Domestic Politics Encourage Continued War of Attrition in Ukraine in 2023
This commentary is part of RM's effort to analyze the drivers and consequence of the Russia-Ukraine war one year on.
Last February, few observers thought we would be approaching the first anniversary of Russia’s war against Ukraine with brutal battles raging along a front stretching from Kharkiv in the northeast to Kherson in the south. Russian troops were supposed to seize Kyiv in a matter of days, oust President Volodymyr Zelensky and install a loyal puppet. Ukrainian valor, along with Western support, spoiled the plan, and the two sides settled into a war of attrition. Ukrainian counteroffensives last fall retook about half of the territory surrounding Kharkiv and Kherson, but did not alter the fundamental character of the war.
Russian forces are reportedly in the early phases of a major offensive, and a large Ukrainian counteroffensive is expected later this spring. The cost in blood, both Ukrainian and Russian, and devastation inside Ukraine will be staggering. Nevertheless, Moscow and Kyiv are each aiming for a decisive breakthrough that will put their country on the path to victory. Most military analysts, however, see little chance for a dramatic turn in events. If they are right, the war of attrition will continue, reinforced by the politics of Russia, Ukraine and the West, which rule out any near-term push for a negotiated settlement.
Both Kyiv and Moscow portray the war as existential. That appears self-evident for Ukraine. There is no substitute for victory, given the Kremlin’s determination to subjugate the country. The threat is less obvious for Russia—surely it could survive military defeat, particularly since no one is contemplating taking the fight to Russian soil—although it could lead to President Vladimir Putin’s demise. Putin, of course, is not Russia, despite Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin’s contrary claim a few years back. But his ambitions and fears will guide Russian policy in the coming months, and he has shown no interest in negotiating anything other than Ukraine’s capitulation.
If the war of attrition continues into 2024 (and recent polls indicate that not only analysts but many ordinary citizens in Ukraine and Russia believe it will), then presidential elections in both countries in March of next year will only bolster their leaders’ aversion to negotiations. Zelensky has committed himself to total victory. Ukrainian polls show overwhelming popular support for liberating all the land lost to Russia, beginning with Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. The Ukrainian leader cannot trade land for peace and hope to survive politically. Nor can he easily postpone the election by prolonging the state of martial law now in effect across the country, which prohibits elections. As tempting as that might be, a continuing commitment to democracy is essential to maintaining critical Western support. Under the circumstances, Zelensky’s only choice is to fight on.
Putin’s political calculus is decidedly different—he will assuredly be reelected if he decides to run—but it still leads to further warfare. How he is reelected will be a critical measure of his power and authority. Based on his past performance, to underscore his genuine popularity and mastery of the political system, he needs to win over 70% of the vote with a 70% turnout without having resorted to large-scale falsification. His hyperbolic rhetoric, likening the conflict to the great patriotic wars of survival against Hitler and Napoleon, limits his room for maneuver. He needs something he can plausibly sell as progress toward victory to a hard-pressed people to win their support; otherwise his reelection will not be the show of strength he wants but rather an indication of vulnerability. In this situation, he will likely double down in the face of adversity on the battlefield as he has in the past, rather than back down in the run-up to the election.
Likewise, U.S. presidential elections next November will probably serve to prolong the war. Having framed it as a historic contest between democracy and autocracy, President Joe Biden cannot afford to see Ukraine defeated and hope to be reelected—even if polls reveal that American support for Ukraine is slowly waning. But his repeated pledge to avoid sparking World War III, and the nuclear cataclysm that would ensue, limits how far the United States will go in supporting Ukraine. Biden will want to provide enough to stave off Kyiv’s defeat, but will be reluctant to send everything it asks for out of fear of crossing an unknown Russian red line that could spark a direct confrontation between two nuclear powers. Land for peace is no more appealing to him than it is to Zelensky, while perversely a continuing war of attrition serves his political purposes.
For the moment at least, political imperatives are not constrained by socioeconomic realities. Despite the horrific costs—Ukrainian casualties number well over 100,000; Russia’s perhaps as high as 200,000—both Russia and Ukraine have the resources, human and material, to carry on.
Contrary to the West’s expectations, sanctions have not crippled the Russian economy. It shrank by 2-4% in 2022, not by the double digits expected last spring, and the International Monetary Fund forecasts slight growth for this year—a better performance than it predicts for Germany and the United Kingdom. The economy has been put on a war footing, stepping up production of the materiel Russia needs to continue, and Russia has turned to Iran for drones and to North Korea for munitions. There is little danger that Russia will run out of the supplies it needs to continue intense fighting for the rest of this year with or without military assistance from China.
Hundreds of thousands of Russian young men might have fled abroad to avoid mobilization last fall, but some 300,000 were conscripted and most of them have already been sent to fortify forces along the front lines. They may be poorly trained and equipped, and thousands may serve as little more than cannon fodder, but Russia’s willingness to take casualties can alter the dynamics of battle in Moscow’s favor. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has suppressed most public opposition to the war. Dissidents have fled abroad or gone to ground. The overwhelming majority of the population at least tacitly backs the war effort, despite the mounting casualties.
Ukraine, by contrast, has suffered colossal economic damage—its GDP plunged by a third in 2022 and will continue to shrink this year as the war continues. Russian strikes have devastated the country’s energy infrastructure. War casualties—military and civilian—are comparable to Russia’s, but with a population at best one-third the size. Nevertheless, morale remains high, and Ukraine probably has the best, most battle-hardened military in Europe today.
That said, Western support is indispensable to keeping the government afloat and the military equipped for battle. Pro-Ukraine public opinion in the West has held up remarkably well during the past year. An unusually mild winter spared Europe the energy crisis anticipated last summer. The United States has provided upwards of $24 billion in military aid since the beginning of the conflict, and has sufficient authorized appropriations to continue high levels of support until the end of the fiscal year in October. The Republicans’ control of the House will undoubtedly lead to greater scrutiny of the administration’s requests but is unlikely to result in decreased support. At the same time, the West is prepared to provide increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine. Most recently it approved provision of main battle tanks and likely will supply advanced warplanes as Kyiv plans a major offensive.
As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, all sides are caught up in the logic of escalation. The coming months will see major battles, as Ukraine and Russia both hope for a decisive breakthrough. But, as was true during the first year of war, these hopes are likely to be disappointed.
In this light, the question for 2023 is not whether the war will continue. Rather it is how far the escalation will proceed. Will the conflict extend beyond Ukraine with the opening of second fronts in, say, Moldova or Georgia? Will Ukraine launch more devastating attacks inside Russia, or will Russia strike a NATO member? Will Moscow move beyond periodic nuclear saber-rattling to actual use? Or will the obvious risks of escalation finally overturn the political imperatives and open up a path toward peace? The stakes could not be higher.
Thomas Graham is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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