I have no doubt that both sides are willing to make it a long war. Zelensky and his people have proved they’re willing to die for their freedom. Putin has gambled his legacy on subjugating Ukraine. Neither will blink. Which has the makings of a very long war indeed:
Given the durability of the Ukrainian resistance and its long history of pushing Russia back, the U.S. and Western powers do not believe that this will be a short war. The U.K. foreign secretary estimated it would be a 10-year war. Lawmakers at the Capitol were told Monday it is likely to last 10, 15 or 20 years — and that ultimately, Russia will lose.
Makes sense. Despite their heroic bravado, the Ukrainians can’t hold their territory forever under relentless Russian fire. According to some reports, Putin’s grip has already begun to tighten:
Just talked to a friend with contacts in Ukraine who are experienced observers of war. The situation, particularly in Kiev, is worse than it seems on social media. The Russian vice is closing. The West is congratulating itself for standing up to Putin, but he's winning.
— Mike (@Doranimated) March 2, 2022
Horrible conversation with the deputy mayor of Mariupol. Says residential areas heavily bombed, including his father's neighbourhood.
"The situation is awful, we are near to a humanitarian catastrophe. We have been under more than 15 hours of continuous shelling without pause."
— Joel Gunter (@joelmgunter) March 2, 2022
Russian troops have “completely surrounded” the southern port city of Kherson as casualties mount and residents shelter in their homes, a Ukrainian official said. If captured, it would be the first major city to fall to Russia.
Follow our updates.https://t.co/Qe8Dau2Pr3
— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 2, 2022
A siege is coming to Kiev itself, portending an agonizing decision for NATO. If Ukrainians begin starving and the west demands the right to supply humanitarian aid, what happens when Putin says no?
Again, no one should question Ukraine’s willingness to resist:
Rousing speech on the public square by Konotop Mayor Artem Semenikhin, who says Russian forces surrounded the city and delivered an ultimatum: surrender and leave or be destroyed. “I’m for fighting them!” he shouts to a roar of applause and raised fists. pic.twitter.com/fI5KLKwd8z
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) March 2, 2022
In Melitopol, unarmed Ukrainians are confronting the Russian soldiers. They are chanting "Occupants" and pushing the vehicles back. pic.twitter.com/PMges2cHhU
— Franak Viačorka (@franakviacorka) March 1, 2022
So many destroyed Russian vehicles in Bucha, they’ve clogged the street. pic.twitter.com/4SAJNjQS3q
— Michael Weiss 🌻 (@michaeldweiss) March 2, 2022
But we should doubt their ability. If Russia chokes off food to major cities and seals the border, stopping weapons shipments, defeat is a matter of time. NATO isn’t going to start World War III by coming to the rescue. I think.
Under “normal” circumstances, then, the next few months, years, and decades would be predictable. Ukraine would gradually be bombed and starved into submission; Putin would replace Zelensky with Viktor Yanukovych, the clown who ruled Ukraine at the Kremlin’s behest until 2014; and then the two sides would settle in for a long, bloody insurgency that really might take 10, 15, or 20 years to resolve. Russia would dedicate endless troops and money towards suppressing the Ukrainians because the tsar’s pride requires it.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. Russia is facing an X factor that no country has faced before, the near-total deplatforming of its central bank from western financial markets. Putin would be willing to pay any price to win his glorious victory over Ukraine, I’m sure. But what happens when he literally can’t pay?
How does Russia make a go of occupation long-term knowing that the longer and bloodier the war gets, the less willing the U.S. and EU will be to ever lift those sanctions?
How does Putin manage the privation and anger that economic calamity will cause at home, particularly as the shocking number of Russian casualties rises? How hard does the already ambivalent Russian military continue to fight if they’re forced to take a pay cut while in the field? If you believe the Pentagon, some Russian troops are already punching holes in their vehicles’ gas tanks to give them an excuse not to advance.
Each side of this conflict now has an irresistible force set to lay waste to it in a matter of weeks. For Ukraine, that irresistible force is Russian military firepower. For Russia, it’s western economic firepower. Both Kiev and the Russian economy are under siege. How can either hold out for very long? Derek Thompson:
This is terra incognita for economic policy. No country has ever faced this kind of global freeze-out. The implications are hard to predict, but several consequences are already apparent in the form of bank runs and long ATM lines. On Monday, the London stock listings of several Russian banks fell by more than 50 percent. The ruble is trading like a junk cryptocurrency, collapsing more than 30 percent on Monday, and as it weakens, the price of certain imports will rise sharply. Unemployment will soar unless the central bank steps in to print money in order to keep companies afloat, but this will almost certainly cause even worse inflation. To throttle the worst inflationary effects, the Russian central bank doubled its key interest rate to 20 percent; for perspective, that’s higher than the U.S. federal-funds rate has ever been. Businesses are nervous that SWIFT sanctions will shut down international credit-card accounts. In normal times, the worst effects of most depressions aren’t felt for months. This has all happened in the past 72 hours.
Russia’s economic crisis could spark a brain drain. More young Russians are reportedly trying to emigrate. Today’s problems could set the stage for a long-term decline in Russia’s prosperity, as people with the means and motivation to get out move west. Migrants will, however, face a mobility problem: The European Union has closed its airspace to Russian planes and private jets. The country is sealed off—from Western trade, Western travel, and (apart from energy exports) most Western business.
Russia spent the past eight years planning for this scenario by amassing a tremendous amount of wealth in foreign currency reserves, a stockpile it could draw from if and when the west turned off the tap. Minor problem: The west froze those reserves last week. Russia’s strategy, dubbed “Fortress Russia,” is now up in smoke. “The pressure on the Russian economy is just tremendous,” said one expert to the WSJ. “And it’s going to get even more dramatic over the next weeks and months.” An analyst told the paper she estimates a 10 percent contraction in Russian GDP this year and double-digit inflation.
What we’re left with are two forces racing to see who can decimate the other first, with little regard for the consequences to their own side. On the one hand, Zelensky and the west are hoping Ukraine can hold out just long enough for Putin to fall victim to a palace coup. The unstated goal of western sanctions is regime change, after all. Realistically, the only way Ukraine wins is if the hardship visited on Russia is so terrible that Putin’s courtiers conclude that ousting him and withdrawing is the least bad option available. On the other hand, Putin is hoping to take Ukraine quickly and then hold out economically until the knock-on effects of the mega-sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU begin to bite their own populations. Westerners are inspired by Zelensky at the moment but may feel less inspired in three months when gas is six dollars per gallon. The west’s will to wreck Russia’s economy will weaken once it begins to experience blowback. The question is how much weaker it’ll get.
That’s the only way Putin “wins” strategically here as far as I can see. He subjugates Ukraine and endures the western siege until the U.S. and EU can’t bear any more economic pain and decide to lift sanctions. And his reward for that glorious victory will be … a grinding and horribly expensive occupation of Ukraine that may drag on indefinitely. But that’s also the only way this war lasts years, no? Otherwise, how does either side avert chaos and collapse?