Wars are easy to start — like striking a match. As the fire spreads, it’s harder to keep under control and then very difficult to stop without a clear conclusion.
That’s where Russia is now. Russian President Vladimir Putin failed in what he thought would be an easy conquest. Now he has chosen to retreat, resupply, reorder his command structure, and strike again, this time with increased brutality against innocent victims all over Ukraine. Inside Russia, he is crushing all internal dissent and punishing anyone who resists in a campaign similar to the nightmare rule of Joseph Stalin for 30 years under Soviet dictatorship. No one should hope, short of a miracle, that oligarchs will toss Putin from power.
This new phase brings with it several important judgments.
First, it may last a long time. Putin has lost many soldiers and much equipment to combat. Military units are depleted and arms must be resupplied. New troops have to be trained, which takes months. In the meantime, he will rely on destruction of cities with artillery and strikes by missiles and aircraft to terrorize the Ukrainian civilian population. The Ukrainians will continue their tenacious defense and will hold their own as long as they receive the weapons they need.
In Washington, the Pentagon already has said the war will not end in 2022, a euphemism really for saying that the U.S. military doesn’t at this point see any conclusion to the fighting in sight.
Second, President Zelensky has hardened his position on negotiations, saying he will not give up any Ukrainian territory to Russia. He knows that Putin has no plan to negotiate, except when Russia clearly appears to be a winner, and so his only choice is to continue to rouse his people to put up the strongest, most resilient defense possible.
Third, the defense ministries of the NATO powers now will budget for long-term supply of the arms Ukraine needs, and contractors will increase their output. Stockpiles have been drawn down deeply for key weapons such as the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. The same will happen for the offensive weapons now slated for Ukraine — the howitzers that are the backbone of the U.S. Army — and possibly tanks resupply for the Ukrainian forces among other possible offensive weapons.
Fourth, the global food supply and energy pictures will change considerably, and problems with each will affect standards of living around the world and add inflationary pressures to world markets. The maldistribution of these resources will put great strain on access to the needed resource. This is likely to take some time — even years — to restructure properly.
Finally, the U.S. and NATO see that the war is widening and that the Ukrainian need is growing. There is still a serious contradiction between saying that we will provide the Ukrainians with the weapons to prevent the Russians from winning and the commitment to defend every inch of NATO territory.
This official current political position would allow the Russians to conquer all Ukraine potentially. Yet, no one, not the U.S. President or any other NATO state leader, wants to see that happen. As events move, our position must be clarified. At the moment, we see heroic resistance standing against a foe that has turned to massive terror and destruction to win. For now and for some time, the Russians are determined to be seen as a winner, and the U.S. must ensure that does not happen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: W. Robert Pearson was an innovative diplomat, leader and crisis manager at the top levels of the U.S. government. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey and completed a 30-year career in 2006 with the Department of State as director general of the Foreign Service. He is a frequent writer and speaker on diplomacy, foreign policy, Turkey, NGOs and development, and served under six presidents (four Republican and two Democratic) and 11 secretaries of state. He lives in Fearrington Village with his wife, Maggie, who also worked as a diplomat and served as a senior foreign service public diplomacy officer from 2000 to 2006 period.