Beware of war predictions: Ukraine’s outcome is not yet written

In 1942, Germany controlled most of Europe and a large swath of Northern Africa, and Japan controlled much of China, Southeast Asia, and was at Australia’s doorstep. By the end of 1943, the maps looked quite different. War is like that, a dynamic phenomenon. A scene from the movie, “Lawrence of Arabia,” says it best: After marching through burning sands and biting windstorms, Lawrence and his men were on the edge of dehydration when they found an oasis.  Lawrence realized that his camel boy was missing. When no one volunteered to go back to retrieve the boy, Lawrence went himself. His men pleaded with him not to go, saying that his fate was written by Allah. Two days later, Lawrence returned with the boy, so exhausted and dry that he could only whisper, “Nothing is written unless we write it.” 

A war’s outcome is written by its combatants. It depends upon which side commits what is necessary — in blood, materiel, and will — toward achieving its aims, how long it can sustain its efforts, and whether it makes fewer mistakes than its enemies. By that score, how or when the Ukraine war will end remains unknown. 

Some Western strategists are predicting that even with allied help, the best outcome will be a stalemate. They reason that Russia is larger and has more resources than Ukraine. So, even if Russia cannot win outright, it can prevent Ukraine from winning. Thus, they conclude, a stalemate is the most likely outcome. Given this, the reasoning continues, it’s best to stop the fighting and negotiate a solution now to prevent more suffering. I wonder if these same strategists would have recommended that to the Continental Congress after George Washington’s 1776 defeat on Long Island and in New York? After all, Britain was a global military and economic powerhouse compared to the American colonies, and at the time success looked impossible to many. 

The stalemate prediction and the recommendations that flow from it defy the nature of war. War is not an arithmetic affair. Numbers count, but success in war cannot be predicted by merely calculating force ratios and economic potential. War on paper is not the same as real war. 

Unable to seize Kyiv and replace Volodymyr Zelensky’s government quickly, Vladimir Putin shifted to Plan B: subjugate Ukraine by permanent partition. He is firmly committed to so limit Ukraine’s political sovereignty, territorial integrity and economic capacity that, even if Ukraine does not become a Russian vassal, Russia gains from its aggression and Ukraine loses. And Putin seems willing to spill much blood — Russian and Ukrainian, combatants as well as non-combatants, well beyond what is militarily necessary — to achieve his aims.  

Hotels, hospitals, shopping centers, apartment buildings, and refugees have been and continue to be Russian targets — depravity without limits. And he is “Russianizing” the areas he has seized — changing the currency to rubles, forcing Russian banks upon the residents, changing political leaders, integrating Ukrainian industrial assets into the Russian economy, and deporting Ukrainian citizens — annexation Russian-style, just as he did in 2014 in Crimea and the Donbas.  

Putin will not stop until he is stopped. His overall purpose is to re-establish a greater Russia.  First reuniting former Russian states — the Baltic countries, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.  Then, when and if possible, Russian “buffer states,” nations of the former Warsaw Pact — Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Subjugating Ukraine is one step toward this ultimate goal.

Putin seems willing to commit everything within his power, but is he able to actually generate and apply what’s necessary for even his first step? That remains to be seen. Even with the oil money still flowing into Russian coffers, Putin is having great difficulties in generating soldiers, units and leaders to replace his losses. And even with his oil money, he is also having difficulty repairing, producing, procuring and delivering the vehicles, arms and ammunition his forces need. Ukraine’s fighters, using allied arms and ammunition, have forced Russian forces into a grinding war of attrition in the northern and eastern parts of Ukraine — one that is not clear Putin can, in fact, sustain.

With allied support, the Zelensky government is fighting hard to stop Plan B from succeeding.  This is a tough fight, but one the Ukrainians are still determined to win. The Ukrainian people know what’s at stake: their right to a political and economic life of their choosing. Further, Putin’s vision and aggression have generated opposition around the world. Whereas he sought to weaken NATO, it has strengthened and will grow. Where he wanted to show democracy’s weakness, he provoked unity and strength. Grand strategically, he may have lost already. Strategically, within Ukraine itself, who will succeed is yet unclear. 

The Ukraine war is actually being fought and waged at two levels. The first is strategic, in Ukraine: the allies staying true to their word and supplying Ukraine with what it needs to create negotiating conditions favorable to the Zelensky government increases the probability that Putin’s aggression will fail. The second war is grand-strategic, beyond Ukraine: preventing the kind of world in which force plays an increasing role. The rules-based world created after World War II is one in which America and its allies, as well as many other nations, prospered. A future with weak rules and more wars is not one conducive to any country’s prosperity. 

The war at both levels is worth fighting. And both, worth winning. Preventing future war starts with stopping Putin in Ukraine. Those who are suggesting that we negotiate with Putin now are not thinking about what’s at stake should Putin’s aggression pay off. The Zelensky government, the Ukraine people, and its allied supporters still have the ability to write the outcome. 

James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. He served in military command and operational roles in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq, and helped train forces in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Honduras, and many NATO countries.