The war in Ukraine is widely described as a stalemate at this point. This is true from the perspective of limited movement of bodies of troops, but not necessarily an accurate understanding of the situation more broadly. The problem is that much of the discussion has relied on a series of unstated and unexamined assumptions about war termination and escalation. Scrutinizing these assumptions, however, reveals two conclusions. First, Russia does have a plausible path to victory in the conflict, and will likely prevail absent a significant increase in Western military assistance. Second, the Russians do not have an effective counter to increased Western aid to Ukraine.
In invading Ukraine, the Russian goal, initially, seems to have been a rapid blitz to seize major Ukrainian cities, most importantly Kyiv, and to install a friendly puppet regime in the place of the current government. This, however, was a desired end state from the Russian perspective, not an actual strategic concept grounded in a logic of war termination. Even if the Russians had been successful in their military campaign, they still would have faced the challenge of installing a new government at the point of a gun and minimizing opposition to that new government—no easy task, based on the resistance Russian forces have encountered in several Ukrainian cities they have occupied. Some of it is civil disobedience, but there is also evidence of sabotage and partisan-style acts. Achieving its overarching goal, then—victory, essentially—might easily have turned into a long-term counterinsurgency campaign, and not a winnable one. The Russian approach to counterinsurgency is more brutal than the American version, and possibly more effective. But consider Chechnya. Yes, Russia won, but it took years and was very costly. And Chechnya was easy compared to Ukraine. There are fewer than a million and a half people living in Chechnya; Ukraine’s population is over forty million. Chechnya itself is 6,700 square miles; Ukraine is 233,062 square miles. There are few scenarios in which Russia would win a long-term counterinsurgency campaign in Ukraine.
Victory for the Russians always required some sort of acceptance by a significant percentage of the Ukrainian population. Is there any pathway toward that? And how might that pathway illuminate whether the war is a stalemate or not?
Historically, there have been two ways in which victorious powers have compelled losers to embrace defeat. The most common way is by convincing the existing government that it is in its best interests to concede. This sort of legitimate, elite-driven process can still be quite contentious. Even when a government concedes, there are often significant voices that oppose surrender, and in some cases, those resistance forces can overthrow the government and resume hostilities. This rarely ends well, but it shows the difficulty of compelling an adversary to accept defeat.
The other way to compel a durable surrender is to simply brutalize a country to the point where resistance becomes unthinkable. In some cases, this is due to the total destruction of a country’s military capacity, both extant and potential (in the short term), such as what occurred to end World War II in Europe. In other cases, it reflects the massive destruction of infrastructure and a level of human suffering that reduces individuals to a focus on little more than basic necessities and survival.
The initial theory of success for the Russians was untenable from the start. A blitz campaign could only have worked if it had induced the Ukrainian government to surrender, but this goal was made impossible by Russia’s plain intention to impose a Quisling government in its place. Having lost the possibility of a quick victory both through a lack of military competence and mismatched political and military strategies, the only remaining avenue of success for the Russians is through the brutalization of the Ukrainian people.
Here is the problem: while Russian forces are not making rapid advances, this lack of progress is wholly irrelevant. There is no longer any scenario under which a military blitz can end the war. On the other hand, the path to victory that does remain available to the Russians is based on increasing human suffering. And that is something at which the Russians have been quite successful throughout the opening weeks of the war. The war is a stalemate if one looks at troop movements. It is not if the metric is human suffering. That increases dramatically every day, with the destruction of homes, infrastructure, and the forced dislocation of millions of individuals. Soon, if it has not already, hunger and disease will add to these miseries. In this sense, the war is not a stalemate, but rather is one in which Russia is continuing to make progress toward many of its core goals, one atrocity at a time, and is doing so without the need to escalate the conflict to chemical or nuclear use. Indeed, we see evidence of this in the Ukrainian negotiating posture, where the opening bid includes no NATO membership for Ukraine, no foreign troops on Ukrainian soil, and possible concessions regarding the Donbas region and potentially Crimea that open the door to partition. In return the Ukrainians would receive some sort of “security guarantee” that is unlikely to be any stronger or more effective than the existing commitments under the Budapest Memorandum. While Russia may not achieve its maximalist objectives of a client state in Ukraine, these would nonetheless represent very significant gains for a Russia that is supposedly floundering.
What might final Ukrainian capitulation look like in this sort of grim scenario? Most likely, we would see Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy choose defeat over a virtual genocide of his countrymen. Or alternatively, a Russian assassination squad or lucky missile strikes might kill the senior leaders of Ukraine and a new government would choose to surrender in the hopes of making a decent deal now that Zelenskyy is gone. The precise shape of any capitulation is not completely clear. But at the very least, we need to assess the stalemate issue in light of a plausible assessment of the dynamics likely to lead to war termination rather than unstated assumptions about what troop movements (or lack thereof) imply.
If we accept this line of argument, it seems clear that absent a significant increase in outside support for Ukraine—minimally, a dramatic increase in supply of military equipment, but more likely some sort of direct intervention in the form of a peacekeeping mission or imposition of a no-fly zone—Russia will ultimately prevail. If we believe this is an unacceptable outcome, then some sort of increase of support is necessary. While there are risks in this approach, the reality is that expanding the conflict probably imposes greater costs on Russia than on NATO and the West simply because of the balance of capabilities both sides can bring to a broader conflict.
