As the bloody conflict enters its second year, Tufts experts weigh alternative endings—and the possibility it won’t be resolved any time soon
A year ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, many observers expected Russia would roll into Kyiv and take over the country in less than a week. A year later, Russian troops are bogged down in southern and eastern Ukraine, having lost territory they gained earlier in the war.
Now the conflict is grinding into its second year, with huge loss of life, widespread destruction, and displacement of millions of civilians.
“It has largely become a war of attrition,” says Arik Burakovsky, assistant director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at The Fletcher School. “But I wouldn’t say it’s a stalemate yet. I think both sides still have a theory of victory. Both sides believe that time is on their side.”
That tracks with two schools of thought about the future of the conflict, says Oxana Shevel, associate professor of political science. One argues that while Russia has done poorly, it has the advantage the longer the war drags on: It has a larger population and more resources, and while Western sanctions have created problems, they haven’t ruined the Russian economy. “Putin is absolutely determined, because he essentially cornered himself with this war,” Shevel says. “He staked his regime survival basically on this war.”
But another school suggests the opposite, she continues. “This argument says that time is not on Putin’s side, that it is very different from World War II, when there was an international coalition in support of the Soviet Union. Now the international coalition is against Russia. Their casualty rate is horrendous, and Ukraine is going to get new weapons, so Ukraine can turn the course of the battle further and liberate more territory,” she says.
And then there’s another possibility—that the fight will simply continue indefinitely. “I see it becoming almost a frozen conflict now,” says Richard Shultz, Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Security Studies at The Fletcher School. “These are conflicts that can’t be brought to an end. The fighting just continues.” One example of a frozen conflict is that between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which began in the early 1990s and recently flared up again.
“I expect the war to continue until there is some sort of clear winner and loser on the battlefield,” Shevel says.
“It worries me that Russia has the manpower that they can put on the battlefield, and just keep it coming. And, of course, the willingness of Putin to sacrifice young men with no concern.”
While the U.S. and other countries in January promised to send new and better tanks and other equipment to Ukraine, those won’t end up on the battlefield for months. Plus, the Russians are more entrenched in the territory they control in southern and eastern Ukraine, “so it would be even more difficult for the Ukrainian military to liberate more land as it did at Kherson in November,” says Volodymyr Dubovyk, a Ukrainian scholar based at The Fletcher School.
Shevel says she finds it more likely that Ukraine will ultimately prevail. “For Russia to win the war, things would have to happen that haven’t happened yet. There would have to be some sort of complete collapse of Ukrainian morale, and a complete collapse across the battlefront, not just losing another town after fighting Russian forces for many months,” she says.
She also doesn’t see the conflict pausing or ending without a clear victor. “A prevailing view in Ukraine is that if there is some kind of peace agreement, some sort of ceasefire, it would just be a chance for Putin to regroup, to rearm, and start over again, if not in a year then in five years or eight years.”
Win or Die
Both sides see the war in existential terms. “If you ask Ukrainians, they believe that this is a war for their survival, for the survival of their country, its language and culture. They believe that if they stop fighting, Russia will simply take all of Ukraine,” says Burakovsky.
Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at The Fletcher School who studies Russian military policy, agrees with that point of view. “I think Russia must be defeated on the battlefield, because Russia has not given up its original purpose of the war, which is the elimination of Ukrainian statehood, the elimination of Ukrainian culture—a genocide of Ukrainians,” he says.
Meanwhile Putin’s emerging narrative is that if Russia stops fighting, NATO will attack Russia, says Burakovsky. “I’ve had multiple conversations with experts in Russia who say that, if they need to fight for a decade, they will, because this is about Russia’s survival,” he says. “Many of the experts from Russia that I know have become far more hawkish over the past year, much more supportive of the Kremlin.”
In Russia, Putin is trying to turn the conflict into a defensive war, Dubovyk says. “Even from the very beginning, he was saying, ‘Oh, we didn’t want to fight, we’ve been forced to. Ukraine is a threat to our security.’”
Now the Kremlin’s story line is that the entire West is against Russia, using Ukraine as a proxy, so Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is pitched to the Russian people as a fight for the survival of their own country, he says.
“There’s the possibility of vertical escalation—meaning that Russia would use more advanced weapons, including nuclear weapons—on the battlefield. And there is the possibility of horizontal escalation, the war spilling over to other countries.”
“They’re now trying to push this narrative that there is no other way, and I think unfortunately it’s connecting with Russians,” Dubovyk says. But he argues that the only threat was “a political threat, because Ukraine was trying to be a striving democratic country in the face of authoritarian Russia.”
