The War in Ukraine Has No End in Sight
After one year, whatever morale boost Biden’s visit provided won’t necessarily have concrete, strategic effects in Ukraine.
President Joe Biden marked the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which falls on Friday, a few days early. Joining Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, Biden went well beyond praising Zelenskyy's leadership and the strength of Ukrainian resistance to a brutal Russian onslaught. "Unchecked aggression is a threat to all of us," he said, touting U.S. military aid and re-upping his State of the Union pledge that the U.S. will support Ukraine "for as long as it takes."
How long that may be is the question of the hour, occasioned as much by the anniversary and Biden's comments as by an understandable but almost certainly unrealistic hope for a near-term, cinematic Ukrainian victory.
A sudden, happy upset is possible, of course. History sometimes does turn on a dime. But the likeliest path forward is an ugly one, a long slog of a war that we can't confidently expect will conclude in its second year or, perhaps, will definitely conclude at all. The war isn't following a tidy narrative arc, and there's no basis for believing the U.S.—or anyone, including Biden and Zelenskyy—has the capacity to push it to a satisfying resolution.
The possibility of a long timeline and lack of resolution was difficult to entertain this time last year. The widespread assumption was that Russian troops would roll into Kyiv, rapidly overpowering the smaller nation. Of course, that didn't happen, and Ukraine's fall counteroffensive had stunning success reclaiming large swathes of territory.
Now it's difficult not to trace that line of success further, imagining more Ukrainian triumphs as winter concludes, maybe even reclamation of the Crimean Peninsula. "We are Harry Potter and William Wallace, the Na'vi and Han Solo," said a Ukrainian soldier profiled on NATO's Twitter account on Thursday. "We're escaping from Shawshank and blowing up the Death Star. We are fighting with the Harkonnens and challenging Thanos."
That mythologizing is sympathetic and perhaps to be expected from Ukrainian forces. But here in the States, we—and especially policy makers—should have a more sober view. It's right to want to see the end of Russian aggression, but it's also wise to recognize it probably won't end soon.
As a collection of experts including "national security analysts, lawmakers and retired officials" told Defense News, this "war will be expensive, cost lives and likely last at least a few years—or even become interminable." The "very concept of victory may be inaccurate," as a Russian army driven back across Ukrainian borders could repeatedly reinvade.
Also plausible is a "Korea solution," as my Defense Priorities colleague Lyle Goldstein recently argued at Responsible Statecraft, in which open fighting would stop but the combatants might continue for decades without a formal peace. And a long-term war is probably to Moscow's advantage. Ukraine's economy has suffered serious harm in the first 12 months, as has its military. Financial and military aid from Western powers may begin to flag. Pending the outcome of the 2024 election, U.S. aid could be markedly curtailed or cut off entirely by a new administration and/or congressional majorities.
That reality hasn't necessarily sunk in with the U.S. war effort's most energetic boosters. Moscow "has been reduced to one last hope: that [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's will is stronger than Joe Biden's," argued erstwhile Committee for the Liberation of Iraq member Eliot A. Cohen at The Atlantic this week. "And [by visiting Kyiv] Biden just said, by deed as well as word, 'Oh no it's not.'" Cohen continued:
This is a gut punch to Russia's leader. The Russians received word of the trip, we are informed—and presumably the threat, stated or implied, that they would get a violent and overwhelming response if they attempted to interfere with it. For a leader obsessed with strength, like Putin, that is a blow. His own people will quietly or openly ask, "Why could we not prevent this?" And the answer, unstated, will have to be, "Because we were afraid."
Will it, though? That's a great story, but it beggars belief that an autocratic leader like Putin, committed to what he considers an existential battle, will be meaningfully moved toward surrender by Biden's one-day appearance in Kyiv. (Never mind the fact that the war could easily outlast Biden's presidency, so pinning Ukraine's fate to his personal willpower seems risky at best, or that Moscow was advised about the visit ahead of time and didn't try to prevent it, an obviously reckless effort that could have easily tipped into open great power conflict.)
Morale isn't nothing, of course. But whatever morale boost Biden provided won't necessarily have concrete, strategic effects. There isn't a straight route from "Biden visits Kyiv" to "Ukraine retakes the Donbas" or, indeed, to any specific battlefield or diplomatic outcome. The unpleasant truth, at the one-year mark, is that we just don't know where this story will go next—or when or whether this war will end.