Governments start wars in pursuit of various objectives, from conquering territory to changing the regime of a hostile state to supporting a beleaguered ally. Once a war begins, the stakes are immediately raised. It is one of the paradoxes of war that even as its original objectives drift out of reach or are cast aside, the necessity of not being seen as the loser only grows in importance—such importance, in fact, that even if winning is no longer possible, governments will still persevere to show that they have not been beaten.
The problem with losing goes beyond the failure to achieve objectives or even having to explain the expenditures of blood and treasure for little gain: loss casts doubt on the wisdom and competence of the government. Failure in war can cause a government to fall. That is often why governments keep on fighting wars: an admission of defeat could make it harder to hold on to power.
All of these dynamics are evident in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin set as his objectives the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine. By the first, he presumably meant regime change, in which case the war has clearly been a failure. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s position is as strong as ever. As for demilitarization, Ukraine is on its way to becoming the most militarized country in Europe. Many of the Russian speakers in Ukraine on whose behalf Putin claimed to be acting now prefer to speak Ukrainian, while the Russian-speaking areas of the Donbas have been battered, deindustrialized, and depopulated because of this ruinous war.
Russian forces have failed to take complete control of any of the four oblasts, or administrative regions—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—that Putin claimed for Russia in September 2022. Much of the ground initially seized after the full-scale invasion has been relinquished, and more is being lost, albeit slowly, during the current Ukrainian offensive. Before February 2022, Russia could be confident that Ukraine would not be able to challenge the illegal annexation of Crimea, but now even Russia’s hold of the peninsula is no longer certain. Ukraine still hopes that its war aims—the liberation of all occupied land and the restoration of the borders created in 1991—can be achieved. Even if Ukraine’s current offensive falters, Russia lacks for now the combat power to seize the advantage and take more territory.
Putin is not close to achieving any of his war aims while the price of his gambit grows ever steeper. He may, of course, believe that at least some of his original objectives are still possible, or take some comfort from those analysts in the West who are convinced that the best Ukraine can hope for is a military stalemate. But the Russian leader has never shown himself to be satisfied with a stalemate. He wants a resolution in which he can be shown to be the clear victor. When asked about negotiation, including by sympathetic interlocutors, for example from Africa, he still demands that Ukraine recognize the annexations of the four oblasts, which would require Kyiv to hand over more territory to Moscow. That is clearly not going to happen.
Were Putin to accept a cease-fire based on current positions, it would ease the threat to Crimea and allow the Russian occupation of what is still a sizable chunk of Ukrainian territory. It would, however, confirm that none of Putin’s goals have been met. This would become even more obvious if discussions around a cease-fire led to pressure for Russian forces to abandon some of the land they have taken. Being stuck with bits and pieces of Ukrainian territory with hostile populations, massive reconstruction bills, and long frontlines with an undefeated Ukraine, would not look like a big win—especially when set against the many casualties incurred by Russian forces, the degradation of the Russian army, the sputtering Russian economy, and the knock to Russia’s standing as a great and influential power. As soon as the fighting stopped and troops started to come home, there would be a national reckoning, and it would not reflect well on Putin.
But now, Putin must face an even more disturbing possibility: suppose the reckoning cannot be postponed and comes before a definitive end to the fighting, not afterward. All trends—military, economic, diplomatic—continue to point in the wrong direction, and Putin has no convincing explanation for how the situation can be salvaged. The Russian president finds himself boxed in with no good options. He may indeed already be aware that the reckoning has begun.
Russian elites know full well that the war was a terrible blunder and is going badly. They have not been inclined to do much about it because they fear Putin and a chaotic world without him. They are sufficiently patriotic to believe that despite all the additional stress, the system can somehow be made to work and that the country will pull through. It is on the frontlines that the extent of the blunder has become inescapable and where there is the most evidence of dissent. The brief mutiny of the Wagner mercenary group had much to do with the desire of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to protect his business model from the Defense Ministry. But Prigozhin also tapped into a wider dissatisfaction with Russia’s high command and its unimaginative strategy, wasteful tactics, and corrupt practices.
Prigozhin lost the immediate power struggle, his armaments, and his businesses, if not, as yet, his life or freedom. In dealing with his former confidant, Putin showed more vulnerability than weakness. The outcome made it much harder to demote his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, or top commander, Valery Gerasimov, despite their demonstrated incompetence and loss of support among the officer class. But loyalty comes first. It is the military officials closely associated with Prigozhin who have been sidelined.
