The Russian invasion of Ukraine is transforming into a grinding war of attrition that portends months of more human carnage and will transmit shockwaves from Vladimir Putin’s onslaught to millions of people across the globe.
Rapid reassessments of the duration, character and costs of the war are being prompted by Russia’s strategic shift away from a bogged down attempt to take Kyiv and topple the government to a refocusing of military force in southern and eastern areas.
In the early days of the war six weeks ago, it seemed possible a Russian blitzkrieg could quickly storm the country and seize the capital. But fierce Ukrainian resistance, backed by Western arms, and heavy Russian casualties has led to a change of plan by Moscow.
Yet the redeployment, which allowed a horrific trail of atrocities to be unveiled to the world, doesn’t mean a vicious war that Putin cannot afford to lose is anywhere near over. In fact, it ensures that economic, political and international forces unleashed by the conflict will last for months and exact a deeper toll.
Andrzej Duda – the President of Poland, which borders Ukraine – said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday that Putin’s aim was clear.
“The fact that civilian inhabitants of Ukraine are being killed shows best what the goal of [the] Russian invasion is,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash through a translator. “The goal of that invasion is simply to extinguish the Ukrainian nation.”
The consequences of Russia’s ruthless mission will not be contained in Europe.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, for instance, on Wednesday warned of “enormous repercussions” of the invasion for global food stocks and energy supplies. That in turn will create a chain of political consequences in the US and Western capitals.
Most immediately in the US, the war’s jolt to gasoline and grocery prices – which had already risen on a tide of high inflation – could have political implications, including for President Joe Biden’s Democrats in the looming midterm elections.
A prolonged war will also have horrific humanitarian consequences, given Putin’s strategy of razing cities and the apparent atrocities committed by his troops.
While the world has been revolted by images of dead civilians, some apparently executed in areas vacated by Russian troops, the horror unfolding in besieged southern and eastern cities may be on an even more vicious scale but will be harder for Ukrainians and foreign journalists to expose. This raises the prospect of impunity for some of the worst war crimes committed on the European continent at least since the Bosnian war, and possibly dating back to World War II.
Putin would test NATO with a long Ukrainian war
A long war will also provide a grueling test of NATO unity, following surprisingly strong resolve shown by the Western alliance.
It would also enshrine a second prolonged geopolitical joust between Moscow and the West. Putin will look for openings to open new divides between NATO partners as he seeks to bite off land in the east to fuel a claim of victory back home.
“The first part of the war is over and Putin lost the first part of the war, much to his chagrin,” said Steve Hall, a former CIA chief of Russia operations, on CNN on Wednesday.
“I think we are going to be in this for the long run and I think this is going to be war of attrition. It is going to be very hard on Ukraine.”
Biden led warnings on Wednesday that peace will be elusive for months.
“This war could continue for a long time, but the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in the fight for freedom,” Biden told building trades unions in Washington.
His warning underscores that his entire presidency – born in one crisis, a once-in-a-century pandemic – is now likely to be defined by the West’s second great standoff with the Kremlin. Political reverberations from the clash are likely to echo beyond the midterm elections in November and into the 2024 White House race. The fact that 63 Republican House members, many of them Donald Trump’s top supporters, voted against a resolution supporting NATO this week will fuel fears that a return to the White House by the ex-President could fracture alliance unity.
Putin still wants ‘the whole of Ukraine’
Warnings that the Ukraine war is now likely to be a semi-permanent crisis looming over the West were first amplified on Wednesday by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The former Norwegian Prime Minister said that Putin’s redeployment didn’t mean he had given up his long-term goal of capturing Kyiv.
“We have seen no indication that President Putin has changed his ambition to control the whole of Ukraine and also to rewrite the international order, so we need to be prepared for the long haul,” Stoltenberg said. “We have to be realistic and realize that this may last for a long time, for many months or even years.”
The NATO chief was speaking ahead of a meeting on Thursday in Brussels at which alliance ministers will discuss their next steps in arming Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked for tanks and heavy weapons. So far, Western nations have mainly sent anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine that have been effective in helping to repel the Russian advance.
But now the question is whether to send armaments Ukraine could use to push Russia out of the country, a decision that could further drag the West into the war. Biden has already blocked a plan by Poland to send Soviet-era jets to the Ukrainian air force.
“I believe that what NATO is doing is certainly not enough,” retired Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard told CNN’s John King on “Inside Politics” on Wednesday.
“The goal should be for Ukrainian forces to actually win. In order to do that, they’ll need more than just tanks here, drones there, Javelin missiles. They need systems, they need training, they need assistance,” Pittard said.
Then there are the broader questions that allied leaders may face about the need to further deter Putin in Eastern Europe, amid the constant fear that the war could spill over into a direct clash between the West and Russia.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss late Wednesday called for a rethink of the Western security posture
“The age of engagement with Russia is over. We need a new approach to security in Europe based on resilience, defense and deterrence”, Truss said in Brussels.
Yellen warns of global economic reverberations
The world economy was already facing stiff challenges before Putin invaded Ukraine.
The pandemic badly disrupted global supply chains, helping to stir higher inflation. Now, severe sanctions on Russia’s economy are not just punishing Putin, they are having a backlash in the countries that imposed them.
First, gasoline prices shot up with Russia shut out of much of the global oil market. Biden lashed out at “Putin’s price hike” in an effort to conjure some political cover with voters already in a sour mood as midterm elections approach.
On Wednesday, Yellen raised the prospect of more prolonged global disruption from a lengthy Ukraine war.
“Russia’s actions represent an unacceptable affront to the rules-based, global order, and will have enormous economic repercussions in Ukraine and beyond,” Yellen told a House of Representatives committee.
She also warned that developing nations already facing heavy debt burdens and struggles to bounce back from Covid-19 could be especially vulnerable.
Ultimately, however, the prospect of many more months of war – in a country severed by Putin’s brutal invasion – will test the courage, unity and staying power of Ukrainians themselves. The barbarity brought to light in recent days could be just the start.
Take, for instance, Mariupol, where thousands of civilians remain trapped in a city that has been reduced to rubble by weeks of Russian bombing.
“The world has not seen the scale of a tragedy like in Mariupol since the Nazi concentration camps,” the city’s major Vadym Boychenko said in a statement. “The ruscists (Russian fascists) turned our whole city into a death camp.”
A war that grinds on for months or years could consign much of the country to the same inhumane fate.