When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, the U.S. and other nations held grim assessments of Ukraine’s ability to withstand the full-scale military assault. Initial predictions by U.S. national security officials held that Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, would fall “within days,” with the rest of the nation following shortly thereafter. Yet more than a month into the massive, unwarranted incursion into Ukraine’s sovereign territory, Russia has failed to capture Kyiv and has faced intense difficulties with troop commitment, materiel, and the lack of an effective plan against steadfast Ukrainian resistance. Russian forces have begun to withdraw from the areas surrounding Kyiv, and the possibility of successful peace talks appears more likely. In Russia, however, top leadership shows no signs of backing down. Amidst the initial invasion and throughout the campaign, Russian President Vladmir Putin has remained steadfast in his claim that the war is warranted. Early in the incursion, Putin made a statement that the invasion seeks to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine” and protect both Ukrainian citizens and Russian nationals in Ukraine from what he calls “genocide.” Russian losses since have been staggering; NATO estimates 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine since fighting began, a number that well exceeds any recent Russian war.
Even in the face of apparent Russian military missteps, such as supply chain failures and a lack of a steady supply of munitions, the war in Ukraine will likely morph into a long-term conflict. This is in part due to Russia’s strategic strength in the region––Russia is mobilizing troops in a breakaway region of Moldova called Transnistria and appears to be focusing on the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, which has been mired by Russian separatist conflict since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The war has been cast as a battle of wills––the resolve of the Ukrainian people to protect their homeland versus the desires of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. How the war will truly end is unpredictable, but the very fact that Kyiv has held up against a full-scale assault is promising for the future of Ukraine’s resistance. Several different futures for the war in Ukraine are possible, from a civilian-led resistance to chemical warfare perpetrated by Russia.
First, the opportunity for civilian-led resistance in Ukraine is promising, and has already proven to be a key point for Ukraine’s strength. Citizens have joined the territorial defense forces, Ukraine’s main military arm, and formed local volunteer groups to push back against Russian military forces. While many of the individuals who have joined these forces do not have military training, they hold an important asset over Russian soldiers––resolve. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians alike have been motivated by Russia’s barbarity, which has resulted in injuries and deaths of many Ukrainian civilians, including children.
Russian soldiers, by contrast, have been deployed en masse to a war that may not support: 25 percent of their troops are conscripts and 11 million Russians have relatives in Ukraine. The aforementioned casualty numbers, too, are disheartening––Russia has lost more soldiers in just over a month than in the entirety of their ten-year operations in Afghanistan. Reports of desertions and even self-inflicted wounds among Russian soldiers to avoid continuing to fight have also surfaced. One viral video shows Russian troops lambasting the operations, saying they are unprepared and that “[Russia] took us at 18 years old."
It is also increasingly clear that Russia may lack a concrete plan for their invasion. Some Russian troops appear confused about what exactly they are fighting for. In comparison to Ukrainian troops, Russian troops suffer from low unit cohesion, as about one-quarter of Russian troops were forced to fight for reasons that appear unclear to the soldiers, while Ukrainian troops are largely made up of willing participants who have a stake in the territory being fought over. Russia’s lack of unit cohesion can help explain some of the stalemates witnessed outside Kyiv. Without unit cohesion and a convincing rationale, troops are less willing to sacrifice their own lives for their fellow soldiers or for a cause. In comparison, Ukrainian troops are united around repelling Russian aggression and preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Faced with stronger-than-expected resistance, there is also the grim possibility that Russia––mainly, Vladimir Putin––will become desperate and resort to chemical or biological means of warfare. In this scenario, Russia could utilize these weapons of mass destruction as a means to break Ukraine and force concessions. The U.S. government considers this a real enough possibility that it has sent protective equipment to Ukraine for civilians, including gas masks and hazmat suits. NATO members have also been told they should provide equipment to protect against “chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats.” U.S. President Joe Biden has also promised a broad “response” to Russia’s use of weapons of mass destruction, should that happen, which would depend upon the type of weapons used. Though Putin may seek to use these weapons to force an end to the war, their use could expand the war to include Ukraine’s international allies or lead to further isolation of Russia via sanctions and international exclusion.
Next remains the possibility of a protracted insurgency, where the conflict become a less organized war comprised of smaller groups of rebel forces fighting back against the Russian government. The U.S. has debated arming insurgent groups before, from Kosovo to Syria, but it remains a complicated decision for the U.S. and other NATO powers when it comes to Ukraine. To prove successful, an insurgency in Eastern Europe must have strong leadership, military assistance from an outside power, and rough terrain to fight and hide in. While Ukraine may be able to sustain a successful insurgency on some levels, especially under the strong leadership of their President Zelenskyy, the terrain is not incredibly rough or mountainous, and military help from outside power is not guaranteed. Most difficult, however, is that insurgencies require a “foe with limits” who will not resort to mass killings or other atrocities in the event of potential failure. This cannot be assumed of Russia, as the nation has not committed to abstain from the use of weapons of mass destruction. War crimes such as mass rape and civilian killings have been reported in Ukrainian cities like Bucha and Irpin. The war could either simmer long enough to become an insurgency, or a long-term ceasefire could lead to pocketed resistance, much like that perpetrated by Russian separatists in the Donbas region. Yet insurgencies’ intermittent status makes violence against civilians more likely due to a lack of mechanisms for oversight. Plus, this same lack of oversight makes other powers reluctant to send weapons to insurgents, lest they fall into the wrong hands. Insurgency in a traditional form is possible, with rugged territory, scattered territorial control, and reliance on locals, but it would face intense difficulties.
