Preparing for the Next Phase of the Russian War

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.

The current conflict in Ukraine is at a crossroads. Peace talks are positive, but Russia continues to attack Ukrainian cities and stage for large-scale combat operations on multiple fronts. It is increasingly unlikely Russia can hold even the limited gains it is making in Ukraine. As a result, the war will likely enter a new phase, more like the “frozen conflicts” Russia has used to destabilize its neighbors since the fall of the Soviet Union than current large-scale combat operations. The West needs to start preparing now for that phase and reducing Russia’s advantages in future competition.

Russia’s greatest sources of leverage over Ukraine and Europe remain its central position in global resource markets as well as its strategic reach and nuclear stockpile. Russian ground forces are no longer as fearsome as they once appeared, but Moscow’s ability to shoot large volumes of cruise and ballistic missiles remains a challenge in Ukraine. Looking more broadly, economic sanctions still have not truly attacked Russia’s central role in global resource markets or the financial institutions Putin uses to sustain its war in Ukraine. Second, the only part of Russia’s military campaign that has proved effective is its use of long-range strike assets to hold Ukrainian cities hostage during negotiations.

When the anticipated cease-fire arrives, it will give a window of opportunity to start reducing Russian coercive advantages. First, infrastructure is strategy in the twenty-first century. The United States will need to work with its partners in Europe to increase infrastructure investments associated with the European Deterrence Initiative to expand strategic resource reserves and dual-use infrastructure that not only sustains military forces but reduces European dependence on Russian energy. There is an opportunity to be creative and see energy security and national security as mutually constituted and not singularly dependent on hydrocarbons. Second, U.S. defense expenditures will need to shift to offset Russian strike capabilities that have proven effective in Ukraine. This includes sensor networks and working with partners and allies on integrated air and missile defense. Partners shouldn’t feel their cities are held hostage.

All wars end and Russia’s brutal campaign in Ukraine will be no exception. What is less likely to subside is the besieged fortress complex that makes Russia’s strategic default paranoia and fear of encirclement. Therefore, making investments in partner defenses—including Ukraine—and reducing dependence on Russian resources are the keys to deterring future aggression.

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 in Washington, D.C.

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Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program