You never know what will be in the news tomorrow. Next year is even less predictable. But there’s one exception: war in Ukraine. Get used to it. You’ll be reading battlefield reports from Ukraine for a long time.
Both warring armies have goals they must achieve before laying down their weapons. The goals are fundamentally incompatible. Neither side is willing to accept even the other’s minimum demands.
Ukraine is already devastated. Combined casualties are in the hundreds of thousands. After this amount of horror over the last 18 months, we might expect that blood and exhaustion would drive combatants to the negotiating table. They haven’t. In fact, as is often the case, heavy losses and gruesome atrocities stiffen both armies’ determination to reject compromise. What we have seen since the Russian invasion in February 2022 may be just the beginning.
World War I began in July 1914 with both sides predicting that their soldiers would be “home by Christmas.” Instead, the war dragged on for four horrific years. It all but wiped out an entire generation of European men — more than 8 million soldiers, plus at least the same number of civilians. France lost more than a million soldiers. Germany lost 2 million. Brace yourself for something comparable in Ukraine.
“We don’t need peace talks, we need victory,” Representative Nancy Pelosi asserted a few months ago. Almost all Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree. So do our allies in Kyiv and our enemies in Moscow. Peace is not on or near the horizon — even though Ukraine’s military chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, recently conceded that “just like in the First World War, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate.”
For Ukraine, peace now would mean surrendering territory and submitting to at least a measure of Russian dominance. For Russia, it would mean accepting a heavily armed enemy on its border. Neither country is considering the adversary’s terms. Both are confident in their military power. Ukraine receives huge amounts of money and weaponry from the West. Russia counts on its advantage in manpower and artillery. Neither feels pressure to negotiate. On the contrary, leaders of both countries believe that compromise equals extinction. Once you believe that, no sacrifice is too great.
“For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation,” President Vladimir Putin of Russia has told his people. “It is not only a very real threat to our interests, but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty.”
President Biden is no less categorical. “We’re not withdrawing,” he insisted last month as he asked Congress for another $60 billion in aid to Ukraine. “When dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction. They keep going. And the cost and the threats to America and the world keep rising.”
Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, described the conflict even more starkly. “As a child of the ’80s and ‘Rocky’ and ‘Red Dawn,’ I believe in righteous causes and I believe the Ukrainians have one,” he told The New Yorker. He asserted that in Ukraine, as in those films, there is “a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. And we’re on the side of the good guy, and we have to do a lot.”
A change in leadership, either in Moscow or in Washington, would make little or no difference in both sides’ determination to fight on.
Putin’s most potent domestic rival is the Communist Party, which has finished second in every national election since the Russian Federation was founded in 1991. Its most prominent leader, Gennady Zyuganov, has demanded that the war in Ukraine be pursued with more force. “There is a war, and we have no right to lose it,” he declared in September. “We need a full mobilization of the country.”
In the United States, Republican presidential candidates either support Biden or want him to send even more aid to Ukraine. Ron DeSantis calls Putin “a war criminal.” Nikki Haley says the Ukraine conflict “is a war about freedom, and it’s one we have to win.”
Donald Trump, who leads the Republican field, takes just as twisted an approach to Ukraine as he does to other issues. He has said that if he is elected, he will end the war “in 24 hours or less.” How would he do it? “I would tell Putin, ‘If you don’t make a deal, we’re going to give [Ukrainians] a lot. We’re going to give them more than they ever got, if we have to.’”
Even if an American president sought to end this conflict by reducing military aid to Ukraine or supporting territorial concessions — an almost unimaginable scenario — it’s hard to see how he or she could succeed. Almost every influential politician and foreign policy opinion-maker in Washington supports Ukraine’s position. So do key bureaucrats at the Pentagon, the State Department, and other powerful agencies.
Alongside them is the arms industry, which, according to Senator Mitch McConnell, is producing so much weaponry for Ukraine that it now buoys the economy “in 38 different states . . . so we’re rebuilding our industrial base.” Another oft-repeated argument is that, as Senator Lindsey Graham has put it, “no Americans are dying.” This makes the war blood-free — as long as you’re not Ukrainian.
All sides in this war seem determined to fight, in Biden’s words, “for as long as it takes.” That may be years.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.