There is also a more hopeful possibility of a peace deal. Recently, Russia promised to “drastically reduce” military activity around Kyiv and Chernihiv. In addition, while initial Russian demands were steep—including a pledge from Ukraine to stay out of NATO and remain neutral, recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia, and the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions—they have dropped their desires for “demilitarization” and “denazification,” which appeared to be thinly-veiled calls for regime change. Ukraine, too, has eased demands for immediate ceasefire and withdrawal and instead proposed adopting permanent neutrality and forgoing NATO membership in exchange for Russia’s non-aggression guarantees.
However, Western governments remain skeptical of Putin’s trustworthiness. There are concerns that Russia’s seeming retreat could simply be an opportunity for their forces to regroup, recharge, and mount an even more damaging offensive. Any peace deal would have Ukrainian neutrality at its core, but it would also require guarantors––which is where NATO powers, the European Union, and the U.S. could step in. The biggest sticking point of any deal would be the Crimean peninsula, believed by both parties to be their own, and the breakaway Donbas region, where Russia has a strong foothold due to Russian separatists in the region. Ukraine has said they will not sacrifice sovereignty, but that Crimea’s status could be worked out over 15 years, with Russia vowing not to use military force. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has put people over territory in discussing peace talks, and has led the move away from NATO and towards the European Union instead. Any peace deal would require significant movement by both parties––which may not yet be possible given Putin’s intransigence and the will of the Ukrainian people.
Finally, there is the possibility of Russian defeat, which national security officials imagined to be impossible at the war’s start. Yet Russia has shown that even high-end materiel, including modern bombers and tanks and well-organized battalions do not guarantee victory. The West seems to have overestimated Russia’s capacity for complex operations and underestimated the importance of troop resolve. Ukraine has challenged Russia’s attempts at air power superiority and Russia has had major mechanical failures when it comes to tank movements. Some Russian troops have abandoned their tanks and deserted—one even tried to kill a superior officer, in an exceptional case. While an all-out Russian defeat seems unlikely still, especially given Putin’s belligerent attitude, there are more Russian weaknesses than many nations initially believed. The true number of Russian casualties and materiel losses is also unknown, as Putin has attempted to cover up Russian losses to save face. Western websites and social media posts regarding Russian losses have also been blocked in Russia, stifling the circulation of reliable information that could breed dissent. With so little official information from the Kremlin, the Ukrainian government has begun a campaign to help Russian families find their loved ones. Tanks and the bodies of Russian soldiers litter the countryside, providing evidence of Russia’s struggles in Ukraine. Any Russian defeat would likely be protracted, contested, and suppressed by the Kremlin.
Regardless of the war’s end, the human consequences are devastating. Nearly 1,200 civilians have been killed, though the actual toll is likely higher. The port city of Mariupol has become a face of the devastation, with 100,000 citizens trapped in the city facing shelling, bombing, and blockades. The city has been made nearly unrecognizable by the Russian assault and remains cut off from essentials such as food, medicine, and water. Deals to establish humanitarian corridors for civilians to exit the besieged city have failed numerous times. Throughout the assault on Ukraine, the Russian military has shown little regard for the lives of civilians, striking a theater where refugees were sheltered in Mariupol, murdering ten people in line for bread in Chernihiv, and striking numerous hospitals and residences. As Russian forces advanced on the Kyiv suburb of Irpin in March, Ukrainians young and old fled over wooden planks laid over the Irpin River after Russian forces destroyed the bridge. The images of Ukrainian elders, some of whom had lived through the Nazi advance on Ukraine during World War II, were widely publicized and drew international cries for war crime prosecutions. Today, there are nearly four million Ukrainian refugees, many of whom fled with few belongings and left family members behind. While other nations resist full engagement with Russia to avoid escalation and further casualties, these Ukrainian civilians live a life of uncertainty. Whether the war in Ukraine involves defeat at the hands of the Russians, a long-term conflict, insurgency, a peace deal, or Russian defeat, Ukraine faces an uncertain future. Any continuation of the conflict bodes ill for Ukrainian citizens, their livelihoods, and the country they call home.
The image used at the top of this article was taken by Sgt. Meleesa E Gutierrez. It is in the public domain and can be found here.
Julianna Rossi is a third year Political Science major and Human Rights minor. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she spends her time on campus as the Chair of UChiVotes and as a communications intern for the IOP. Besides that, she loves cooking and baking, reading the news, and exploring Chicago.