The Russian war in Ukraine has proven itself to be one of the most consequential political events of our time — and one of the most confusing.
From the outset, Russia’s decision to invade was hard to understand; it seemed at odds with what most experts saw as Russia’s strategic interests. As the war has progressed, the widely predicted Russian victory has failed to emerge as Ukrainian fighters have repeatedly fended off attacks from a vastly superior force. Around the world, from Washington to Berlin to Beijing, global powers have reacted in striking and even historically unprecedented fashion.
What follows is an attempt to make sense of all of this: to tackle the biggest questions everyone is asking about the war. It is a comprehensive guide to understanding what is happening in Ukraine and why it matters.
In a televised speech announcing Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the invasion was designed to stop a “genocide” perpetrated by “the Kyiv regime” — and ultimately to achieve “the demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine.”
Though the claims of genocide and Nazi rule in Kyiv were transparently false, the rhetoric revealed Putin’s maximalist war aims: regime change (“de-Nazification”) and the elimination of Ukraine’s status as a sovereign state outside of Russian control (“demilitarization”). Why he would want to do this is a more complex story, one that emerges out of the very long arc of Russian-Ukrainian relations.
Ukraine and Russia have significant, deep, and longstanding cultural and historical ties; both date their political origins back to the ninth-century Slavic kingdom of Kievan Rus. But these ties do not make them historically identical, as Putin has repeatedly claimed in his public rhetoric. Since the rise of the modern Ukrainian national movement in the mid- to late-19th century, Russian rule in Ukraine — in both the czarist and Soviet periods — increasingly came to resemble that of an imperial power governing an unwilling colony.
Russian imperial rule ended in 1991 when 92 percent of Ukrainians voted in a national referendum to secede from the decaying Soviet Union. Almost immediately afterward, political scientists and regional experts began warning that the Russian-Ukrainian border would be a flashpoint, predicting that internal divides between the more pro-European population of western Ukraine and relatively more pro-Russian east, contested territory like the Crimean Peninsula, and Russian desire to reestablish control over its wayward vassal could all lead to conflict between the new neighbors.
It took about 20 years for these predictions to be proven right. In late 2013, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest the authoritarian and pro-Russian tilt of incumbent President Viktor Yanukovych, forcing his resignation on February 22, 2014. Five days later, the Russian military swiftly seized control of Crimea and declared it Russian territory,a brazenly illegal move that a majority of Crimeans nonetheless seemed to welcome. Pro-Russia protests in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine gave way to a violent rebellion — one stoked and armed by the Kremlin, and backed by disguised Russian troops.
The Ukrainian uprising against Yanukovych — called the “Euromaidan” movement because they were pro-EU protests that most prominently took place in Kyiv’s Maidan square — represented to Russia a threat not just to its influence over Ukraine but to the very survival of Putin’s regime. In Putin’s mind, Euromaidan was a Western-sponsored plot to overthrow a Kremlin ally, part of a broader plan to undermine Russia itself that included NATO’s post-Cold War expansions to the east.
“We understand what is happening; we understand that [the protests] were aimed against Ukraine and Russia and against Eurasian integration,” he said in a March 2014 speech on the annexation of Crimea. “With Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed the line.”
Beneath this rhetoric, according to experts on Russia, lies a deeper unstated fear: that his regime might fall prey to a similar protest movement. Ukraine could not succeed, in his view, because it might create a pro-Western model for Russians to emulate — one that the United States might eventually try to covertly export to Moscow. This was a central part of his thinking in 2014, and it remains so today.
“He sees CIA agents behind every anti-Russian political movement,” says Seva Gunitsky, a political scientist who studies Russia at the University of Toronto. “He thinks the West wants to subvert his regime the way they did in Ukraine.”
Beginning in March 2021, Russian forces began deploying to the Ukrainian border in larger and larger numbers. Putin’s nationalist rhetoric became more aggressive: In July 2021, the Russian president published a 5,000-word essay arguing that Ukrainian nationalism was a fiction, that the country was historically always part of Russia, and that a pro-Western Ukraine posed an existential threat to the Russian nation.
“The formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us,” as he put it in his 2021 essay.
