Experts React: Factors Shaping the Russia-Ukraine Conflict in 2023
Eliot A. Cohen
As Russia and Ukraine head into year two of a war that has defied expectations, a collection of CSIS experts examined driving factors for the future of the conflict. These experts borrow the approach from intelligence analysts, who seek to evaluate the possible trajectories of a conflict rather than make straight-line predictions, bounding reality for policymakers. Emily Harding discusses the life-or-death question of continued outside aid for Ukraine and the resilience of the Ukrainian people. Ben Jensen discusses cohesion in the Russian military and the potential for catastrophic collapse. Heather Williams evaluates the looming nuclear question. Finally, Eliot Cohen examines how a conflict might end.
Single Point of Failure: Will Outside Support for Ukraine Endure?
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, International Security Program
The success or failure of Kyiv’s war effort hinges on one unfortunate fact: Ukraine does not have the indigenous capacity to arm itself for this fight. Ukrainian president Zelensky knows it and has devoted considerable time and energy to shoring up relationships and corresponding supply lines—for example, leaving Ukraine to visit Washington and Europe.
The West has responded: despite a slow, hesitant start, marked by hand-wringing over escalation, NATO members have stepped up to provide increasingly effective and potent weapons systems. HIMARS—the light, mobile, precision artillery platforms—are already a hero of the war, and Abrams and Leopard tanks are inbound. Debates over fourth-generation fighter jets and long-range fires are surely right around the corner.
But Zelensky’s work is never done. Russia is working hard to widen any crack in support for Ukraine. Recent Quran-burning protests in Sweden seem to have been bought and paid for by Russian assets, designed to make it impossible for Turkey to support Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. A recent poll by the European Hybrid CoE suggests that segments of the public in key European nations are questioning why Europe is sending so much aid to Ukraine. Those segments are still minorities, but Ukraine is only a year into what most likely will be a very long fight.
NATO allies also have a structural concern beyond the whims of opinion polls. As CSIS’s Seth Jones argued in his recent report, Empty Bins in a Wartime Environment, support to Ukraine has drawn down U.S. stocks of critical weapons systems faster than they can be replenished, in our current peacetime production tempo. The report says “DoD has only placed on contract a fraction of the weapons it has sent to Ukraine. Many U.S. allies and partners in Europe also have defense industrial bases that are unprepared for major war, heavily reliant on the United States, and chronically underfunded.” At some point, U.S. and European military planners will begin to feel the pinch and question what should go to Ukraine and what should be held in reserve for a potential future fight, should this conflict dramatically escalate or China see an opportunity to move in the Pacific.
In this conflict more than most, Ukraine’s chances at victory will be decided by both the weapons themselves and the symbolic value of the commitment to send them. Moscow is betting that time is on its side and it can grind Ukraine into dust. The key assumption in that bet is that Russia can outlast NATO commitment. Instead, Russia needs to fear that, just as it underestimated NATO’s willingness to help Ukraine and Ukraine’s ability to fight, it has miscalculated the West’s resolve to stay with Ukraine all the way to Crimea. The Biden administration has signaled medium-term U.S. commitment with its military aid package and training programs, and in one of his few lines on foreign policy in the State of the Union, Biden pledged that the United States “will stand with you as long as it takes.” On the heels of Zelensky’s trip, European allies need to find ways to signal the same commitment to their people and to Kyiv.
Can Ukrainian Resilience Hold?
On February 24, millions of us made a choice. Not a white flag, but a blue and yellow flag. Not escaping, but meeting. Meeting the enemy. Resisting and fighting. –Zelensky’s New Year address to the nation
President Zelensky has been a symbol of his nation’s resolve and defiance in the face of a brutal enemy. He has been steadfast, but how long can Ukrainian resilience hold? As of January 15, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recorded 18,358 civilian casualties in the country: 7,031 killed and 11,327 injured. More than eight million Ukrainians have become refugees, at least six million more are internally displaced, and nearly half the population needs humanitarian assistance. Russia has engaged in a ruthless campaign to knock out critical infrastructure, including power and water, in the middle of winter. Ukrainians have suffered greatly and will continue to suffer as a result of Moscow’s blatant disregard for human life.
Meanwhile, reliable numbers of Ukrainian military casualties are difficult to calculate; the Ukrainian government has labeled them classified. In early December, Ukrainian government officials publicly estimated up to 13,000 killed and stridently denied a European estimate of 100,000 dead. Ukrainian soldiers have shown ingenuity and grit and have made clear they will fight to free their country for as long as is necessary with whatever is available.
NATO and other friends of Ukraine should plan for a multiyear conflict and develop sustainable plans for keeping Ukraine’s forces and population resilient. For refugees, those plans look like work programs—in particular support for Ukraine’s women to work remotely in their Ukrainian jobs whenever possible—education for children, and mental health support. A soldier unburdened with worries about their spouse and kids is a soldier better able to focus on the fight. For those fighting, efforts to create sustainable rotations on and off the battlefield for training and rest are a basic start. Fostering the belief that the fight is winnable with public symbols of support—from flags waving over Washington, to the United Kingdom hosting Eurovision on behalf of Ukraine, to NAFO Fellas, to, yes, tanks and HIMARS—will keep determination high.