The challenge, however, is to control escalation to avoid the possibility of, in the worst case, a general nuclear exchange. The fear in Washington seems to be that Russia will escalate the conflict, either in intensity or geographic scope in response to an increase in aid or direct intervention. But why do we think this would be the likely Russian response?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has, indeed, threatened escalation. This is most likely a bluff for the simple reason that Russia does not benefit from further escalation. Russian declaratory nuclear doctrine does include a concept of nuclear escalation, even in response to nonnuclear threats. This “escalate to deescalate concept,” however is designed to confront threats to Russian national security that Russia cannot defeat otherwise. It does not seem to be a doctrine of nuclear coercion to achieve positive goals. Certainly, facing a foreign invasion or a direct threat to the Putin regime, nuclear escalation seems quite possible, but this is not the dynamic Russia faces today in Ukraine. It is trying to secure foreign policy gains, not stave off defeat. In that context, if anything, escalation works against Russian interests because the more outside powers are drawn into the fight, the greater the likelihood that Russian forces will be not just bogged down on the ground, but obliterated.
Russia simply does not have the military capacity to take on NATO. With the force Moscow has shown itself willing to commit to the conflict, it is struggling to maintain operational capacity just facing the Ukrainians. If any NATO country were to become involved, it would dramatically tip the balance against Russia. It may take some time for forces to be deployed and effectively used in theater, but the difference in numbers of key weapons systems would become decisive relatively quickly.
As discussed earlier, Russia could escalate to nuclear weapons, of course. But to what end? Can Russia win a nuclear exchange? It is difficult to construct a plausible argument regarding that. There is no nuclear option, whether tactical or general, that provides Russia with a war-winning solution, except in the case that a Russian use of nuclear weapons induces the rest of the world to surrender to Russia’s demands. But this would be a choice, and a bad one. Instead, the United States and other European powers should make clear that any use of nuclear weapons—not just strategic weapons, but lower-yield, tactical weapons, as well—will result in prompt and overwhelming retaliation. The alternative is to hand the Russians—and potentially other states—a powerful coercive tool that can be used in virtually any context or dispute. Signaling that the threat of nuclear use, in the absence of a threat to state survival, is a viable strategy for revisionist states is to open the world to an endless cycle of nuclear blackmail.
Deterrence functions in both directions. Nuclear deterrence is likely quite stable. It held for the entirety of the Cold War, even in the midst of severe crises, and has also held in South Asia despite some quite severe provocations. If true, this suggests we ought not self-deter on the assumption that the Russians would be willing to risk a nuclear exchange. They almost certainly don’t. But the risk is not zero either. For decision makers who see Ukraine as strategically unimportant or, indeed, a distraction from the more important challenge posed by China, even that level of risk might be seen as too high. As with all foreign policy and strategic debates, there is room for disagreement, but it is important to specify the arguments as clearly as possible.
The issue of escalation has to be placed in the context of strategic logic. Escalation is a danger particularly when one side or the other possesses some degree of escalation dominance—that is, that escalation changes the conflict in a way that benefits one side or another. There is no evidence, however, that Russia possesses any degree of escalation dominance at present. On the contrary, in the current situation, Russia benefits to the extent the conflict remains Russia against Ukraine. Its military is already stretched to the breaking point, and crossing the nuclear firebreak would almost inevitably result in the defeat of Russia and the removal of Putin from power. This would occur at tremendous costs to Russia and the rest of the world, but the point is, escalation is not rational from the Russian perspective because of the nature of the military balance. Any major escalation, in other words, would likely benefit Russia’s adversaries. We do need to be cautious, however. Strategic interaction is a tricky thing. If the Russians agree with the assessment provided above, then one could imagine a scenario in which they choose to escalate precisely because they know that escalation would benefit the West. If the Russians fear escalation by NATO, then even though they may not benefit from escalation, they may believe that they can mitigate the consequences of a broader conflict via some sort of preemptive action. At some point, nuclear strategy and the logic of deterrence, escalation, and preemption can take on an “angels dancing on the head of a pin” flavor. Finding a balance between “paralysis by analysis” and reasonable risk management is challenging.
Critics of this argument will push back by arguing that Putin may not be rational, or that he thinks he can win a nuclear exchange. Perhaps. But if anything, this more strongly encourages a firm response. We simply cannot tolerate a situation where Russia can act with impunity around the world protected by a policy of nuclear coercion. But in any case, there is no reason to assume that irrationality or a desire to die a martyr’s death animates Putin.
Let us make no mistake. Russia is currently on a path to victory because its strategy is now grounded in a logic of terror and brutalization. Every day that Russia is able to strike Ukrainian civilians with near impunity pushes Ukraine’s leadership closer to the need to surrender in order to prevent a virtual, or literal, genocide. The only way to reverse this is a dramatic increase in outside assistance to Ukraine.
There are risks associated with this approach, but it is a mistake to be self-deterred. Russia does not possess escalation dominance. If anything, any escalation will worsen Russia’s prospects. The Russians may be brutal, but they are not irrational. As stretched as they already are, the last thing they need or can sustain is a wider conflict. Escalation dominance rests with NATO and the West. We should take advantage of it.
Dr. Bernard I. Finel is a professor of national security strategy at the National War College, where has also served as a course director, department chair, and associate dean for academic programs. He previously served as executive director of the MA program in security studies at Georgetown University and senior fellow and director of research at the American Security Project.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the National War College.