Why Putin decided that merely seizing part of Ukraine was no longer enough remains a matter of significant debate among experts. One theory, advanced by Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, is that pandemic-induced isolation drove him to an extreme ideological place.
But while the immediate cause of Putin’s shift on Ukraine is not clear, the nature of that shift is. His longtime belief in the urgency of restoring Russia’s greatness curdled into a neo-imperial desire to bring Ukraine back under direct Russian control. And in Russia, where Putin rules basically unchecked, that meant a full-scale war.
On paper, Russia’s military vastly outstrips Ukraine’s. Russia spends over 10 times as much on defense annually as Ukraine; the Russian military has a little under three times as much artillery as Ukraine and roughly 10 times as many fixed-wing aircraft. As a result, the general pre-invasion view was that Russia would easily win a conventional war. In early February, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley told members of Congress that Kyiv, the capital, could fall within 72 hours of a Russian invasion.
But that’s not how things have played out. A month into the invasion, Ukrainians still hold Kyiv. Russia has made some gains, especially in the east and south, but the consensus view among military experts is that Ukraine’s defenses have held stoutly — to the point where Ukrainians have been able to launch counteroffensives.
The initial Russian plan reportedly operated under the assumption that a swift march on Kyiv would meet only token resistance. Putin “actually really thought this would be a ‘special military operation’: They would be done in a few days, and it wouldn’t be a real war,” says Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the CNA think tank.
This plan fell apart within the first 48 hours of the war when early operations like an airborne assault on the Hostomel airport ended in disaster, forcing Russian generals to develop a new strategy on the fly. What they came up with — massive artillery bombardments and attempts to encircle and besiege Ukraine’s major cities — was more effective (and more brutal). The Russians made some inroads into Ukrainian territory, especially in the south, where they have laid siege to Mariupol and taken Kherson and Melitopol.
But these Russian advances are a bit misleading. Ukraine, Kofman explains, made the tactical decision to trade “space for time”: to withdraw strategically rather than fight for every inch of Ukrainian land, confronting the Russians on the territory and at the time of their choosing.
As the fighting continued, the nature of the Ukrainian choice became clearer. Instead of getting into pitched large-scale battles with Russians on open terrain, where Russia’s numerical advantages would prove decisive, the Ukrainians instead decided to engage in a series of smaller-scale clashes.
Ukrainian forces have bogged down Russian units in towns and smaller cities; street-to-street combat favors defenders who can use their superior knowledge of the city’s geography to hide and conduct ambushes. They have attacked isolated and exposed Russian units traveling on open roads. They have repeatedly raided poorly protected supply lines.
This approach has proven remarkably effective. By mid-March, Western intelligence agencies and open source analysts concluded that the Ukrainians had successfully managed to stall the Russian invasion. The Russian military all but openly recognized this reality in a late March briefing, in which top generals implausibly claimed they never intended to take Kyiv and were always focused on making territorial gains in the east.
“The initial Russian campaign to invade and conquer Ukraine is culminating without achieving its objectives — it is being defeated, in other words,” military scholar Frederick Kagan wrote in a March 22 brief for the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank.
Currently, Ukrainian forces are on the offensive. They have pushed the Russians farther from Kyiv, with some reports suggesting they have retaken the suburb of Irpin and forced Russia to withdraw some of its forces from the area in a tacit admission of defeat. In the south, Ukrainian forces are contesting Russian control over Kherson.
And throughout the fighting, Russian casualties have been horrifically high.
It’s hard to get accurate information in a war zone, but one of the more authoritative estimates of Russian war dead — from the US Defense Department — concludes that over 7,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the first three weeks of fighting, a figure about three times as large as the total US service members dead in all 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan. A separate NATO estimate puts that at the low end, estimating between 7,000 and 15,000 Russians killed in action and as many as 40,000 total losses (including injuries, captures, and desertions). Seven Russian generals have been reported killed in the fighting, and materiel losses — ranging from armor to aircraft — have been enormous. (Russia puts its death toll at more than 1,300 soldiers, which is almost certainly a significant undercount.)
This all does not mean that a Russian victory is impossible. Any number of things, ranging from Russian reinforcements to the fall of besieged Mariupol, could give the war effort new life.
