As time passes and Russia consolidates its defense positions in the territories of Ukraine that it occupies, the prospects of a swift victory are diminishing increasingly. The statement of General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Army, in November 2022, when he asserted that the war in Ukraine cannot be won by solely employing military means, demonstrates the complexity of the war. These words not only astonished Western capitals, but also contradicted the stance of Kyiv and many of its Western supporters, such as Poland, the Baltic countries, North America, and the United Kingdom, who advocated for Ukraine’s endeavors to achieve a complete military victory. The US seems to have comprehended that victory in Ukraine would entail a protracted war with far-reaching repercussions. However, the Europeans have not yet reached this understanding, as they have adopted a black-and-white view of the war and only regard Russia’s defeat as tantamount to Europe’s stable security. This mistaken assumption, with the Russians’ stubborn resistance in the recent Ukrainian counterattacks, portends security difficulties, economic pressures, intensification of violence in the war, and unsolvable conflicts in Europe. It seems that in order to avert these perilous consequences, the Europeans must adapt themselves to the realities on the ground.
Western leaders have expressed confidence that Ukraine will prevail over Russia in the war that commenced with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They have cautioned that Europe’s peace and prosperity hinge on Ukraine’s triumph against Russia, which they regard as the most anti-European force in the contemporary world. They have projected the future based on this dichotomous view of the conflict, which precludes any accommodation with Russian aggression. Zelensky has concurred with this view, asserting that Ukraine is safeguarding Europe from Russia. This reductive and sanguine outlook is corroborated by the current conviction that Russia is approaching economic, political, and military disintegration. The recent declarations of Western leaders at the G7 in Tokyo and the US Secretary of State in Helsinki indicate no sign of alteration. They pledge final victory, spurn negotiations, proffer more weapons, and reiterate the narrative of Russia as a feeble country barely surviving, as manifested by Wagner’s unsuccessful coup attempt.
The situation, however, is different from what is portrayed. Russia is not economically devastated and the Prigozhin incident has not provoked any serious political divisions, and the regime remains cohesive. Russia has fortified its defenses through relative mobilization, and its military has adeptly adapted its anti-UAV, infantry, and artillery tactics to the circumstances of the battlefield. While European countries are attempting to augment their military and industrial capacity, Russia still maintains superiority in weapons production. The Russian army has undergone successful expansion and reorganization, and that is why Wagner Prigogine’s group is redundant. The regular Russian army could have coped with the Ukrainian counterattack without them.
If Russia can maintain its victories, Europe will face a long war on its eastern edge. The US’s chief military officer, General Mark Milley, foresees a very violent conflict that will entail considerable time and costs. While Blinken dismisses the idea of a ceasefire, NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg regards Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive as a means to bolster Kyiv’s position at the negotiation table. However, considering the significant gap between the positions of both sides on matters such as territory, neutrality, and security guarantees, it is difficult to envisage an agreeable basis for achieving peace through negotiations.
Europe had anticipated that Ukraine would achieve a swift victory or make considerable progress in the recent assaults, which would alter the situation of the war in their favor and against Kyiv and the West. Nevertheless, this has not materialized so far. This prolonged the war and entail three very grave risks for Europe’s future and its position in the international system.
The first matter is an urgent and grave challenge to security. The forthcoming NATO meeting may result in more financial and military support for Ukraine, and possibly even its accession to the alliance. NATO has refrained from providing more and superior weapons to Ukraine, which are essential for launching an effective counterattack, in order to avert a full-blown war with Ukraine or a nuclear escalation.
Kyiv’s revised approach could entail employing NATO’s advanced and formidable weapons to conduct destructive operations deep within Russian territory. This could compel Russia to sever NATO’s supply lines from Poland and Romania to Ukraine. Failing to respond to Russia would undermine NATO’s credibility, and responding would likely escalate the tension and endanger the existence of the entire continent.
The second challenge is a potential security challenge for the medium and long term that could result from a protracted conflict. In this scenario, Ukraine would resemble Israel, a militarized state supported by the West, perpetually prepared for hostilities. Russia, estranged from Europe and incapable of defeating Ukraine or deterring its assaults, would become more radicalized and attempt to implicate Europe in an asymmetric war. Europe would confront a classic security dilemma, whereby augmenting military assistance to Ukraine, would merely engender more insecurity.
The next threat is economic peril. Losing access to low-cost Russian energy poses a serious challenge for Europe, which will be resolved by importing LNG from the United States and making long-term investments in expensive green energy. However, this means that Europe will have to cope with high energy prices henceforth. Furthermore, in the scenario of an interminable war in Ukraine, the US will continue to escalate its pressure on Europe to increase its military spending. Also, on global trade, Europe will face more pressure from the United States to concur with Washington in future conflicts against China. With US’s transition toward quasi-protectionist policies such as the deflationary law, Europe cannot even be assured of access to North American markets.
Europe cannot depend on the United States and Marshall Plan to enhance its capability to cope with pressures. Rather, it has to support Ukraine, a country that is afflicted by deep-seated and pervasive corruption. This overall situation indicates that economic assistance from Europe will be limited and unstable. As the economy deteriorates and living standards decline, voters demand to know who is accountable and what should be done. Blaming Putin constantly is not a viable option for European leaders, as it fosters a situation that allows radical populist forces to emerge and grow stronger.
Europe must confront the reality of the situation in Ukraine, where Russia has improved its relative position in this prolonged war. The current European leaders are not influencing the events but rather being driven by them. To prevent further adverse outcomes in the future, they need to exercise responsible management and determined leadership. The first step is to refrain from succumbing to war fever and the euphoric projection of the illusion of victory. Europe should prudently evaluate the consequences of a protracted war in Ukraine, instead of blindly advancing towards a future full of instability and continuous wars.