WASHINGTON — It was going to be a rout, the experts predicted. Russian forces would storm across Ukraine and into Kyiv within a matter of 72 hours, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed Biden administration officials and congressional leaders in a briefing early last February, as war loomed.
His was the consensus view. Here was the army whose predecessors defeated Hitler and Napoleon, now preparing to take on a much less formidable foe. True, the cause this time around was not especially just, for Ukraine had done nothing to provoke its much larger and more powerful neighbor. Yet the outcome would be the same, the conventional wisdom went.
Three days ago, President Biden arrived in Kyiv to remind the world how wrong those predictions turned out to be.
“One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” the American president said as he stood next to Ukrainian leader Volodomyr Zelensky during his surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital, where life has returned more or less to normal since the initial Russian onslaught.
Ukraine’s resistance only makes more urgent an uncomfortable question, one that is frequently asked in Washington after the usual shows of fealty run their course and officials permit themselves a measure of frankness: Now what?
Milley himself has provided one answer. “For this year, it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all — every inch of Ukraine or Russian-occupied Ukraine,” he recently told reporters.
(After this article was published, a spokesman for Milley explained that initial reports about last February's briefing were incorrect. "In the briefing, Chairman Milley laid out several scenarios informed by interagency intelligence assessments," Col. Dave Butler told Yahoo News. He added that a swift Russian rout was one of only five scenarios Milley presented that day.)
Ukraine launched a devastating counteroffensive in September, driving out confused Russian troops and retaking the key city of Kherson. Since then, however, neither side has made significant advancements, with weeks of grueling fighting around Bakhmut producing no decisive victory (and leading to questions about whether the city is even worth the enormous energy both sides have devoted).
Perhaps most disheartening to Ukraine supporters is that the two sides could continue to trade blows as they have in and around Bakhmut, with Ukraine simply not supplied with enough heavy equipment to achieve the full victory Zelensky says he demands.
Such a victory would have to include the liberation of the Crimean Peninsula, which would probably require an amphibious assault that is beyond the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces.
“I would love to think the kinetic phase could end in 2023, but I suspect we could be looking at another three years with this scale of fighting,” military analyst Peter Roberts of the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute recently told DefenseNews. (“Kinetic operations” is a military euphemism for active fighting.)
U.S. officials acknowledge that they do not expect either side to prevail in 2023. Russia is about to launch an offensive; Ukraine, which is preparing for an influx of Western tanks and other heavy armaments, will likely launch a counteroffensive after the springtime rains subside. Thousands of lives will be lost, but in the end, American officials believe, little will have changed.
If that turns out to be the case, the Western coalition that has bolstered Ukraine since early 2022 could be heading into 2024 confronting a military stalemate that shows little hope of resolution. And with the American presidential election looming and domestic political tensions in France and other European nations deepening, Zelensky’s most trenchant supporters could be confronted with choices they had never hoped to make.
There is another reality, so obvious it is sometimes ignored: Ukraine and Russia will always be neighbors, sharing a land border that is currently 1,200 miles long. The impossibility of separating the two belligerents will make any but the most ironclad peace agreement a tenuous affair.
Russia could agree to a ceasefire but then simply wait for an opportune moment to invade again, much as Germany did after World War I, nursing its wounds until Hitler came to power and began a project of military buildup and territorial expansion.
“One of the main dynamics here is that there’s nothing to separate Russia and Ukraine. Russia will always possess the ability to aggress and destabilize Ukraine, if nothing else because of their adjacency,” says Samir Puri, an expert in Russian and international affairs at the Singapore-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
At a recent symposium hosted by Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank with an anti-interventionist mindset, Puri compared Ukraine to Chechnya, the restive and semiautonomous majority-Muslim republic that Russia subjugated in two brutal wars starting in 1994.
“The Russians failed in attaining Chechnya, and then they gathered their strength and had another go,” Puri told Yahoo News in response to a question about the potential length of the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Chechens have also noticed the discomfiting similarity.
“If you want a picture of Ukraine’s future, look to my home,” went the headline of a Guardian essay published by Lana Estemirova, a Chechen writer and activist whose mother, Natalia, was murdered in 2009 for exposing Russian abuses.