It does, however, mean that what Russia is doing right now hasn’t worked.
“If the point is just to wreak havoc, then they’re doing fine. But if the point is to wreak havoc and thus advance further — be able to hold more territory — they’re not doing fine,” says Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group.
Russia’s invasion has gone awry for two basic reasons: Its military wasn’t ready to fight a war like this, and the Ukrainians have put up a much stronger defense than anyone expected.
Russia’s problems begin with Putin’s unrealistic invasion plan. But even after the Russian high command adjusted its strategy, other flaws in the army remained.
“We’re seeing a country militarily implode,” says Robert Farley, a professor who studies air power at the University of Kentucky.
One of the biggest and most noticeable issues has been rickety logistics. Some of the most famous images of the war have been of Russian armored vehicles parked on Ukrainian roads, seemingly out of gas and unable to advance. The Russian forces have proven to be underequipped and badly supplied, encountering problems ranging from poor communications to inadequate tires.
Part of the reason is a lack of sufficient preparation. Per Kofman, the Russian military simply “wasn’t organized for this kind of war” — meaning, the conquest of Europe’s second-largest country by area. Another part of it is corruption in the Russian procurement system. Graft in Russia is less a bug in its political system than a feature; one way the Kremlin maintains the loyalty of its elite is by allowing them to profit off of government activity. Military procurement is no exception to this pattern of widespread corruption, and it has led to troops having substandard access to vital supplies.
The same lack of preparation has plagued Russia’s air force. Despite outnumbering the Ukrainian air force by roughly 10 times, the Russians have failed to establish air superiority: Ukraine’s planes are still flying and its air defenses mostly remain in place.
Perhaps most importantly, close observers of the war believe Russians are suffering from poor morale. Because Putin’s plan to invade Ukraine was kept secret from the vast majority of Russians, the government had a limited ability to lay a propaganda groundwork that would get their soldiers motivated to fight. The current Russian force has little sense of what they’re fighting for or why — and are waging war against a country with which they have religious, ethnic, historical, and potentially even familial ties. In a military that has long had systemic morale problems, that’s a recipe for battlefield disaster.
“Russian morale was incredibly low BEFORE the war broke out. Brutal hazing in the military, second-class (or worse) status by its conscript soldiers, ethnic divisions, corruption, you name it: the Russian Army was not prepared to fight this war,” Jason Lyall, a Dartmouth political scientist who studies morale, explains via email. “High rates of abandoned or captured equipment, reports of sabotaged equipment, and large numbers of soldiers deserting (or simply camping out in the forest) are all products of low morale.”
The contrast with the Ukrainians couldn’t be starker. They are defending their homes and their families from an unprovoked invasion, led by a charismatic leader who has made a personal stand in Kyiv. Ukrainian high morale is a key reason, in addition to advanced Western armaments, that the defenders have dramatically outperformed expectations.
“Having spent a chunk of my professional career [working] with the Ukrainians, nobody, myself included and themselves included, had all that high an estimation of their military capacity,” Oliker says.
Again, none of this will necessarily remain the case throughout the war. Morale can shift with battlefield developments. And even if Russian morale remains low, it’s still possible for them to win — though they’re more likely to do so in a brutally ugly fashion.
As the fighting has dragged on, Russia has gravitated toward tactics that, by design, hurt civilians. Most notably, Russia has attempted to lay siege to Ukraine’s cities, cutting off supply and escape routes while bombarding them with artillery. The purpose of the strategy is to wear down the Ukrainian defenders’ willingness to fight, including by inflicting mass pain on the civilian populations.
The result has been nightmarish: an astonishing outflow of Ukrainian refugees and tremendous suffering for many of those who were unwilling or unable to leave.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 3.8 million Ukrainians fled the country between February 24 and March 27. That’s about 8.8 percent of Ukraine’s total population — in proportional terms, the rough equivalent of the entire population of Texas being forced to flee the United States.