Meanwhile, Gerasimov apparently fired General Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th Combined Arms Air Defense Army, after he complained bitterly about the conditions imposed on his troops, who were in his words being “stabbed in the back.” The complaints to which Popov gave voice are widely shared and are not going to disappear, especially if Ukraine continues to disrupt Russian logistics, and it is not clear what Russian commanders can do to address them. The Russian response to the advances of Ukrainian forces has been to throw everything into counterattacks. This has led to some intense engagements and occasional successes, but Ukraine’s army has adapted after early disappointments and continues to hold the initiative and the greater momentum.
Putin finds himself boxed in with no good options.
As these developments eat away at the morale of frontline forces, they also erode the confidence of the elite, and even Putin’s position. Past Russian setbacks, or at least those of a scale that could not be hidden, prompted major shifts in Russian strategy. After the failure of the early battle for Kyiv, there was a renewed focus on the Donbas. After Ukraine’s breakthrough in Kharkiv in September 2022, Moscow decided to raise the stakes with more ambitious war aims, mass mobilization, and a bombing campaign against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. So far, the most substantial response has been punitive: ending the arrangement that allowed Ukraine to export grain and then striking the Ukrainian port of Odesa.
Should there be another big win for Ukraine (and nothing is guaranteed here), it is not clear what options would be available to provide Moscow with a more effective strategy. The choice would be unpalatable for Putin: he must either confirm that Russia is losing an unnecessary war or persist in waging an unwinnable war.
One way out of such a dilemma might be for Putin to get his propagandists to concoct a story to explain why, despite the appearance of loss, Russia has in fact won. The simplest story he can tell is that Russia’s war is not with Ukraine, but with NATO. The Kremlin has already told this story to explain Russian setbacks and show how Ukraine is acting as an agent of the West. The narrative could be turned into a heroic one about how, against all odds, Russia survived the wrath of world’s mightiest alliance. But this story is also, from a Russian perspective, suboptimal because if Russia were truly at war with NATO, it would have no chance of victory. As it is, every new initiative by NATO countries in support of Ukraine is followed by dire warnings from Moscow, usually from the broken record that is former president Dmitri Medvedev, of the terrible, unspecified retribution to follow. Such invocations of doom have yet to deter Ukraine’s allies.
Moscow made a more plausible argument last year, claiming that a combination of Europe’s energy crunch and concern about costs would lead the West to wind down its support for Ukraine. Perhaps Putin now hopes to achieve the same effect with food shortages, even though this will harm otherwise sympathetic countries. He may be disappointed: similar actions have yet to dent Western support for Ukraine. Over the last six months, more and better weapons have been delivered to Kyiv. In certain respects, NATO countries are subject to the same pressures Russia is; not losing is also a vital interest of the West.
Obviously, this is Ukraine’s war to win or lose, not NATO’s, but after becoming so committed to the Ukrainian cause, the alliance dare not back away now, especially when it has invested so much in equipping the country to fight and prevail. Finding the resources to support Ukraine can be challenging, but this is a genuinely collective effort, with most U.S. allies making a substantial financial and material contribution. Ukraine is united and effective in its fighting. Furthermore, a Russian victory would be a geopolitical catastrophe for NATO, posing the far greater risk of an all-out war between the alliance and Russia. Better that Russia is pushed back by Ukraine, with its army degraded in the process.
The main questions facing NATO surround the prospect of a change of U.S. administration—and what shift in Ukraine policy that might entail—and concerns that Ukraine does not have the capacity to make any major military breakthroughs. The first question will not be answered until November 2024; the second will be answered in the coming weeks and months.
Even if progress is slower than hoped, Ukraine will have no interest in a cease-fire so long as Russia holds so much of its land and immiserates those living under its occupation. Kyiv assumes that Moscow would use any truce to reconstitute its forces for the next round of fighting. Recovery and reconstruction in postwar Ukraine will pose daunting challenges and raise awkward questions about the assessments and decisions made before and during the fighting. But contrary to the hindsight in Russia, there is no doubt in Ukraine that this is a war that had to be fought and could be lost.
Putin can simply try to hang on but given the mounting pressures he needs a strategy to show that Russia still has a path to victory. What Putin does should in turn shape Ukrainian actions. Kyiv can add to the anxieties in Moscow, demonstrating that no part of Russia is secure, punishing Russian forces at the front, and opportunistically liberating territory even if it is not quite what military planners intended. This has become a war of endurance. Just as Putin must hope that Ukraine and its Western supporters will tire before Russia does, Ukraine and its backers must show that they can cope with the war’s demands for as long as necessary.