The War in Ukraine Is Just Beginning

Conflicts, though typically started easily, can be brutal, intractable, and difficult to end.

A soldier fires a gun and is covered in the infinity symbol
The Atlantic

If conflicts in places such as Ethiopia, Palestine, Kashmir, Syria, and Yemen have proved anything, it’s that wars are easy to start, but are also brutal, intractable, and difficult to end. The fickle nature of the international media means that protracted conflicts quickly lose the world’s attention, if they ever had it to begin with.

At the moment, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has riveted the world, drawing more attention than the ongoing slaughters in other nations—a double standard that has been widely noted. But that gap in coverage is likely to become even more striking the longer the conflict continues, because the factors that make a long war in Ukraine seemingly inevitable are the same ones that make it unlikely to slip from the world’s collective radar.

In some ways, Ukraine was already in the midst of a long-running crisis. The country has been engaged in armed conflict with Russia since Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, which even before Russia’s invasion last month had resulted in the deaths of more than 14,000 people, many of them civilians. That the war has now escalated beyond the two countries’ de facto border has raised the stakes of the conflict, threatening both Ukraine’s sovereignty and that of its neighbors, many of which are now justifiably asking whether they could be next.

While Ukraine’s location has afforded it outsize attention relative to other conflicts, it’s also what makes the prospect of a drawn-out war even more likely. Ukraine, after all, is situated at the doorstep of the European Union and NATO, both of which have a vested interest in ensuring that the country’s sovereignty is maintained and that Russia’s aggression is curtailed. The longer the Russian invasion continues, the greater the refugee crisis that Europe is likely to face, and the riskier the situation becomes for NATO, which has gone to great lengths to avoid being drawn into direct conflict with Russian troops.

This risk is compounded by the unpredictability of Vladimir Putin, who represents not only a permanent, veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council (a position that Moscow regularly uses to its advantage), but a nuclear-armed state. That the Russian president has already threatened to use his nuclear arsenal is just one concern; that he could deploy brutal military tactics similar to those used by Russia in Syria and Chechnya is another. Moscow’s shelling of Ukrainian cities and towns, as well as its targeting of civilians, has already drawn parallels to its previous bombardments of Aleppo at the height of the Syrian civil war and its destruction of Grozny, the Chechen capital, which at one point the UN considered “the most destroyed city on Earth.”

The brutality of Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine, even at this relatively early stage in the war, “has strong 1999–2000 Grozny vibes,” Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for Naval Analyses, told me. Having failed to achieve its objectives in the early days of its invasion, Kofman said that the Russian military now appears to be settling in for a much longer war that would result in the attrition of forces and the destruction of cities. Putin showed his willingness to deploy scorched-earth tactics in Syria and Chechnya, where arguably far less was at stake. Anything but victory in Ukraine could be seen by Putin as an existential threat, not only to Russia, but to his own grasp on power. “He is not in a place politically where he can afford to accept a humiliating defeat,” Kofman said. “Just as Ukrainians are determined in their defense, Vladimir Putin is determined to win.”

Oz Katerji, a freelance conflict journalist based in Kyiv, who witnessed Russia’s besiegement of Syria firsthand during the civil war, told me that the targeting of hospitals and other civilian centers, which has already begun in Ukraine, is central to Russia’s military doctrine. “Russia doesn’t necessarily need to go into those areas and risk losing huge amounts of manpower and armor when it could just cut them off, besiege them, bomb them, [and] starve them into submission,” he said. “It’s a deliberate, cynical strategy.”

A more brutal military campaign doesn’t necessarily mean a shorter one, though. Even if Russian troops are able to seize control of Kyiv and other major cities, they will face the arguably greater challenge of occupying the country, not to mention suppressing a potentially violent insurgency. Although a Ukrainian resistance probably wouldn’t be able to deny Putin a military victory in the country, it could at the very least prevent him from declaring a political one. “A stalemate, for Ukraine, is probably more tolerable than it is for Putin,” Thomas Pepinsky, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively on insurgent warfare, told me. “Annually, it will cost [Russia] soldiers, and it will cost them equipment, which is expensive.”

All of this, of course, assumes that Russia’s war doesn’t escalate beyond Ukraine. One concern is it could yet extend to other post-Soviet countries such as Moldova and Georgia, both of which, like Ukraine, have Russian-backed breakaway regions within their respective territories. The other, perhaps greater, risk is that Russian aggression could spread even farther afield, to the Baltics, which would not only draw NATO into a potential conflict, but also fundamentally threaten the post–Cold War order.

“This story is as big [as], if not bigger, than 9/11 and the fall of the Soviet Union,” Katerji said, comments that have partially echoed those made by Britain’s foreign secretary. “We’re just at the start of it. We have no idea what the consequences of this will be long term or even in the near short term.” The biggest unknown is not when this war will end—because it won’t anytime soon—but where.