Another point of comparison: In 2015, four years into the Syrian civil war and the height of the global refugee crisis, there were a little more than 4 million Syrian refugees living in nearby countries. The Ukraine war has produced a similarly sized exodus in just a month, leading to truly massive refugee flows to its European neighbors. Poland, the primary destination of Ukrainian refugees, is currently housing over 2.3 million Ukrainians, a figure larger than the entire population of Warsaw, its capital and largest city.
For those civilians who have been unable to flee, the situation is dire. There are no reliable estimates of death totals; a March 27 UN estimate puts the figure at 1,119 but cautions that “the actual figures are considerably higher [because] the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration.”
The UN assessment does not blame one side or the other for these deaths, but does note that “most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems, and missile and airstrikes.” It is the Russians, primarily, who are using these sorts of weapons in populated areas; Human Rights Watch has announced that there are “early signs of war crimes” being committed by Russian soldiers in these kinds of attacks, and President Joe Biden has personally labeled Putin a “war criminal.”
Nowhere is this devastation more visible than the southern city of Mariupol, the largest Ukrainian population center to which Russia has laid siege. Aerial footage of the city published by the Guardian in late March reveals entire blocks demolished by Russian bombardment:
In mid-March, three Associated Press journalists — the last international reporters in the city before they too were evacuated — managed to file a dispatch describing life on the ground. They reported a death total of 2,500 but cautioned that “many bodies can’t be counted because of the endless shelling.” The situation is impossibly dire:
Airstrikes and shells have hit the maternity hospital, the fire department, homes, a church, a field outside a school. For the estimated hundreds of thousands who remain, there is quite simply nowhere to go. The surrounding roads are mined and the port blocked. Food is running out, and the Russians have stopped humanitarian attempts to bring it in. Electricity is mostly gone and water is sparse, with residents melting snow to drink. Some parents have even left their newborns at the hospital, perhaps hoping to give them a chance at life in the one place with decent electricity and water.
The battlefield failures of the Russian military have raised questions about its competence in difficult block-to-block fighting; Farley, the Kentucky professor, says, “This Russian army does not look like it can conduct serious [urban warfare].” As a result, taking Ukrainian cities means besieging them — starving them out, destroying their will to fight, and only moving into the city proper after its population is unwilling to resist or outright incapable of putting up a fight.
Vladimir Putin’s government has ramped up its already repressive policies during the Ukraine conflict, shuttering independent media outlets and blocking access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It’s now extremely difficult to get a sense of what either ordinary Russians or the country’s elite think about the war, as criticizing it could lead to a lengthy stint in prison.
But despite this opacity, expert Russia watchers have developed a broad idea of what’s going on there. The war has stirred up some opposition and anti-Putin sentiment, but it has been confined to a minority who are unlikely to change Putin’s mind, let alone topple him.
The bulk of the Russian public was no more prepared for war than the bulk of the Russian military — in fact, probably less so. After Putin announced the launch of his “special military operation” in Ukraine on national television, there was a surprising amount of criticism from high-profile Russians — figures ranging from billionaires to athletes to social media influencers. One Russian journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, bravely ran into the background of a government broadcast while holding an anti-war sign.
“It is unprecedented to see oligarchs, other elected officials, and other powerful people in society publicly speaking out against the war,” says Alexis Lerner, a scholar of dissent in Russia at the US Naval Academy.
There have also been anti-war rallies in dozens of Russian cities. How many have participated in these rallies is hard to say, but the human rights group OVD-Info estimates that over 15,000 Russians have been arrested at the events since the war began.
Could these eruptions of anti-war sentiment at the elite and mass public level suggest a coming coup or revolution against the Putin regime? Experts caution that these events remain quite unlikely.
Putin has done an effective job engaging in what political scientists call “coup-proofing.” He has put in barriers — from seeding the military with counterintelligence officers to splitting up the state security services into different groups led by trusted allies — that make it quite difficult for anyone in his government to successfully move against him.
“Putin has prepared for this eventuality for a long time and has taken a lot of concerted actions to make sure he’s not vulnerable,” says Adam Casey, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan who studies the history of coups in Russia and the former communist bloc.
Similarly, turning the anti-war protests into a full-blown influential movement is a very tall order.
