Six Months Into Ukraine War, What’s Next?
Six months since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, two experts agree that one thing is clear: how the war will end is anyone’s guess.
A panel hosted this week at Texas A&M University by the MSC Wiley Lecture Series focused on the ongoing impact of the conflict. Speakers included John Schuessler, an associate professor in the Department of International Affairs and co-director of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, and Serhiy Kudelia, an associate professor of political science at Baylor University.
Kudelia, who is from Ukraine and from 2008-2009 was an advisor to the country’s deputy prime minister, noted that in addition to marking six months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Aug. 24 marks another important anniversary: Ukrainian Independence Day, which commemorates that country’s separation from the Soviet Union in 1991.
“They are linked because the invasion itself is a testimony to the success of Ukraine’s independence project,” Kudelia said. “For 30 years Russia has tried to undermine, subvert and destroy Ukraine and promote anti-Ukrainian agendas to try to divide the Ukrainian society…. Ukraine resisted for all of this time.”
Although Ukraine has braced for increased attacks expected on the anniversary of its independence, Russian advances appear to have mostly stalled.
“One thing we’ve learned from this war is that war is a very blunt, often counterproductive instrument,” said Schuessler, an expert in grand strategy who previously taught at the Air War College. “If Russia can’t use military power to force a small neighbor that it cares greatly about back into its fold, what the heck is military power good for?”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to force Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence has arguably “backfired badly,” Schuessler said. “I can’t imagine a scenario where Ukrainians gladly become part of the Russian orbit again.”
The success of the Ukrainian defense and the strength of the Ukrainian state surprised not just Putin and Moscow, Kudelia said, but many in the West who expected Russia to have a swift and easy victory. He thinks there are a few reasons Ukraine has so far been able to hold off Russia’s advances.
First, the country has already seen a number of revolutions in response to attempts to consolidate political power. And in addition to the energy and the will of the Ukrainian people to resist, the country also has the support of the United States and the West. Kudelia emphasized the importance of this as Russia has succeeded in destroying the economy by targeting the agricultural sector.
“The economy is in a very difficult state, so external funding and support is crucial. The support needs to continue, number one for humanitarian reasons,” Kudelia said. “By supporting Ukraine, the U.S. is demonstrating that it commits itself to supporting democracies around the world.”
Both Kudelia and Schuessler warned that as the war continues, there could be spillover effects for other countries.
“Ultimately if Ukraine is defeated on the battlefield, the United States will be drawn into a much bigger conflict with Russia where it’s not only about the weaponry, but it will also be about American lives and American soldiers there in Europe,” Kudelia said.
Schuessler said the conflict poses a grand strategy problem the U.S. will continue to grapple with: “You have to decide that as an American, what price are you willing to pay to prevent other great powers from having spheres of influence?”
“Are you willing to have a nuclear war with China over Taiwan? Are you willing to have a nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine? There’s argument there might be a nuclear war if Ukraine wins and Russia is desperate to reverse that outcome,” Schuessler said. “The stakes are really real. This was not thought through when NATO was expanded.”
Both experts agreed that the war isn’t ending anytime soon, and will likely continue for several years.
Ukraine is likely not strong enough to eject the Russian forces, but Russia probably won’t be able to take much more territory, Schuessler said. The problem, he said, is stalemate creates desperation.
“Wars of attrition are the most evil, ghastly thing you can imagine. We know this from previous world wars,” he said. “They eat up people and resources at a horrible rate.”