Russian President Vladimir Putin confidently expected his invasion of Ukraine to be over in a very short period of time. Nearly a year later, Ukraine continues to fight, embarrassing the Russian dictator on the world stage even as he tries to rally domestic support by harkening back to long-ago victories.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s entreaties to NATO and the West for help finally resulted in commitments to provide tanks, armored vehicles and weapons — but there are worries it’s not in time to defend against Putin’s expected spring offensive. “The arrival of the tanks immediately begs for more combat aircraft overhead, particularly Soviet-era MIG-29s and American F-16s,” writes James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO. “So far, the West has held off supplying aircraft, but that debate is going to heat up soon.”
And that raises the biggest question so far: When will enough be enough? Much as Putin overestimated his ability to win a war, Ukraine’s allies may come to overestimate their ability, or willingness, to end it.
“Nearly a year into the war, uncertainty about its course is greater than ever,” Hal Brands writes. American support for Ukraine — once based on fears of Russian nuclear escalation, now based on fears of a long war of attrition that tests global relationships — only goes so far, with US President Joe Biden’s refusal to put American troops on the line and reluctance to further inflame Putin’s ire.
“Washington’s goal is a Ukraine that is militarily defensible, politically independent and economically viable; this doesn’t necessarily include retaking difficult areas such as the eastern Donbas or Crimea,” Hal says.
Russia and Ukraine are both feeling pressure to make the next move but “hesitant to take the decisive step,” writes Leonid Bershidsky. “The fragile balance on the ground is increasingly unsteady. Something, soon, will have to give.” NATO and the West are eager to uphold democratic values without making Ukraine dependent on help; potential Russian allies in the non-Western world, meanwhile, are growing impatient and irritable with Putin.
For all of Putin’s miscalculations, China’s Xi Jinping hasn’t walked away from his relationship with Putin. And he won’t, writes Clara Ferreira Marques. “It’s not because of any ideological or autocratic pact,” she writes. “There is no such thing. This is about pragmatism, self-interest and a larger concern for Beijing — the US.” That pragmatism extends to trade: Put simply, Russia needs China, though the reverse isn’t true.
The two countries do, however, have a shared goal, Clara says, in anti-US grievance. China has shown no inclination to offer military assistance to Russia. “China knows all too well that a friend in need is a friend indeed,” she warns.
And the West may come to regret getting too involved in Ukraine, too. “All major countries in the Western alliance were complicit in military fiascos that ravaged entire regions of Asia, the Middle East and Africa,” writes Pankaj Mishra. “There is good reason to worry when, still unpunished for their calamitous bungles, many in the West’s intellectual-industrial complex again cheerlead a military intervention, this time against the fanatical leader of a nuclear-armed country.”
Victory could come down to economic interests, according to Bloomberg’s editorial board. Ukraine’s economy has been devastated by war, undermining its long-term stability. “Military support for Ukraine has rightly been viewed as an investment in the West’s security as well,” the editors write. “But wars aren’t won on the battlefield alone.” Whether Russia can be brought to the table to negotiate what an end to the war would look like is a wide-open question, but Ukraine’s isn’t the only economy that is in danger of complete collapse. It’s something Putin would do well to remember.