“It is hard to organize sustained collective protest in Russia,” notes Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard who studies protest movements. “Putin’s government has criminalized many forms of protests, and has shut down or restricted the activities of groups, movements, and media outlets perceived to be in opposition or associated with the West.”
Underpinning it all is tight government control of the information environment. Most Russians get their news from government-run media, which has been serving up a steady diet of pro-war content. Many of them appear to genuinely believe what they hear: One independent opinion poll found that 58 percent of Russians supported the war to at least some degree.
Prior to the war, Putin also appeared to be a genuinely popular figure in Russia. The elite depend on him for their position and fortune; many citizens see him as the man who saved Russia from the chaos of the immediate post-Communist period. A disastrous war might end up changing that, but the odds that even a sustained drop in his support translates into a coup or revolution remain low indeed.
The war remains, for the moment, a conflict between Ukraine and Russia. But the United States is the most important third party, using a number of powerful tools — short of direct military intervention — to aid the Ukrainian cause.
Any serious assessment of US involvement needs to start in the post-Cold War 1990s, when the US and its NATO allies made the decision to open alliance membership to former communist states.
Many of these countries, wary of once again being put under the Russian boot, clamored to join the alliance, which commits all involved countries to defend any member-state in the event of an attack. In 2008, NATO officially announced that Georgia and Ukraine — two former Soviet republics right on Russia’s doorstep — “will become members of NATO” at an unspecified future date. This infuriated the Russians, who saw NATO expansion as a direct threat to their own security.
There is no doubt that NATO expansion helped create some of the background conditions under which the current conflict became thinkable, generally pushing Putin’s foreign policy in a more anti-Western direction. Some experts see it as one of the key causes of his decision to attack Ukraine — but others strongly disagree, noting that NATO membership for Ukraine was already basically off the table before the war and that Russia’s declared war aims went far beyond simply blocking Ukraine’s NATO bid.
“NATO expansion was deeply unpopular in Russia. [But] Putin did not invade because of NATO expansion,” says Yoshiko Herrera, a Russia expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Regardless of where one falls on that debate, US policy during the conflict has been exceptionally clear: support the Ukrainians with massive amounts of military assistance while putting pressure on Putin to back down by organizing an unprecedented array of international economic sanctions.
On the military side, weapons systems manufactured and provided by the US and Europe have played a vital role in blunting Russia’s advance. The Javelin anti-tank missile system, for example, is a lightweight American-made launcher that allows one or two infantry soldiers to take out a tank. Javelins have given the outgunned Ukrainians a fighting chance against Russian armor, becoming a popular symbol in the process.
Sanctions have proven similarly devastating in the economic realm.
The international punishments have been extremely broad, ranging from removing key Russian banks from the SWIFT global transaction system to a US ban on Russian oil imports to restrictions on doing business with particular members of the Russian elite. Freezing the assets of Russia’s central bank has proven to be a particularly damaging tool, wrecking Russia’s ability to deal with the collapse in the value of the ruble, its currency. As a result, the Russian economy is projected to contract by 15 percent this year; mass unemployment looms.
There is more America can do, particularly when it comes to fulfilling Ukrainian requests for new fighter jets. In March, Washington rejected a Polish plan to transfer MiG-29 aircraft to Ukraine via a US Air Force base in Germany, arguing that it could be too provocative.
But the MiG-29 incident is more the exception than it is the rule. On the whole, the United States has been strikingly willing to take aggressive steps to punish Moscow and aid Kyiv’s war effort.
On the surface, the world appears to be fairly united behind the Ukrainian cause. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the Russian invasion by a whopping 141-5 margin (with 35 abstentions). But the UN vote conceals a great deal of disagreement, especially among the world’s largest and most influential countries — divergences that don’t always fall neatly along democracy-versus-autocracy lines.
The most aggressive anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian positions can, perhaps unsurprisingly, be found in Europe and the broader West. EU and NATO members, with the partial exceptions of Hungary and Turkey, have strongly supported the Ukrainian war effort and implemented punishing sanctions on Russia (a major trading partner). It’s the strongest show of European unity since the Cold War, one that many observers see as a sign that Putin’s invasion has already backfired.
