February 23, 2024

CNAS Responds: Two Years of War in Ukraine

Saturday, February 24, marks the sobering occasion of two years since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In preparation for the anniversary, CNAS experts analyze the many impacts the conflict has had on global security and reflect on its broader implications.

All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email Alexa Whaley at awhaley@cnas.org.

Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer:

Ukraine’s future is today more tenuous than at any point since the war’s first days. I made a 1300-mile trip around the country this month and saw both extraordinarily resilience and the effects of Russian savagery. Ukrainians suffer bombardment, huge losses at the front, and uncertainty about their international support. The vast majority wish to continue the fight. They are, in the words of one local official, tired but not exhausted.

Ukrainians know they can’t do it alone. As missiles fall and troops winter in trenches, all eyes look west, not east, to see if the United States will stand fast. Washington’s debate on aid to Ukraine, entangled as it is with border policy and presidential politics, has become for that country a matter of survival. In more than two years of war, Vladimir Putin has not broken Ukrainian will. Abandonment by the United States could achieve what Putin never has.

Calls to defend the rules-based international order tend to provoke eye-rolling derision these days. So too do descriptions of America’s indispensability in the face of global problems. Yet Putin’s attempt at forcible conquest, if ultimately successful, would augur a new and more dangerous era. In a world awash with trouble, and with huge demands on American resources, the stakes in Ukraine remain very high – and perhaps unique. Our political leaders would do well to treat them that way.

Stacie Pettyjohn, Senior Fellow and Program Director, Defense Program:

As we approach the two-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, the current state of the drone battle generally reflects the state of the conflict overall. Ukraine continues to out innovate Russia, but Moscow’s ability to mass produce military and do-it-yourself (DIY) drones has leveled the playing field. My report, Evolution Not Revolution traces the development of drone warfare in Ukraine and explains how Ukraine has lost its initial three-to-one advantage in drones. Because most of the drones in Ukraine are commercially derived systems, the technology has quickly diffused to the enemy and has not provided an enduring advantage to either side. Throughout the war, there have been rapid cycles of adaptation as both sides have learned from each other, adopting tactics and technologies that have been used successfully and developing counters to improve their defenses. The proliferation of commercial and DIY drones in Ukraine has made the frontlines extremely lethal. As defense is dominant, it is difficult for Ukrainian and Russian forces to move or mass, and thus to achieve tactical surprise or to go on the offensive.

The United States and European nations should help Ukraine regain its edge in drone warfare to turn the tide of the conflict. First, Congress should pass the Ukraine supplemental appropriation to enable Ukraine to acquire American-made drones and other critical capabilities like 155mm artillery ammunition. Ukraine’s drone spotters enable imprecise indirect fire weapons to have precision effects, but they still need large stockpiles of shells to hold off Russian attacks and eventually to regain the initiative. Second, the United States and Europe should facilitate Ukraine’s development of software that would enable first-person view (FPV) drones to have autonomous terminal guidance. One area where Russian forces have consistently lagged is incorporating commercially derived software into its weapons and operations. Thus, semi-autonomous FPV drones with terminal guidance could offer Ukraine a significant capability that is less likely to be quickly copied. Third, the United States and Europe should help Ukraine’s drone industry to develop by providing financial resources and helping to source the commercial and military subcomponents needed for drones. Ukraine has a flourishing drone industry, but it consists of hundreds of small startups that cannot meet the battlefield demands or the million-drone goal laid out by President Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense should pick the top drones in each class and scale production of these systems.

Becca Wasser, Senior Fellow, Defense Program:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine laid bare that America was no longer the arsenal of democracy it once was. The U.S. defense industrial base (DIB) is beset with hard-to-fix problems related to its fragile structure, limited capacity, brittle supply chains, dwindling stocks and materials, and regulatory challenges. These issues were amplified by the sudden need to arm and sustain the Ukrainian military in a protracted, attrition-heavy fight against Russia.

Two years on, the United States has managed to overcome some of these problems, but new challenges have emerged. The good news is that the DIB has increased its production capacity of 155 mm artillery and other in-demand munitions such as air defenses. U.S. production lines of 155 mm artillery are expected to expand further to reach the monthly production goal of 100,000 shells by 2025. The bad news is that this is only for a few types of munitions and progress has not been replicated for other weapons systems. Significant challenges remain to rightsizing the U.S. DIB to meet the demands of the current strategic environment, which includes arming both the U.S. military and allies and partners for a myriad of threats.

But the biggest challenge has come from congressional dysfunction and a lack of political will. Congress has not passed yearly appropriations bills, resulting in multiple continuing resolutions. While these have avoided a federal shutdown, they have stymied increased defense production of key equipment for Ukraine and held up multi-year procurement contracts that would send a steady demand signal to industry. Congress has also dithered in passing the latest request for supplemental funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, as members of the Republican party have become increasingly resistant to additional assistance for Ukraine. Consistent funding is needed to bolster the DIB, as the supplemental funding would allow for longer-term contracts to support Ukraine and replenish U.S. stockpiles. More importantly, consistent weapons deliveries and continued political support is required to help Ukraine push back Russian aggression now and, in the months, ahead.

