The war in Ukraine, it’s clear by now, won’t end soon. The bet in Moscow—and the fear in Kyiv—is that the West will lose stamina before Russia suffers a decisive defeat.
So far, Russia’s expectations of discord among Ukraine’s backers haven’t materialized. Europe has severed its dependence on Russian energy with limited pain and no political cataclysms. As all major Western economies grew in 2022 despite the disruptions, the consensus behind supplying weapons to Kyiv has only solidified.
Yet, with Russia announcing a mobilization of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in September and switching its economy to a war footing, time could be on Moscow’s side. So far, neither the U.S. nor Europe has made the adjustments, especially in military production, that are necessary for sustaining Ukraine in a war that could potentially drag on for several years. Neither are they immune to pain from further energy shocks.
“The idea that a major classic conventional war in Europe could last as long as one of the two world wars is not something we are yet ready for,” says Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris think tank. “Even though the resilience of European societies has been remarkable, it cannot be taken for granted.”
The same goes for the U.S. While the lame-duck Congress in December authorized $44.9 billion in funding to support the war in Ukraine, probably enough for the next nine months, new Republican control of the House means that further military and civilian aid packages for Kyiv may be more complicated to fund.
If time works to Moscow’s advantage, it’s in the West’s interest to dramatically increase support for Ukraine in coming months, abandoning the excessive caution that characterized weapons deliveries until now, says retired Air Marshal Edward Stringer, former head of operations at the British Defense Staff.
“By continuing to drip-feed just enough for Ukraine not to lose, what the West is doing is just prolonging the war,” Air Marshal Stringer says. “Whether we realize it or not, Russia has thrown a gauntlet to the West. And, even though our own troops aren’t fighting there, we are thoroughly invested in this conflict, and we have to provide the materiel to win it.”
Ukraine’s own once-significant defense industry has been decimated by Russian airstrikes in the 11 months of war, and the country now is almost wholly reliant on Western-provided weapons and ammunition to survive. While Russia’s economy, roughly the size of Spain’s, is a minnow compared with the combined might of the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, Western defense procurement and manufacturing—unlike Russia’s—is largely continuing to follow peacetime procedures and schedules.
“The West, in general, naturally overshadows Russia in economic potential and defense-industrial capacity, and that should make you believe that, in a protracted war, Ukraine with Western support stands a much better chance of winning the conflict,” says Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank that advises the U.S. military. “But that is not a predetermined outcome. Potential is just that. It takes a great deal of will, and wars are fundamentally a contest of wills.”
Before last fall’s mobilization, Russia—which began the invasion using mostly full-time contract troops—suffered from manpower shortages in Ukraine while relying on an overwhelming advantage in artillery firepower. Now that Russia has mobilized 300,000 reservists, it has solved its manpower problem just as it’s starting to run low on ammunition and materiel.
Long term, the arithmetic of manpower works to Moscow’s advantage as Russia has 3.5 times Ukraine’s population. Even if Russia loses two soldiers for every one Ukrainian service member killed, it still improves its relative strength. So far, Western officials say, Russia’s battlefield fatalities—numbering in several tens of thousands—are comparable to Ukraine’s.
The calculus on ammunition and weaponry is more complicated. Ukraine uses up Western-supplied 155 mm artillery shells at roughly twice the rate that they are being manufactured by the U.S. and allies, military analysts say. At this rate of fire, Kyiv could draw down U.S. and European reserves to critical levels at some point this summer or fall.
By then, Russia—with its single-minded focus on the war—may be able to expand its own ammunition production to keep pace with the tempo of the fighting. The U.S. and allies are also investing in new ammunition production lines, but these are unlikely to make a major difference until next year, creating a potentially dangerous gap between Ukraine’s and Russia’s firepower in the second half of 2023.
“We should not underestimate Russia. They are mobilizing more troops, they are working hard to acquire more equipment, more ammunition, and they have shown willingness to actually suffer but to continue the war,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says. “There is no indication that President Putin has changed the overall aim of his brutal war against Ukraine. So we need to be prepared for the long haul.”
The mobilization has already allowed Mr. Putin to stabilize the front line, and to launch a counteroffensive around the city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region. Possibilities of a negotiated settlement are remote in the foreseeable future.
“Any notion of the peace process is out because Putin is doing everything to make clear that this is existential for him,” says Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who heads the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “He is preparing his population for a long war, and I don’t think he’s ever going to give up on his imperial ambitions for controlling Ukraine.” With no end to the conflict in sight, he says, the U.S. and allies should already start preparing to integrate the government-controlled majority of Ukraine into Western institutions, without waiting for the war’s conclusion.
Ukraine says that its war aim is to oust Russia from all territories conquered in the past year and the areas it lost to Russia in 2014, including Crimea. Ukraine regaining even part of these areas would endanger Mr. Putin’s hold on power at home.
Russia seeks, at a minimum, to conquer the Ukrainian-held parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions that Mr. Putin declared to be part of Russia in October. Currently, almost the entire front line runs across what Russia considers to be its own sovereign soil.
Ukrainian officials warn that Moscow’s initial war goal, the occupation of Kyiv and the entirety of the country, hasn’t changed—and that any pause in the conflict would be used by Mr. Putin to regroup and strike again.
“They are preparing for new battles, for new offensive operations, not for talks. Nothing speaks in favor of Russia being ready to talk,” says Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “I know Russia, I see what is happening in Russia. And I think it’s either them or us. There is nothing in between now anymore.”