Germany, which has important trade ties with Russia and a post-World War II tradition of pacifism, is perhaps the most striking case. Nearly overnight, the Russian invasion convinced center-left Chancellor Olaf Scholz to support rearmament, introducing a proposal to more than triple Germany’s defense budget that’s widely backed by the German public.
“It’s really revolutionary,” Sophia Besch, a Berlin-based senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, told my colleague Jen Kirby. “Scholz, in his speech, did away with and overturned so many of what we thought were certainties of German defense policy.”
Though Scholz has refused to outright ban Russian oil and gas imports, he has blocked the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and committed to a long-term strategy of weaning Germany off of Russian energy. All signs point to Russia waking a sleeping giant — of creating a powerful military and economic enemy in the heart of the European continent.
China, by contrast, has been the most pro-Russia of the major global powers.
The two countries, bound by shared animus toward a US-dominated world order, have grown increasingly close in recent years. Chinese propaganda has largely toed the Russian line on the Ukraine war. US intelligence, which has been remarkably accurate during the crisis, believes that Russia has requested military and financial assistance from Beijing — which hasn’t been provided yet but may well be forthcoming.
That said, it’s possible to overstate the degree to which China has taken the Russian side. Beijing has a strong stated commitment to state sovereignty — the bedrock of its position on Taiwan is that the island is actually Chinese territory — which makes a full-throated backing of the invasion ideologically awkward. There’s a notable amount of debate among Chinese policy experts and in the public, with some analysts publicly advocating that Beijing adopt a more neutral line on the conflict.
Most other countries around the world fall somewhere on the spectrum between the West and China. Outside of Europe, only a handful of mostly pro-American states — like South Korea, Japan, and Australia — have joined the sanctions regime. The majority of countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America do not support the invasion, but won’t do very much to punish Russia for it either.
India is perhaps the most interesting country in this category. A rising Asian democracy that has violently clashed with China in the very recent past, it has good reasons to present itself as an American partner in the defense of freedom. Yet India also depends heavily on Russian-made weapons for its own defense and hopes to use its relationship with Russia to limit the Moscow-Beijing partnership. It’s also worth noting that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has strong autocratic inclinations.
The result of all of this is a balancing act reminiscent of India’s Cold War approach of “non-alignment”: refusing to side with either the Russian or American positions while attempting to maintain decent relations with both. India’s perceptions of its strategic interests, more than ideological views about democracy, appear to be shaping its response to the war — as seems to be the case with quite a few countries around the world.
The basic, scary answer to this question is yes: The invasion of Ukraine has put us at the greatest risk of a NATO-Russia war in decades.
The somewhat more comforting and nuanced answer is that the absolute risk remains relatively low so long as there is no direct NATO involvement in the conflict, which the Biden administration has repeatedly ruled out. Though Biden said “this man [Putin] cannot remain in power” in a late March speech, both White House officials and the president himself stressed afterward that the US policy was not regime change in Moscow.
“Things are stable in a nuclear sense right now,” says Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear weapons at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “The minute NATO gets involved, the scope of the war widens.”
In theory, US and NATO military assistance to Ukraine could open the door to escalation: Russia could attack a military depot in Poland containing weapons bound for Ukraine, for instance. But in practice, it’s unlikely: The Russians don’t appear to want a wider war with NATO that risks nuclear escalation, and so have avoided cross-border strikes even when it might destroy supply shipments bound for Ukraine.
In early March, the US Department of Defense opened a direct line of communication with its Russian peers in order to avoid any kind of accidental conflict. It’s not clear how well this is working — some reporting suggests the Russians aren’t answering American calls — but there is a long history of effective dialogue between rivals who are fighting each other through proxy forces.
“States often cooperate to keep limits on their wars even as they fight one another clandestinely,” Lyall, the Dartmouth professor, tells me. “While there’s always a risk of unintended escalation, historical examples like Vietnam, Afghanistan (1980s), Afghanistan again (post-2001), and Syria show that wars can be fought ‘within bounds.’”
