Russia Has Already Lost the War, even if it Wins in Donbas – The war in Ukraine grinds on. Now in its ninth week, the war has moved to Donbas, in Eastern Ukraine. We are hearing less out of that region than we heard from the fighting around Kyiv before. This is likely because the war is more kinetic and open than the ambush-style, shoot-and-scoot engagements of the early weeks.
It seems likely there will be more large collisions of massed formations. Ukrainian casualties are likely higher than before. Insofar as much of our war video footage on social media comes from the Ukrainians, we are probably seeing less because the war has become harder for them. The terrain of Donbas advantages the Russians.
But even as Russia bludgeons its way into limited gains in the east, it has lost so much already in the conflict, that it is a catastrophe for Russian national power. Indeed, some observers think Ukraine may win the war outright. But even if it holds bits of the conquered east and south, these are vastly outweighed by the war’s costs:
Ukraine will shortly have one of the best armies in Europe
This is the richest irony of the invasion. Russian President Vladimir Putin pretty clearly expected a blitzkrieg. He would roll in, replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky quickly with a pro-Russian stooge, and roll out. The whole thing would be over before the West had time to mobilize. Putin, it seems, believed his own propaganda that Ukraine was a fake country.
Instead, he collided with a wall of patriotic Ukrainian troopers and civilians. They held out long enough for a Western pipeline to emerge to support the war effort. Now, Russia faces a military well-kitted, well-trained, battle-tested, well-led, with deep popular legitimacy, and supported by wealthy foreign patrons. Russia will never be able to steamroll Ukraine again. If the Russian army does not win the next few months, it will probably lose the whole war.
NATO will expand
Ostensibly, NATO expansion was a major driver for Putin to invade. This is not true, but it is the argument Russian propaganda makes. In another rich irony, this has failed on its own terms.
It is indeed likely that Ukraine will give up NATO membership aspirations as a part of a peace deal. But Sweden and Finland look quite likely to apply and will almost certainly be accepted. Finland’s ascension is a particular loss. It shares a long border with Russia, and throughout the Cold War, it maintained neutrality. It is a measure of just how dangerous Putin has become – even more than the USSR! – that Finland will give up its long-standing neutralism.
Russia will be badly isolated
Any peace deal will formally restore Russia’s relationship with the world. Sanctions will be rolled back. Travel bans on Russian elites will cease. We know from the interwar period and Germany’s turn toward fascism that harshly punishing war-loser risks incentivizing its worst, revanchist elements.
But just because the formal restrictions fade, normal diplomatic and economic intercourse with Russia will almost certainly not return until after Putin is gone. Western businesses will be reticent to return to Russia. All those companies which have withdrawn – Apple, Netflix, Honda, and so on – will not easily return. Sanctions ending cannot force them to go back. Similarly, the end of the travel bans does not mean that world leaders must meet Russian elites. Particularly as the stories of Russian war crimes accumulate, Russia will be informally isolated for years to come.
NATO’s new sense of purpose
For decades after the Cold War, NATO was an organization in search of a mission. After 9/11, it experimented with ‘out of area’ operations, most obviously in Afghanistan. But these were never popular, and everyone was exhausted and happy to leave Afghanistan last year. French President Macron said NATO was ‘brain-dead’; former US President Donald Trump wanted many times to seem to quit the alliance.
Russian aggression has ended all this talk. It is now likely that the US will station forces further out in eastern Europe. Germany has committed to a major defense build-up. Brexit Britain is cooperating with the Continent again. What many consider Pro-Putin American critics like Tucker Carlson or Glenn Greenwald have been disgraced as American public opinion has swung behind Ukraine and the war.
All of these losses and setbacks vastly outweigh anything Putin might now win by conquest in Donbas. Ukraine will survive and become militarily capable of resisting Russia’s bullying. NATO will grow and deepen. Russia will drift into awkward isolation and dependence on China. That is quite an outcome for what was to be a quick little blitzkrieg.