How Does It End? What Past Wars Tell Us about How to Save Ukraine

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

Analyzing data from past wars indicates that the window to end the violence and find an offramp from the escalating crisis in Ukraine will shrink after the first 30 days. Washington should complement supporting the Ukrainian people with backchannel diplomacy outlining incentives for Moscow to agree to a ceasefire and avoid a larger tragedy.

CSIS analyzed data on conflict termination since 1946 to identify windows of opportunity for crisis diplomacy. Most conflict since the end of the Second World War tends to involve counterinsurgency campaigns and proxy wars, making large-scale invasions—like what is currently happening in Ukraine—rare events. Based on the Correlates of War dataset, when these conflicts do occur, the average number of battlefield deaths is 25,000 while the civilian death toll is much higher, and the aftermath tends to create complex humanitarian emergencies.

Analyzing data compiled by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) on conflict termination since 1946, 26 percent of interstate wars like Ukraine end in less than 30 days and another 25 percent end in less than a year. Wars that end within a month last on average eight days, and 44 percent end in a ceasefire or peace agreement. Of wars that last over a month but less than a year, only 24 percent end in a ceasefire. When interstate wars last longer than a year, they extend to over a decade on average, resulting in sporadic clashes.

Turning to Russia, there is a dark history of using punitive campaigns that tend to last between two days and three months. The 1939 Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland lasted three months. Military operations during the 1956 Soviet intervention in Hungry lasted seven days, while the 1968 Prague Spring lasted two days. The 2008 Russia-Georgia war lasted 13 days, and the 2014 Crimea crisis lasted over a month, resulting in a proxy conflict splitting Ukraine. While each crisis is unique, these cases illustrate a tragic preference for using violence to extract concessions.

The time for crisis diplomacy is now. The longer a war lasts absent concessions by both parties, the more likely it is to escalate into a protracted conflict. Despite the bravery of the Ukrainian people in the face of Russian aggression, that is a dangerous prospect. The refugee crisis will grow. More civilians will die. Russia will become even more paranoid and irrational. In addition to punishment, Russian officials need a viable diplomatic offramp that addresses the concerns of all parties.

Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow for future war, gaming, and strategy in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program