As the war in Ukraine heads into its sixth month, with almost 50,000 people killed, both sides are digging in, says Tufts expert
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, expecting the Ukrainian government to fall quickly. It didn’t, and Russia pulled back from its efforts to take the capital Kyiv. It has focused instead on taking the southeastern part of the country, and now occupies parts of it. Fighting continues to be fierce, especially in the Donbas region, with no sign of letting up.
According to a Reuters calculation, more than 46,000 people have been killed so far in the war, including more than 5,000 civilians, and at least 16 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war, forced to flee their homes.
The war is a continuation of conflict that began in 2014, when Russian incursions into Ukraine led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the establishment of pro-Russian proxy “people’s republics” and de-facto Russian occupation of parts of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
To learn more about the prospects of the war as it heads into its sixth month, Tufts Now spoke with Chris Miller, an assistant professor of international history at The Fletcher School. He is the author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia and The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR.
Tufts Now: How has the war transformed from its initial phases to now, and what do those changes augur for the future?
Chris Miller: Although the Russians clearly thought at the start that the war would be quick, now both sides have come to terms with the fact that it is going to last far longer, and that it’s going to be far bloodier than the Russians initially expected.
We could still be months or longer away from a ceasefire. It’s hard to see at this point what outcomes are likely.
This war of attrition that we’re now seeing in the Donbas is less likely to produce a clear victory, and more likely eventually to lead to some sort of muddled compromise—at least from where things stand at the current moment.
People thought that the Ukrainian military wouldn’t be able to stand up to Russia, but it has. How has it been able to do this?
The Russians—and I think much of the world—clearly underestimated Ukraine’s military. No less important is that the Russians and much of the world underestimated Ukraine’s willingness to fight and to sustain such substantial losses to defend their territory. And the Russians have been less effective than most analysts—and certainly than the Kremlin—expected.
“Russia has lost roughly the same number of men in four months of fighting in Ukraine as it did in 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan. That’s covered up by the Russian media, so many Russians aren’t aware of this reality.”
It seems like Russia has the advantage of greater manpower and resources in its ability to outlast Ukraine in the war. Is that the case?
That remains to be seen. What we’re seeing right now in the battlefield is that both armies are trying to inflict more losses on the other relative to their own willingness to bear losses.
We don’t know what Ukraine has in reserves in terms of forces, or what ability Russia has to mobilize additional forces. Russia has been unwilling to announce a general mobilization because it’s fearful of the political consequences. So we don’t know what future forces Russia will be able to put into the Donbas.
We also don’t know the future willingness of both the Russian and Ukrainian leadership to bear losses going forward. We know right now that neither side is willing to surrender or offer concessions.
Is this a war that could grind on for years?
No one knows. I think it’s worth remembering that wars don’t have expiration dates when they start. There have been lots of wars that have lasted for years, in some cases into decades—the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet war in Afghanistan each lasted for an entire decade.
Whether this is a war of several more months or several more years or a decade, I don’t think there’s much basis for confident prediction at this point.
I saw a report in the Wall Street Journal that in Russia the war basically is not on people’s radar. Life just goes on, at least in Moscow, sort of like the Soviet Union was in the beginning years of the invasion of Afghanistan.
That characterization is partly true, in the sense that if you are in Russia and you don’t want to think about the war, it’s easy not to.
But the comparison with the start of the war in Afghanistan isn’t quite right. We don’t know the exact figures, but Russia has lost roughly the same number of men in four months of fighting in Ukraine as it did in 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan. So the scale of losses is dramatically different. That’s covered up by the Russian media, so many Russians aren’t aware of this reality. But it’s a crucial difference.
And even if Russians don’t want to connect the war to economic issues, the war has had a substantial impact on the typical Russian’s standard of living—inflation-adjusted wages are down 7%, for example, since the start of the year.
But the way that the Russian media has described and framed the war is to set those issues to the side and to say there’s not a war at all, that it’s a special military operation in which Russian draftees are not really serving. According to Russian media accounts, there are contract soldiers and most of the fighting is being done by Donbas militias.
So if you just buy the Russian media narrative, you can kind of pretend that a war isn’t happening, because they’re telling you that there isn’t really a war.
“The Russians have been telling themselves that they’re not losing, that in fact, maybe they’re winning. One could dispute this from the outside, but what matters is what they think, because that will determine their willingness to pursue the policy in the future.”
It sounds like economic sanctions are having some impact on Russia.
There’s no doubt the sanctions are making an economic impact on Russia. The question is, are they making a political impact on Russia? The optimal political impact would be to get Putin to stop the war, and that hasn’t happened yet.
The invasion of Ukraine seems like it has been a big miscalculation on the part of Putin. Is that how he probably sees it?
The Russians have been telling themselves that they’re not losing, that in fact, maybe they’re winning. One could dispute this from the outside, but what matters is what they think, because that will determine their willingness to pursue the policy in the future.
The Russian government view is that they’re wearing down the Ukrainian army. They’re imposing dramatic costs on the West, and especially on Europe, by driving up gasoline, food, and natural gas prices. They are likely going to drive Europe’s economy into recession later this year, because of high natural gas prices—Russia is not shipping the amount of natural gas that it usually does.
The Russians are telling themselves they are imposing so much economic pain on the U.S. and Europe that they’re going to induce the West to throw the Ukrainians under the bus. And then when the Ukrainians are standing alone against their armies, they’ll have the time and the space they need to grind the Ukrainians down and force a surrender. That’s the story that Russians are telling themselves.
There’s a plausibility to that story—and in that narrative, the Russians are winning, not losing.
Will Western Europe and America keep supporting Ukraine?
I think the answer is yes, though there’s uncertainty. But it seems to me that in the U.S., there is bipartisan support for arms transfers and financial aid for Ukraine. It seems to me that the U.K. is pursuing a similar policy.
In the European Union, there are obviously two dozen member states with differing views, but even there, it seems that the majority of states are in favor of a policy that’s pretty tough on Russia.
Some of the big players, like Germany, are more divided, and I think we’re going to see a major test of German chancellor Olaf Scholtz in the coming months, as the Russians squeeze the supply of natural gas to Germany.
Whether he offers them concessions or stays tough, that remains an open question. But if you ask me to bet, I think Western support won’t dramatically shift.