There are, of course, vast differences between Chechnya and Ukraine. Other than stray bands of Islamic fundamentalists, the Chechen rebels enjoyed no significant outside support, whereas Ukraine has been celebrated as a beacon of global democracy and provided with some of the most sophisticated weaponry in the world. And whereas Chechnya is a remote mountainous region, Ukraine is an Eastern European buffer of enormous strategic import.
Yet in both cases, the Kremlin regarded the territory in question as inherently belonging to Russia, thus making the conquest of that territory necessary at any cost. A faltering war effort is not seen by the Kremlin as a reason to negotiate for peace but, rather, as an imperative to fight more ruthlessly against an intractable — if largely imagined — foe.
“Putin’s successor could actually present himself within right-wing circles in Moscow around being able to do the job better,” Puri told Yahoo News. “And history could repeat itself. Just as Putin did the job that [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin failed to do in Chechnya, maybe a Putin successor might actually say, ‘I can do the job in Ukraine, or a different job in Ukraine, better.’ And that is [why] I think this is a real long-term problem.”
Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, watched from Moscow as his forces were dealt a devastating blow by Chechen rebels in the vicious 1996 battle for Grozny, the region’s capital city. The war ended, only to resume in 2000 under Putin, who ordered indiscriminate aerial assaults that left Grozny in utter ruins.
Kyiv is unlikely to suffer a similar fate, but the Chechen wars do hint at a Russian willingness to endure both suffering and humiliation as the costs of eventual victory.
(A morbid Kremlin willingness to countenance such costs also lurks beneath triumphal Russian histories of defeating Hitler, a feat accomplished only through unimaginable sacrifice that more competent leadership would have obviated.)
Russia also realizes that military assistance from the West has been crucial to Ukraine’s prospects. But as ever-louder grumblings in Washington as well as Paris and other European capitals suggest, that assistance will have its limits. Next year’s U.S. election could replace Biden with a Republican president who ends aid to Ukraine on the first day of his or her administration.
For some, that makes the current moment all the more urgent. If Ukraine is to win, these hawks say, it must win now — and it will need the best weapons in the U.S. arsenal to do so, without condition or compunction.
“It is in our power to shorten this war significantly by finally outgrowing our policy of incrementalism, and fully leveraging the money that Congress has allocated to send massive military aid quickly,” says Uriel Epshtein, executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative.
“We have to give Ukraine what it needs to end this in the next 10-11 months,” he told Yahoo News in a text message.
Biden, however, has resisted giving Ukraine fighter jets or long-range surface-to-surface missiles. And though the U.S. will eventually ship 31 tanks to Ukraine, Zelensky had initially asked for 10 times that many. Ukrainians believe that if the West is serious about the conflict being a referendum on democracy — a framing Biden has frequently used — then they are justified in making those asks, however outlandish they may seem to Westerners with no need to worry about Russian aerial assaults.
Asked by a Western interviewer what Ukrainian fighters needed, border police officer Leonid Ostaltsev offered what appeared to be an only half-joking assessment: “I think, nuclear weapons.”
Ostaltsev’s request may seem audacious, but it also hints at the recognition that only an intervention of enormous magnitude will prevent a stalemate. Ukraine may have just enough to survive, and to perhaps claw back territory from Russia, but not to restore the borders it enjoyed before the first invasion Putin launched in 2014. That could turn the war into the dreaded Chechen-like quagmire Western leaders have been desperate to avoid.
Those difficult dynamics leave one option, however thoroughly Zelensky and Putin claim they will never give up the fight.
“If neither side can win outright — which I think we can all agree is not going to happen — then it’s sort of not clear what the path to ending the war is, absent some change in policy that helps both sides overcome the impediments to negotiation,” says Miranda Priebe, a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation.
“This could, to varying degrees of intensity, go on for years, potentially, absent some kind of change,” she told Yahoo News at the Defense One symposium last week.
A years-long battle would only benefit the Kremlin, which has indicated it is willing to allow as much devastation as necessary to achieve its goals.
Estemirova, the Chechen activist, is haunted by the conviction that Ukraine’s future could well look like the ravaged past of her native land.
“They have done this before,” she warned in her Guardian essay. “They are doing it again.”