If the United States and NATO heed the call of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to impose a so-called “no-fly zone” over Ukrainian skies, the situation changes dramatically. No-fly zones are commitments to patrol and, if necessary, shoot down military aircraft that fly in the declared area, generally for the purpose of protecting civilians. In Ukraine, that would mean the US and its NATO allies sending in jets to patrol Ukraine’s skies — and being willing to shoot down any Russian planes that enter protected airspace. From there, the risks of a nuclear conflict become terrifyingly high.
Russia recognizes its inferiority to NATO in conventional terms; its military doctrine has long envisioned the use of nuclear weapons in a war with the Western alliance. In his speech declaring war on Ukraine, Putin all but openly vowed that any international intervention in the conflict would trigger nuclear retaliation.
“To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” the Russian president said. “I hope you hear me.”
The Biden administration is taking these threats seriously. Much as the Kremlin hasn’t struck NATO supply missions to Ukraine, the White House has flatly rejected a no-fly zone or any other kind of direct military intervention.
“We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine,” Biden said on March 11. “Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent.”
This does not mean the risk of a wider war is zero. Accidents happen, and countries can be dragged into war against their leaders’ best judgment. Political positions and risk calculi can also change: If Russia starts losing badly and uses smaller nukes on Ukrainian forces (called “tactical” nuclear weapons), Biden would likely feel the need to respond in some fairly aggressive way. Much depends on Washington and Moscow continuing to show a certain level of restraint.
Wars do not typically end with the total defeat of one side or the other. More commonly, there’s some kind of negotiated settlement — either a ceasefire or more permanent peace treaty — where the two sides agree to stop fighting under a set of mutually agreeable terms.
It is possible that the Ukraine conflict turns out to be an exception: that Russian morale collapses completely, leading to utter battlefield defeat, or that Russia inflicts so much pain that Kyiv collapses. But most analysts believe that neither of these is especially likely given the way the war has played out to date.
“No matter how much military firepower they pour into it, [the Russians] are not going to be able to achieve regime change or some of their maximalist aims,” Kofman, of the CNA think tank, declares.
A negotiated settlement is the most likely way the conflict ends. Peace negotiations between the two sides are ongoing, and some reporting suggests they’re bearing fruit. On March 28, the Financial Times reported significant progress on a draft agreement covering issues ranging from Ukrainian NATO membership to the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. The next day, Russia pledged to decrease its use of force in Ukraine’s north as a sign of its commitment to the talks.
American officials, though, have been publicly skeptical of Russia’s seriousness in the talks. Even if Moscow is committed to reaching a settlement, the devil is always in the details with these sorts of things — and there are lots of barriers standing in the way of a successful resolution.
Take NATO. The Russians want a simple pledge that Ukraine will remain “neutral” — staying out of foreign security blocs. The current draft agreement, per the Financial Times, does preclude Ukrainian NATO membership, but it permits Ukraine to join the EU. It also commits at least 11 countries, including the United States and China, to coming to Ukraine’s aid if it is attacked again. This would put Ukraine on a far stronger security footing than it had before the war — a victory for Kyiv and defeat for Moscow, one that Putin may ultimately conclude is unacceptable.
Another thorny issue — perhaps the thorniest — is the status of Crimea and the two breakaway Russian-supported republics in eastern Ukraine. The Russians want Ukrainian recognition of its annexation of Crimea and the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions; Ukraine claims all three as part of its territory. Some compromise is imaginable here — an internationally monitored referendum in each territory, perhaps — but what that would look like is not obvious.
The resolution of these issues will likely depend quite a bit on the war’s progress. The more each side believes it has a decent chance to improve its battlefield position and gain leverage in negotiations, the less reason either will have to make concessions to the other in the name of ending the fighting.
And even if they do somehow come to an agreement, it may not end up holding.
On the Ukrainian side, ultra-nationalist militias could work to undermine any agreement with Russia that they believe gives away too much, as they threatened during pre-war negotiations aimed at preventing the Russian invasion.
On the Russian side, an agreement is only as good as Putin’s word. Even if it contains rigorous provisions designed to raise the costs of future aggression, like international peacekeepers, that may not hold him back from breaking the agreement.
This invasion did, after all, start with him launching an invasion that seemed bound to hurt Russia in the long run. Putin dragged the world into this mess; when and how it gets out of it depends just as heavily on his decisions.