America’s Choices in Ukraine

For much of the period following Russia’s invasion, the Biden administration has hoped to deal Moscow a strategic defeat in Ukraine. It has believed Washington can not only block Putin’s bid to seize Kyiv and end Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, but also impose such economic misery that Russians will come to rue the invasion, China will think twice about invading Taiwan, and a Putin successor will ultimately be compelled to reapproach the West seeking forgiveness. 

Such hopes are fading by the day. Russia’s economy is in greater danger of overheating from accelerated military production than strangulating from lack of trade. China now has a case-study of how to cope with sanctions. And the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive to break through Russian defenses has made it apparent that the most Washington can hope for on the battlefield is a bloody stalemate.  

Recalibrating our hopes on a long-term stalemate would be a grave error, however. It’s true the front lines have not moved substantially over the past year.  But by the metric of how many soldiers and munitions each side can send into battle, Ukraine is losing the war. With a population less than a quarter of Russia’s, suffering from large battlefield losses and millions of refugees, Ukraine has stark disadvantages waging a war of attrition. Western armament production is lagging far behind that of Russia and its partners, and the Gaza conflict is multiplying competing demands. 

Even if the West sustains current levels of military and economic aid – far from a certain prospect – Ukraine will grow weaker the longer the war continues. Even if the frontlines stabilize, few donors will invest the hundreds of billions of dollars needed for Ukraine’s economic reconstruction if it must occur under the constant threat of Russian missile and drone barrages. Absent reconstruction, only a small fraction of Ukrainian refugees will return home; without robust repatriation, Ukraine will over time look more like a failed state than a fortress state.