Ukraine won the short war. Mobile and resourceful, his troops inflicted heavy losses and thwarted Russian plans to take kyiv. Now comes the long war. Weapons, lives and money will run out until one side loses the will to continue fighting. So far, it is a war that Russia is winning.
In recent days her forces have taken the eastern city of Severodonetsk. They are advancing on Lisychansk and could soon control the entire Luhansk province. They also threaten Slovyansk, in the north of neighboring Donetsk. Ukrainian leaders say they are outmatched and short on ammunition. His government estimates that up to 200 of his troops are killed every day.
Fortunately for Ukraine, this is not the end. The Russian advance is slow and costly. With NATO-caliber weapons, new tactics and sufficient financial aid, Ukraine has every chance to push back the Russian armies. Although the lost territory will be difficult to recover, Ukraine may prove the futility of Vladimir Putin’s campaign and emerge as a democratic and Western-oriented state. But for this you need lasting support. And that is still in doubt.
At first glance, a long war suits Russia. Both sides are using huge amounts of ammunition, but Russia has much more. The Russian economy is much larger than the Ukrainian economy and is in better shape. Seeking victory, Russia is willing to terrorize and demoralize Ukrainians by committing war crimes, as it did by attacking a shopping mall in Kremenchuk this week. If necessary, Putin will impose severe suffering on his own people.
However, the long war need not be fought on Putin’s terms. Ukraine potentially has a large number of motivated fighters. The Western defense industry can supply them. In 2020, before sanctions, NATO economies were more than ten times larger than Russia’s.
Ukraine’s turnaround begins on the battlefield, halting and reversing the Russian advance. Putin’s generals will continue to have more weapons, but the sophisticated NATO systems now arriving have greater range and accuracy. Adopting the tactics devised in the Cold War, when NATO was also outnumbered by the Red Army, Ukraine should be able to destroy Russian command posts and supply depots. Ukraine scored a success on June 30, when it used NATO weapons to expel Russian forces from Snake Island, a strategic prize in the Black Sea. It should aim to impose a “hurtful stalemate”, in which it reclaims a territory of similar symbolic importance, such as the city of Kherson, imposing a high price on Russia.
If Russia begins to lose ground on the battlefield, dissension and infighting may spread in the Kremlin. Western intelligence services believe that Putin is being kept in the dark by his subordinates. He has a habit of standing in for his commanders, among whom is General Alexander Dvornikov, hired after the first chaotic weeks of the invasion. The West may increase the cost of a long war for Russia if it continues to impose sanctions, which threaten lasting damage to the Russian economy. He can separate Russia’s elites from Putin by welcoming dissidents from the world of business and politics, and encouraging them to see that their country must not waste its future on a futile and costly campaign.
Will the West stay the course? At a summit on June 23, the European Union granted Ukraine candidate status, promising a deep level of commitment over the next decade. At another summit this week in Germany, the G7 confirmed and tightened sanctions against Russia. And in a third, held in Madrid, NATO recognized the Russian threat by substantially increasing its presence on the alliance’s eastern front.
However, Ukraine is a heavy burden. Western defense industries are formidable but struggle to produce large volumes, especially of ammunition. The Ukrainian government has a monthly deficit of 5 billion dollars and the country will need to rebuild after the war. Public support for Ukraine in the West will be shaken by a host of pressures, from inflation to elections – including, as early as 2023, the US campaign that may involve a presidential candidacy from that Ukranophobic Putin admirer, Donald Trump.
And the global costs of a long war will increase. Putin has blocked grain and sunflower oil exports from Ukrainian ports, which will lead to riots and starvation in poorer importing countries. He appears to be trying to create gas shortages in the EU this winter by preventing members from building up reserves during the summer. If the unit falls apart for energy, as EU states hoard gas, it will also fall apart for Ukraine. To further complicate matters, NATO members are concerned that if Ukraine prevails, Putin will step up. That could drag them into a catastrophic war with Russia.
You can see where Putin is headed. He will take as much as he can from the Ukraine, declare victory, and then ask the Western nations to impose their conditions on the Ukraine. In exchange, he will spare the rest of the world ruin, hunger, cold, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon.
Accepting that deal would be a serious miscalculation. Ukraine would face permanent Russian aggression. The more Putin believes that he has succeeded in Ukraine, the more belligerent he will become. He explained his ambitions in a speech this month, smiling as he talked about how Peter the Great seized parts of Sweden. He will fight tomorrow with whatever weapon works for him today. That means resorting to war crimes and nuclear threats, starving the world and freezing Europe.
The best way to avoid the next war is to defeat him in this one. Leaders need to explain to their people that they are defending not only an abstract principle in Ukraine, but also their most fundamental interest: their own security. The EU must shore up its energy markets so that they do not fracture next winter. Ukraine must have more weapons. The risk of escalation today is real, but if a bad peace is imposed on Ukraine, Putin’s nuclear threats will not cease. They will only become more dangerous, especially if Russia’s conventional forces are at a disadvantage.
In the long war, ordinary Russians will suffer and Ukrainians will endure unspeakable pain because of Putin’s vanity. Winning means marshalling resources and propping up Ukraine as a viable, sovereign, Western-leaning country, an outcome that its defiant people yearn for. Ukraine and its supporters have the men, the money and the material to defeat Putin. Do they all have the will?