March 23, 2023

Putin’s Forever War

More than a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a grim reality has settled in: the war will not end soon. Despite the heavy fighting in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut and other parts of the Donbas, the frontlines have not substantively changed in months. Russia’s much-anticipated offensive appears to be underway, but Moscow lacks the capabilities to make any significant gains. Ukraine, too, is preparing for a springtime offensive, but the country’s human and material losses could limit its success. And neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears interested in negotiations. Given the apparent impasse, the question becomes how long will the two leaders opt to fight.

Fighting on makes sense for Putin for one fundamental reason: wartime autocrats rarely lose power.

The reason that Zelensky and his country keep fighting is clear: if they do not, Ukraine as it is will cease to exist. That sentiment has been repeatedly articulated by Western leaders. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it in stark terms in September, stating, “If Russia stops fighting, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends.” Even if Zelensky pursued a negotiated settlement that ceded territory to Russia, it would carry the risk that Moscow, having learned that might makes right, could attack again in the future. Zelensky faces what political scientists call a “credible commitment” problem: he cannot be confident that Putin will not merely agree to a settlement today but then simply regroup and attack again tomorrow. By agreeing to a settled peace now, Ukraine could find itself in a worse position later.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.

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