President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine must not be allowed to drag on. And yet it has dragged on for over a year and will continue indefinitely unless the United States and its allies put a large conventional force on the ground and drive Russian occupiers out. Otherwise, a prolonged war will not only inflict severe damage on Ukraine but will create unacceptable risks for the West, as well.
Without direct action by NATO to bring the conflict to a quick resolution it is unclear when and how it will end. Hopes for a quick and complete Ukrainian victory are misplaced, even if its forces will likely liberate more territory in the promised spring offensive. Western weapons that Ukraine has been getting are not the most advanced and in any case, they are trickling in too slowly.
Meanwhile, Putin remains determined. The “special military operation,” as he calls it, has become his fixation and he can hardly talk of anything else.
The longer sanctions regimes endure the more porous they become
Russian losses have been mind-boggling but protests against the call-up have been minimal. Putin and his generals care little about mounting casualties and will continue to ship tens of thousands of submissive cannon fodder to be slaughtered in Ukraine.
Nor does Putin care about the damage inflicted on Russia’s economy by international sanctions. It will not crumble and Russia will continue to sell enough oil, gas and other natural resources to fund the war. It has already been able to obtain restricted imports through various gray schemes and to buy weapons it can’t produce from Iran and possibly North Korea. The longer sanctions regimes endure the more porous they become.
Of course, Putin may die or be overthrown but there are no indications of that happening imminently. Besides, his successors may be equally determined to subjugate Ukraine.
Most wars end at the negotiating table and not on the battlefield but that happens only after the combatants have become thoroughly exhausted. Right now, the two sides are too far apart.
Ukraine and its allies insist on the withdrawal of Russian troops from the line of February 23, 2022, as a minimal precondition, whereas Putin wants a truce that would de facto recognize his control over the territory he has occupied and give him time to regroup, rearm and start a fresh offensive.
Putin is convinced that time is on his side. He believes that Russians are long-suffering and will tolerate much more hardship than the Americans and Western Europeans. Now that his blitzkrieg has failed, he feels that he can achieve at least some of his goals by prolonging the war.
He may be right. No realistic scenario of a war lasting three to five years is a good one. Ukraine will be devastated economically, its infrastructure will be destroyed and even though its casualties are far smaller than Russia’s, they will still be enormous.
IN THE course of a long war in which Russia will also be severely weakened, China may decide to prop up Putin – especially if Beijing’s relations with Washington continue to worsen. So far, Russia has been effectively isolated but in a prolonged conflict, it might be able to attract some covert or overt support by tapping into global anti-Americanism.
Ukrainians have been highly appreciative of the assistance they are getting and they are eager to join the democratic West. But as the war drags on and Ukrainian losses grow, resentment will build. Ukrainians know that they are not only fighting for their own freedom but are also defending democracy and peace in Europe. They may come to believe that the West is fighting Putin to the last Ukrainian while sacrificing very little in that struggle.
The fallout from a long war may be even greater. Ukraine may become a failed state. Western support may wane and a Republican administration in Washington may reduce the flow of arms to Ukraine. If Ukraine starts losing, NATO members Poland the Baltic states and Romania may feel forced to enter the conflict to protect themselves.
All this suggests that the war must be brought to a speedy end and to achieve that, the US and its allies need to get directly involved. While putting boots on the ground in Ukraine, NATO should clearly state that its troops will not cross the internationally recognized borders of the Russian Federation and will limit military action to conventional forces. Once the Ukrainian territory is liberated, Ukraine should be brought into NATO in order to remove any temptation for Putin to attack again.
Kremlin propagandists are already claiming that Russia is fighting the combined might of NATO. Ironically, a defeat by NATO may be easier for Putin to swallow and to sell to the Russian people than a failure against mere Ukrainians, whom Russians have been taught not to take seriously.
Engaging Russia directly has been rejected by Western leaders because it could lead to an all-out nuclear war. But the risk of a nuclear war will always exist as long as we are dealing with nuclear missiles controlled by a dictator who will cling to power to the last and at all costs.
Direct involvement by conventional NATO forces in Ukraine may increase that risk but by a considerably smaller margin than a long drawn-out military conflict during which events may get out of control in so many unpredictable ways. Thus, defeating Russia and ending the conflict is not only the fastest way to end the hostilities but the safest way, too – perhaps the only safe way.
In any case, the leaders of the Western alliance should keep in mind that those who fear doing the right thing usually live to see their worst fears realized.
The writer is a board member of the US Andrei Sakharov Foundation. From 2014-21, he wrote a weekly column for the Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper. Over the past year, he has written for The Jerusalem Post on the war in Ukraine, based in part on his volunteer work on the Polish-Ukrainian border.