President Joe Biden’s surprise trip to Kyiv on Feb. 20, 2023, is a clear signal of continuing U.S. support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russia. It occurs as the war there is approaching a potentially decisive period.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now a year old. What began as a sudden strike to decapitate the Kyiv government and install a pro-Moscow puppet regime has descended into an ugly slugging match. Make no mistake: The war has been a horror. Military casualties have been high on both sides. Atrocities against Ukrainian civilians have been routine and bloody. Cities and towns, particularly in southern Ukraine, have been severely damaged. And the war has ushered in a new and dangerous period of geopolitical uncertainty in Europe and, indeed, the world.
Russia has spent recent months bolstering its forces with new conscripts and strengthening field dispositions. It has possibly already begun an expected spring offensive with attacks in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Fighting has been intense, though geographically limited; Russian gains have been modest and, by most accounts, very costly.
The prospect of a full Russian “victory” has long since vanished. Why?
First and foremost, Ukrainian military forces have proven to be a formidable enemy, fiercely defending their own territory at the beginning of the war and launching successive counteroffensives last fall. The flood of military armaments from the United States and other friendly states bolstered the Ukrainian military, as did extensive intelligence support from Washington. The transfer of arms to Ukraine continues, now including armored vehicles, notably battle tanks.
A second reason for Russia’s failure is the shocking incompetence of its own military. Russia’s army may not have been a “paper tiger,” but it has proven to be a second-rate fighting force. The initial drive toward Kyiv, for instance, left a long-armored column dangerously exposed. Fighting elsewhere was marked by poor Russian tactics at the unit level. Russia has apparently learned some lessons from its earlier mistakes, but the addition of several hundred thousand poorly trained draftees of questionable morale is unlikely to turn the tide of battle decisively in Moscow’s favor.
Another cause of Russian failure has been the strong support for Ukraine of many in the international community, notably the United States, the countries of the EU, and NATO members. As noted, this support includes arms and munitions. But broad-based sanctions — including in the sensitive energy sector — have damaged the Russian economy and reduced the country’s war-making capacity.
Not least, the resilience of the Ukrainian people and their leadership — especially President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — has been remarkable. In many ways, President Biden’s visit to Kyiv and his meeting with Zelenskyy are tribute to this resilience. Zelenskyy has proven to be an astonishingly capable war-time leader, Ukraine’s “Man of the Hour.”
The invasion of Ukraine has not only been an embarrassment for the Russian military, it has been a geopolitical disaster for Russia. The war has revealed the fundamental weakness of Russia and has created a unity of purpose in NATO not seen in decades. Indeed, two countries (Finland and Sweden) are now seeking to join the alliance. And existing NATO members, including Germany, have promised to increase defense expenditures. Major economies, especially in the EU, are — however painfully— weaning themselves from dependence on Russian natural gas.
Although Russia may have failed to achieve victory, it still holds sizeable areas of Ukrainian territory. Moscow’s recent military activities in Luhansk and Donetsk suggest that Russia believes it can claw further land from Ukraine. The endgame for Moscow is known only to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he may seek a “frozen conflict,” where active armed conflict dwindles along an informal demarcation line between opponents. Putin might also be hoping for a more formal cease-fire that would leave Russia in control of territories it currently possesses.
Ukraine is in no mood for either of these options. We can expect Ukraine to launch its own offensive at some point. Speculation has centered on a drive toward Melitopol in southern Ukraine. Such an attack, if successful, would divide Russian forces in two and leave Crimea (seized by Russia in 2014) vulnerable to isolation and/or capture by Ukraine. Russia may hope for war-weariness to set in among Ukrainians or Kyiv’s international partners. There is no sign of the former and little of the latter. Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine may have been largely symbolic in nature. But the symbolism — of ironclad U.S. support for Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression — is important.
Meanwhile, the war goes on. How it will end depends primarily on the situation on the ground. Right now, the prospects for peace are slim. Putin is clearly unprepared to surrender his imperial ambitions, however costly they have proven to be. An outright defeat might well prompt moves within Russia’s military and security elites to depose him. And Ukraine — strong on the battlefield and bolstered by international support — has little incentive to strike a deal.
This material may be quoted or reproduced without prior permission, provided appropriate credit is given to the author and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed herein are those of the individual author(s), and do not necessarily represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.