Despite attacking Ukraine with some 150,000 soldiers from the north, south, and east on February 24, Russian armed forces haven’t been able to oust its government, take its capital, or conquer any of its western territories. Yet despite its effective resistance, the Ukrainian military hasn’t managed a definitive victory either—with Russia now controlling significantly more Ukrainian territory now than it did before the war. As things stand, Russian troops occupy some of Ukraine’s South, including the city of Kherson, and they’ve taken more of the Donbas area in the Southeast than Moscow has held since 2014. Fighting in these two regions has bogged down in recent weeks, with both sides making only modest gains. Where is this all going?
Chris Miller is an assistant professor of international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the co-director of the school’s Russia and Eurasia Program. Neither country, Miller says, is likely to come out of the war with a straightforward triumph. The most likely outcome is a settlement that allows both sides to declare a kind of victory. After the many combat setbacks suffered by the Russian army, Moscow wants to show domestically that it’s won more territory than it controlled on February 24. And inspired by the Ukrainian military’s surprising early successes, Kyiv doesn’t want to accept any new Russian gains—despite the low probability that Ukraine can take back the parts of the Donbas that Russia controlled before the invasion. As Miller sees it, the next few months could be decisive, with both sides playing out a range of possible endgames—with a range of possible aftermaths, from the ambiguous to the catastrophic.
Michael Bluhm: Could an end be close?
Chris Miller: It doesn’t seem so. The Ukrainians plausibly think they could take back a substantial spread of the territory that Russia has conquered, which is about 20 percent of the country. And although Moscow has rolled back the initial war aims that President Vladimir Putin articulated on February 24 before invading, it’s still trying to eke out something that looks like a victory—something that it can sell at home as a victory and that Putin can sell to himself as a victory. But that’s not coming soon. Neither is it clear, at this point, what Putin would need to feel satisfied that he had a victory.
As long as the Ukrainians want to continue pushing the Russians back, and the Russians aren’t willing to give up any territory or call things to a halt, this phase of the war could be protracted.
Bluhm: What do you see as realistic possible outcomes for Russia now?