that reality. This also means that it is in the United States’s interest to ensure the conflict does not expand beyond Ukraine and become a wider war that could spark a NATO-Russia clash.
Indeed, the possibility of crossing the nuclear threshold should be an important factor in all U.S. decision-making, so a more appropriate lens for calculating risk may be the Cuban Missile Crisis. In other words, what we absolutely want to avoid — triggering a nuclear exchange — takes precedence over what we want to achieve.
The central question is: What is the desired outcome in Ukraine?
Clearly, the Ukrainians want to expel the Russian military and preserve their territorial integrity. So, one course of action is what we’re currently watching unfold: continued Ukrainian resistance fueled by Western military aid. Outright, let alone swift, Ukrainian victory may not be likely, but wearing down Russian forces much like the Soviet experience in Afghanistan isn’t out of the question. However, such a scenario could be long — the Soviets were in Afghanistan nearly a decade — and almost certainly would entail immense physical destruction and loss of life (an estimated 1 million civilians were killed during the Soviet-Afghan war). For the Ukrainians, the question is, what cost are they willing to pay?
If the desired outcome is to end the war as soon as possible to limit death and destruction, that means a negotiated settlement. All parties would need to be willing to give up something in order to gain something. It is unrealistic to expect a return to the status quo antebellum. Ukrainian neutrality, meaning non-alignment with both NATO and Russia, has been raised during peace talks (ironically, this was non-negotiable prior to Russia’s invasion and evidence that not all the options were exhausted to possibly avert the war). But that wouldn’t necessarily preclude a path for Ukraine to become a member of the European Union, if it so desired.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked for security guarantees, but that might be a bridge too far for the U.S. or NATO to provide, since it essentially would amount to Ukraine being part of NATO. However, a deal might allow Ukraine to arm itself to guarantee its own security and those weapons could be bought from the West. Of course, Russia would have to agree. And then there is the question of what Russia would be willing to give up. Would it totally withdraw from Ukraine? Or would it want to keep the Donbas region? How much should Russia pay to help rebuild Ukraine? Should Crimea be part of the deal? The devil is in the details and, ultimately, any negotiated settlement will hinge on whether achieving peace is more important than extracting concessions.
Another outcome is to punish and inflict maximum pain on Putin — a course of action advocated by many pundits and armchair strategists (who would suffer no consequences for their decision), many of them believing this ultimately would lead to regime change in Russia. They would ratchet up the already severe economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other countries. What they don’t acknowledge is that the history of economic sanctions is that they rarely lead to the intended outcome — changing the behavior of sanctioned targets. Moreover, the targets are rarely who pay the price. The pain currently being inflicted on the Russian economy will be felt most by ordinary Russians, not by Putin and his oligarch cronies. And the Russian people are more likely to blame those imposing the sanctions for their plight, not Putin for triggering the sanctions by invading Ukraine — such is human nature.
Even if the Russian people did blame Putin — there is some evidence that even in a country where the media is controlled by the state that Russians are increasingly against the Ukraine War — it would be a long-shot bet on a Russian revolution to overthrow Putin and install a liberal democracy. Especially without the support of the Russian military, any kind of popular uprising is more likely to result in a Russian version of Tiananmen Square and its aftermath.
We also must be careful with the use of overly severe sanctions. At some point, they essentially could become what amounts to an act of war from Russia’s perspective, which is how we likely would view similar sanctions imposed on us, and trigger an unwanted military response.
And then there is the “be careful what you wish for” aspect to consider. There is no guarantee that a successor to Putin would be better. Reportedly, some in Russia’s national security apparatus are unhappy with war and Putin. This could be interpreted as good news, especially by those who would want the generals to take matters into their own hands to replace Putin. But the evidence is that these critics don’t believe the war was a mistake — they believe it should be a more expansive all-out war.
Ultimately, the outcome will be decided by Ukraine and Russia. We need to have patience and not try to engineer or force the outcome. As much as we can, we should support the defense of Ukraine and help find a path toward ending the war as soon as possible. But, however and whenever the war ends — and at whatever cost — this much is clear: it will be a net loss for Russia.
Ukraine may not end up in NATO, but both Finland and Sweden, previously neutral countries, are applying to join the alliance. Europe appears to be taking its security more seriously with increased defense spending — most notably, Germany. And Russia’s economy is on track to shrink by 10-15 percent, with 15 years of growth wiped out. Whether Putin survives as Russia’s president may depend on what happens when Russian troops eventually come home from Ukraine and tell their stories to friends and family about what really happened — accounts quite different from those fed to the Russian people by state-controlled media.
Charles V. Peña is a nonresident fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 30 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of “Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.”