In 2014, Russia invaded parts of southeastern Ukraine and invaded and annexed Crimea. In the year following the 2022 invasion, Russia has bombed civilian targets, destroyed Ukrainian infrastructure, committed war crimes, kidnapped Ukrainian children, and looted Ukrainian museums, and the perception in Ukraine increasingly is that this is not just Putin’s war, but Russia’s war on Ukraine, says Shevel. “The Russian men who are in Ukraine killing and pillaging and raping—they’re not Putin. They are regular Russian men,” she says.
The war has further poisoned relations between Ukrainians and Russians and that enmity will likely continue for generations, she says. Many families have members on both sides of the border, and the relatives are interpreting the war differently depending on where they live.
“We have these stories of grown children calling their parents in Russia and saying, ‘Mom, we are being bombed.’ And the parents, who only hear Russian media coverage of the war, respond, ‘Oh no, we are liberating you, just hold on,’” Shevel says.
These shattered connections will take a very long time to repair, she says. “Even if there is a regime change in Moscow, it would be a very, very long road to reconciliation.”
The Potemkin Army
Probably the biggest surprise of the war has been how poorly the Russian military has performed. Prior to the invasion, many Western analysts thought Russia could quickly overpower Ukraine, a country with far fewer resources.
Those analysts judged the Russian military by the amount of hardware it had, Shultz says. “We thought that the Russian army had been modernized, because of all the new weapons systems that were developed. But what we didn’t realize is that the maintenance system for that equipment was terrible, so when they deployed it and things broke down, they couldn’t repair it,” he says.
Shultz recently co-wrote an article called “Russia’s Potemkin Army,” arguing that the façade of modernization couldn’t hide the poorly trained and badly managed military forces once the fighting began. For example, Shultz says, while the Ukrainians encourage operational and tactical decisions by local commanders, Russians have a rigid, top-down command system that means poorer responses to on-the-ground changes.
Luzin had written prior to the Russian invasion that the Russian armed forces faced challenges because of their rigid decision-making and lack of flexibility. He also cites what he calls a “major degradation of the educational system in Russia, including military education,” which leads to poorer quality troops.
Despite the quality issue, Russia still has a much larger population that gives it more resources for fighting than Ukraine has. “It worries me that Russia has the manpower that they can put on the battlefield, and just keep it coming,” says Shultz. “And, of course, the willingness of Putin to sacrifice young men with no concern.”
Danger of Escalation?
While Shultz thinks the Ukraine war may become a frozen conflict that goes on indefinitely, he says one strategy could break the deadlock.
In the Cold War era, NATO needed to counter the perceived Soviet advantage that came with its large population. The theory went that the Soviet Union could launch wave after wave of assaults on Western Europe and prevail.
So NATO created a strategy called an “assault breaker.” It would use new missile technology and submunitions—weapons that would separate from larger warheads prior to impact—which “would obliterate that second and third wave of assaults before they could be launched, so that the Russian strategy of multiple waves wouldn’t be able to work,” Shultz says.
If the Ukrainians employed that same kind of strategy to counter Russian forces, it would “give them the capacity to break that offensive. And then you end up with the Russian army losing,” Shultz says.
But that would likely lead to what everyone fears: escalation.
“That’s one thing that concerns me a lot as the fighting continues,” Burakovsky says. “We do see more advanced weapons being used, and this could very easily get out of hand,” he says. “There’s the possibility of vertical escalation—meaning that Russia would use more advanced weapons, including nuclear weapons—on the battlefield. And there is the possibility of horizontal escalation, the war spilling over to other countries.”
Putin has threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons, but Shevel is skeptical. “This idea that Putin will at some point definitely use nuclear weapons—obviously nobody really knows for sure, but I think the evidence we have so far suggests that a lot of it may be bluffing on his part. Many supposed ‘red lines’ were already crossed without leading to nuclear response from Russia, such as the sinking of Moskva battleship, the strike on Crimean bridge, or Ukraine retaking Kherson, which Putin constitutionally made territory of Russia. It is unclear what—if any—red lines Putin actually has in Ukraine,” she says.
The West has communicated through back channels to the Russians that if they were to use tactical nuclear weapons, NATO would launch a devastating conventional attack on Russian military forces, Shultz says. “We would counter by neutralizing them in terms of their conventional capability,” he says.
But what does that mean for the war? Simply this, says Dubovyk: “It’s not going to end anytime soon.”