Nicholas Lokker, Research Associate, Transatlantic Security Program:

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 set in motion a fundamental shift in the outlook of the European Union (EU). EU leaders, now forced to think strategically, have changed course on various policies to best support Kyiv. The bloc’s promise to admit Ukraine as a member marks the resuscitation of its long-stagnant enlargement process, generating political momentum that has also translated into accelerated integration of other fragile EU neighbors including Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkan nations. Meanwhile, leading EU member states such as Germany and France that previously attempted to engage Russia have broken economic and political ties, committing to a new approach aimed at containing Moscow’s aggressive and imperialist tendencies. Finally, Brussels has stepped up its efforts on defense, instituting numerous novel programs designed to facilitate joint production and transfer of arms for Ukraine.

But while the European Union’s increasingly strategic thinking is encouraging, European support alone is unlikely to be sufficient to keep Russia from prevailing in Ukraine. Continued transatlantic cohesion is vital—and the United States worryingly now appears to be the West’s weakest link.

John Hughes, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, and Security Program:

As the Ukraine War enters its third year, the U.S. and allies to continue to shift the sanctions focus from expansion to enforcement of existing measures. Executive Order 14114, issued last December, provides a powerful new tool to further these efforts by exposing foreign financial institutions to potential secondary sanctions risks for facilitating certain Russia-related transactions, so expect the U.S. government to utilize this tool in the days ahead. At the same time, incidents such as the death of Alexei Navalny still have the potential to provide impetus for policymakers to do more on the sanctions front than may have been expected, with the potential for new measures to come as a result. Medium-term, the focus will shift to a political one, with the upcoming U.S. presidential election likely to be pivotal in how far the U.S. continues to lean into the use of the sanctions tool.

Edward Fishman, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, and Security Program:

From the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West has leaned on sanctions and export controls as a primary component of its policy response. Two years on, these tools are starting to show their limits—especially when wielded in a limited manner. In the first months of the war, the United States and its allies unleashed an ambitious and far-reaching economic pressure campaign on Russia, including sanctions on the country’s largest banks and curbs on high-tech exports. But the West’s early decision to refrain from aggressively targeting Russia’s oil sales—the lifeblood of the Russian economy—watered down the impact of all the other penalties. While the West immobilized hundreds of billions of dollars of Russia’s central bank reserves, it simultaneously allowed Russia to amass hundreds of billions of fresh dollars selling oil. The price cap, initiated almost 10 months into the war, helped rectify this problem, but it didn’t solve it. Unfortunately, the policy lacks the teeth it needs to truly put a lid on the price of Russian oil: namely, the threat of secondary sanctions.

The absence of secondary sanctions as a backstop for the technology export controls has also been problematic. After an initial dip, Russia’s imports of high-tech goods from the West rebounded in 2023, largely on account of reexports through third countries. It turns out the West can’t count on export controls to enforce themselves. In an ideal world, every U.S. ally would have the requisite regulatory muscle to enforce its own export controls. But that’s simply not the case, so the best bet is for the United States to play a global enforcement role through the threat of secondary sanctions. Late last year, the Biden administration signaled that it plans to pivot to this approach, but it will take time to see the results. And in the interim, Russia continues to benefit from Western technology.

Pressure from sanctions is never static. Targets adapt, so absent consistent and meaningful escalation, pressure eases over time. The United States and the European Union have staked a lot in the success of the economic pressure campaign against Russia. They are saying the right things about the need for tougher enforcement and, in some instances, doing them. But to make a real difference, the West will need to show willingness to incur more risk—taking steps that could cause turbulence in oil markets and friction with diplomatic partners. Unless the West proactively strengthens sanctions in year three of the war, their impact will continue to underwhelm.  

To learn more about CNAS’s ongoing work on the Russia-Ukraine War, please visit the Transatlantic Security Program.


  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Stacie Pettyjohn

    Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Program

    Stacie Pettyjohn is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Her areas of expertise include defense strategy, post...

  • Becca Wasser

    Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Becca Wasser is a Senior Fellow for the Defense Program and lead of The Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security. Her research areas include defense strategy and o...

  • Nicholas Lokker

    Research Associate, Transatlantic Security Program

    Nick Lokker is a Research Associate for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. His work explores the development of the political and security order in Europe, focusing i...

  • John Hughes

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, & Security Program, Partner, Dentons Global Advisors

    John Hughes is an Adjunct Senior Fellow in the Energy, Economics, and Security program at the Center for a New American Security. He is also a partner at Dentons Global Adviso...

  • Edward Fishman

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, & Security Program

    Edward Fishman is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where he focuses on the intersection of business, economics, and national security. His r...