Is There Cohesion in the Russian Military?
Senior Fellow, International Security Program
In stark contrast to Ukrainian forces, Russian efforts in Ukraine have been plagued by faulty equipment, lack of winter gear, and reported fights and drunkenness in the trenches. What if the mutinies endemic in the Russian revolutions in 1905 and 1917 are a harbinger for the course of 2023? Military power requires cohesive fighting organizations as much as it does tanks and planes. Soldiers tend to reflect cleavages and power struggles in their societies. The combined stress of battlefield losses and growing crises on the home front can undermine military power through eroding cohesion. Look no further than the Kiel Mutiny in the German navy in 1918 and the cascading protests across that accelerated the end of World War I. Along similar lines, a recent study by Jason Lyall, director of the Political Violence Field Lab, found that military performance is linked to economic and social inequality in a society. The more unequal and stratified a society, the more likely the military is to underperform and even collapse.
Applied to Russia, which has seen a dramatic rise in income inequality over the last generation, alongside a rise in nationalistic xenophobic attitudes and racism against non-ethnic Russians, this finding suggests the winter could be longer for Moscow than it is for Kyiv. The signs are already present given changing sentiments in minority regions like Buryatia and mass emigration by military age males. Sanctions combined with the Kremlin’s rhetoric about historic Russia may bolster the elite that didn’t jump from windows, but it only exacerbates the tensions tearing the nation apart and undermining its military performance. Russia has more forced conscripts and prison units than it does volunteers.
The conditions are already present for a large-scale Russian military mutiny. Low morale, cold weather, and high attrition rates alongside nationalist rhetoric and economic decline will continue over the course of the next three months. In this environment, a spark can start a wildfire. Riots, rampant refusal of orders, and even defections and surrenders could spread like a disease through the burnt-out cities and trenches along the battlefield in Ukraine. Though impossible to predict, the most likely catalyst on the horizon is the first offensive of the spring in which mobilized conscripts currently training in Russia and Belarus discover the hell of modern trench warfare.
Will Putin Continue to Make Nuclear Threats?
Director, Project on Nuclear Issues
Whether the war in Ukraine lasts months or years, nuclear weapons will continue to lurk in the background. Russian president Vladimir Putin has come to rely on nuclear weapons for coercion and bullying and will continue to make nuclear threats. Since the start of the invasion, Putin has made explicit and implicit reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. On December 21, he stated, “We will continue maintaining and improving the combat readiness of the nuclear triad” and listed Russia’s numerous nuclear delivery vehicles, including the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle.
Putin is relying on nuclear threats for two primary reasons. First, he wants to deter NATO from directly intervening in Ukraine. While the West has gradually increased its military support for Ukraine, Putin’s efforts have arguably had some success preventing direct Western military intervention for fear of escalation. Keeping NATO out of Ukraine will remain a top priority for Putin. But the second reason for Putin’s nuclear threats is even more dangerous and risky. By suggesting a willingness to use nuclear weapons, Putin is also signaling his commitment to winning the war in Ukraine at ever-increasing costs. In the event Russia is facing defeat on the battlefield, Putin may resort to tactical nuclear weapons use in a key strategic region, such as Kherson.
Deterring Putin from using nuclear weapons will require concerted international efforts. The international community should make it clear that any nuclear use in Ukraine would turn Russia into an international pariah and while nuclear weapons might win a battle, they will lose Putin the war. This message would be particularly meaningful coming from Russia’s key strategic partners in Beijing and New Delhi. But U.S. and NATO leaders should also continue to rely on risk reduction measures and crisis communication channels, such as the October call between Secretary of Defense Austin and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu. The West may not be able to stop Putin from threatening to use nuclear weapons, but countries can work to prevent him from following through on those threats.
How Might This End?
Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy
The conventional wisdom says “negotiations,” of course. That is the point that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and numerous civilian officials in the U.S. government have often made.
In some sense this is true: a bunch of tired men sitting around a table conclude most wars—but that can be a surrender negotiation (which is not much of a negotiation), or a ceasefire arrangement (which merely creates an interlude until the next round of fighting) or a grand peace-fest like Vienna 1815. “Negotiation,” in other words, covers a multitude of events.
In this case, it is most likely that what will not happen is the kind of negotiation Milley and others have in mind—a genuine compromise that brings about peace. What is more likely is that one side or the other collapses in exhaustion, and that the result is a ceasefire for now, which is the predicate for another conflict.
Conceivably, if the West continues to be dilatory in arming Ukraine, it could be Kyiv that crawls wearily to the table. But it is rather more likely the Russians will be the ones to do so, if (as laid out above) outside support is robust, the Ukrainians maintain their immense capacity to adapt and continue the fight, Russia sees collapses in its fighting force, and the West maintains a united front rejecting nuclear threats. After suffering another hundred thousand or more casualties and feeling the internal strains of an unjust and ill-conceived war, Russia could be driven by Ukrainian grit and Western firepower and battlefield intelligence to slump its way to a table at which it agrees to leave the lands it has pillaged, and the populations it has occupied, violated, and slaughtered. But it depends on us.