The Ukraine War: How Does It End?
The stunning success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive east of Kharkiv and the accelerating progress made toward Kherson in the south has, to astute observers, brought to mind a famous line from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Drinking with his buddies, the character Mike Campbell—a kind of “proto-bro”—is asked how he became bankrupt. “Two ways,” he replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
As Lawrence Freedman notes, the sort of collapse we’re seeing from Russia’s forces is familiar to military historians. “What appears to be a long, painful grind can quickly turn into a rout. A supposedly resilient and well-equipped army can break and look for means of escape.” Freedman analogizes Russia’s current conundrum to that of the Afghan National Army last year, but the story of the German Imperial Army in late 1918 is also worth pondering.
After imposing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on Trotsky, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks in 1917, German General Erich Ludendorff turned westward to try to defeat the Allies before American reinforcements could arrive in Europe in large numbers. Ludendorff’s “Spring Offensive” of 1918 enjoyed initial success but, like the initial Russian attacks this spring, slowly ground to a halt. In early August, at the Battle of Amiens, the tide of the war at last turned decisively; not only had U.S. “doughboys” come “over there,” but a new technology—the tank—solved the problems of a static battlefield and the previously “frozen” conflict.
More importantly, as British war correspondent Philip Gibbs noted, “the change has been greater in the minds of men than in the taking of territory. On our side the army seems to be buoyed up with the enormous hope of getting on with this business quickly.” After four years of slaughter, there was a corresponding
change also in the enemy’s mind. . . . They no longer have even a dim hope of victory on this western front. All they hope for now is to defend themselves long enough to gain peace by negotiation.
But even before the Amiens assaults went in, German army morale was broken; large numbers of German soldiers surrendered on the first day, which Ludendorff dubbed “the black day of the German Army.” He recalled retreating Germans shouting at the officers trying to rally them: “You’re prolonging the war!”
The prospect of a similarly sudden Russian collapse now looms. East of Kharkiv, a thinly held front has been torn to shreds; the question is now less whether the Russians can stabilize their lines but how far Ukrainians can exploit the opportunity. In the south, before Kherson, the Ukrainian artillery and rocket fires have all but eliminated the Russians’ ability to reinforce and even to supply their forward positions; rumors of surrender negotiations have been persistent. Stunningly, Russia has announced it will not send additional fresh units to Ukraine. But momentum in war is a fickle thing, and rapidly controlling thousands of desperate prisoners is one of its most friction-inducing elements.
Yet, as Freedman and many other observers have noted, the war may still last a long time. While dissenting voices are rising in Moscow—and even on Russian state TV—the complaint is that senior military commanders have failed to be sufficiently ruthless in executing Vladimir Putin’s directive.
At the same time, this is a supremely opaque moment in Russian supreme command. Putin decamped to Sochi prior to his long-planned pow-wow with Chinese leader Xi Jinping—a huge moment for both these autocrats. Putin might soon rue the consequences of his “special operation” strategy; this has been a television war for Russian nationals, fought by a few professionals and many conscripts from the boondocks and mercenaries but with little impact on life in Moscow or St. Petersburg. In 1918, German soldiers organized a verdeckter Militärstreik—a surreptitious “military strike,” refusing to follow orders. Russian soldiers—poorly supplied, abandoned by officers, with little prospect of victory and, indeed, diminishing means to defend themselves—may be thinking along similar lines.
Ukraine’s recent success also solidifies that country’s definition of war termination—all sovereign territory returned, reparations, and war crimes investigations—as the minimum acceptable one. This is not to say that there won’t be continued calls for negotiations and nervousness across Europe about the winter’s cold and the economic costs of higher energy prices. But much of the appeal of such proposals was the presumption of eventual Russian triumph; in this telling, Ukrainian sacrifice may have been noble but it was fruitless. Indeed, as the war has gone on, the irrelevance of would-be European interlocutors, particularly Germany and France, has increased, and now the moment has passed them by completely. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s vaunted Zeitenwende (his policy “turning point”) has not kept pace with events.
Before the 1918 analogy crashes like a Zeppelin, let us use it to begin to think about formal post-war settlements; it’s always helpful to look a few moves ahead, especially for the United States and Eastern Europe outside Ukraine. For starters, the necessity of negotiations shouldn’t be a given; the rebuttable proposition must be that Russia remains a bad-faith actor. Moreover, this is not simply a Putin problem: Russians’ shared imperial dream has been unending and will remain a recurring European nightmare. The purpose of negotiations must be to codify an anti-imperial balance of power, not to create one that doesn’t now exist.
A proper understanding of the Versailles treaty and the failure of the post-World War I order is likewise instructive. The fatal problem of 1919 and after was not France’s punitive posture but the unwillingness of the United States to remain engaged in European politics. The faults of the flawed original order were subsequently exacerbated by the Soviet-German arrangements that culminated in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Unlike 1945—but surely quite like what will come post-Ukraine—the defeated power cannot be put through of program of occupation and reconstruction. We will deal with Russia as it is and has been, not the Russia we’d wish for.
Thus any post-Ukraine settlement must be framed around mitigating the consequences of Russian imperial incorrigibility. Indeed, the pace of past Russian revanche has been rapid, even as forms of government changed radically: from the 1917 revolution to the triumph of the Soviets in the civil war by 1923; from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to the beginning of the Putin era in 1999. To expect Europe to return to a pre-February 24 “normal” (or a pre-Ukraine-2014 or pre-Georgia-2008 “normal”) is to repeat past miscalculation and expect a different result.
Thus it is hard to imagine circumstances under which economic sanctions should be relaxed or lifted—there is, in fact, a strategic logic in tightening them in advance of any negotiations. More importantly, the United States and its NATO allies must at last patrol and prepare to defend across their “Eastern Front,” which has been a military no-man’s-land for most of the post-Soviet era. This should include several U.S. brigades and air wings, as well as at least two corps-level headquarters and pre-positioned stocks for additional formations.
And as in the Versailles pact, or the armistice in Korea, post-Ukraine negotiations should consider demilitarized zones. Belarus and Kaliningrad come to mind, as does the Black Sea. The principal focus should be on constraining Russia’s ability to invade its neighbors, and dealing with nuclear and missile issues separately. In these latter two cases, the Western allies should consider a “build-up-to-build-down” approach as did the Reagan administration with the Pershing II program.
Yes, the war is far from over. But the prospect of Ukraine’s victory is real (and, of course, can be accelerated by stepped-up arms supplies and economic support) and it is not too early to define a future European security order. Recall that Franklin Roosevelt joined Winston Churchill in promulgating the Atlantic Charter four months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. The Biden administration needs not only to shepherd the Atlantic alliance through a cold winter, but to lay the foundations of what promises to be a chilly peace to come.