The war in Ukraine has become a brutal, grinding contest of attrition. As the conflict drags on, the question becomes, which side does time favor? Kyiv is betting that its leverage will increase as an isolated Russia comes face to face with economic and military ruin. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wager is that he can devastate Ukraine even with a weakened army, while using the threat of global economic chaos to sever Kyiv’s lifeline to the outside world. Each side is trying to bleed and batter the other into submission, a dynamic that will fuel far-reaching instability — and present the US with nasty challenges.
In recent weeks, the fighting has occurred primarily in eastern Ukraine. Russia is using hellacious artillery barrages and methodical attacks to slowly seize more territory, in hopes of fully “liberating” the Donbas region. Ukraine is hanging on, inflicting terrible casualties while also suffering, by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s own admission, heavy losses.
Notwithstanding Russian territorial gains, Ukraine still has reason for optimism. Its military power is, in important respects, increasing, as Kyiv receives longer-range artillery and other sophisticated weapons from Western countries. Some of the world’s top intelligence services are also effectively working for Kyiv, providing information that helps Ukrainian military leaders anticipate the enemy’s blows and strike plenty of their own.
Russia’s military power, in contrast, will probably atrophy in a long war, because Russia’s economy and defense industry are subject to harsh sanctions, and the morale of its forces will fade as casualties mount. As long as Ukraine has most of the world’s advanced democracies behind it, it can plausibly hope to weaken and ultimately break the Russian army — and then perhaps recapture some of the territory Moscow has stolen.
Yet there are crucial caveats. One is the threat of “Zelenskiy fatigue” — the danger that Western leaders will tire of Kyiv’s requests for money and guns at a time when their own economies are weakening and their own arsenals are being depleted. A recent $40 billion US support package for Ukraine drew Republican criticism on these grounds. If the costs of the war keep rising, and if Zelenskiy keeps insisting that Ukraine will liberate all the territory Russia has taken since 2014, his foreign backers may come to see him as not an inspiration but a burden.
That prospect will interact with Putin’s strategy, which involves riding out sanctions while turning Ukraine into a disaster zone. The blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, especially Odesa, is making it prohibitively difficult to export wheat and other goods. The ongoing brutalization of the country has caused a catastrophic economic contraction. Russia may not be able to defeat Ukraine militarily, but it can wreck the economy and force Kyiv to make enormous demands on its international supporters for years to come.
Moreover, Putin is using the prospect of global economic carnage as a means of geopolitical coercion. If Ukraine can’t export wheat, countries around the world will suffer. High energy prices are exacerbating recessionary pressures in developed and developing economies alike. By inflicting enough pain, perhaps Putin can peel away reluctant members, such as Germany, from the democratic coalition and make Ukraine sue for peace. Global chaos could help Putin in other ways, too: The longer the war lasts, the higher the chance a major crisis over Iran or Taiwan will pull US attention elsewhere.
Indeed, whether or not this strategy succeeds, it will test Washington. In response to Moscow’s economic strangulation campaign, the US could use Russian state assets it has frozen to sustain and rebuild Ukraine. Yet that would unavoidably increase global fears about the weaponization of American financial dominance. The US could try to turn the tables on Putin by dialing up economic coercion of Russia. But this would probably require greater use of secondary sanctions — penalizing third parties that do business with Moscow — which would in turn cause greater friction with countries that rely on Russian oil or other exports.
Perhaps most ticklish is the issue of restoring Ukraine’s ability to export (especially wheat) to the world. This is crucial to easing the economic shocks the war has caused. Yet it might require taking steps such as escorting Ukrainian ships, “re-flagging” them as American, or forcibly opening a secure land or maritime corridor — actions that would project US power into the heart of an ongoing war.
Rather than aiming primarily to deter Russia from attacking NATO countries, the US would then be trying to compel Russia to stop impeding Ukraine’s trade with the world. This could lead to a perilous moment, as success in relieving economic pressure from Russia could amount to the failure of Putin’s strategy for winning the war.
The conflict in Ukraine may seem to have settled into a violent equilibrium. But the turmoil that war produces, and the global dilemmas it presents, have only begun.