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Opinion Consider these 4 inconvenient questions as the Ukraine war moves forward

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting outside Moscow on Jan. 30. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon professor of government at Harvard University.

As we end the first year of war in Ukraine, no one can doubt who the big winner is — and who the loser. In this 21st-century version of David and Goliath, Kyiv’s defiance of Moscow’s attempt to erase Ukraine from the map has inspired us all. In a just world, this war would end with a total victory for Ukraine that buried Russian President Vladimir Putin in an ignominious grave.

Most public discussion this winter reflects a conviction that Ukraine must — and can — win a decisive victory. But what constitutes a win against a country such as Russia? As we consider the road ahead, we cannot escape the brute fact that Putin commands an arsenal of roughly 6,000 nuclear weapons that could kill us all. Lest we forget, consider his announcement this week that Russia is suspending participation in New START, the last remaining arms control treaty it had with the United States.

As a reality check, it is essential to consider four inconvenient questions.

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One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Post Opinions is marking the anniversary with columns looking at all that has transpired and what may lie ahead.
Post Opinions partnered with the Brookings Institution to visualize the war’s effects on Ukraine’s economy, immigration trends and more. Together, these indicators suggest the fighting is unlikely to end anytime soon, write Michael O’Hanlon, Constanze Stelzenmüller and David Wessel of Brookings.
The Editorial Board looked for solutions, calling on the United States and its European allies to intensify their military, economic and diplomatic support for Kyiv. Vladimir Putin hopes for a stalemate, the Editorial Board writes, and the West needs to fuel a game-changing shift in momentum.
In an op-ed adapted from her Feb. 9 speech at the “Rebuilding Ukraine, Rebuilding the World” conference at Harvard, Oleksandra Matviichuk writes that it is not only wrong but also immoral not to provide weapons for Ukraine.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling describes the Ukraine war as a slugfest, not a stalemate. He outlines five phases of the war and predicts that Ukraine’s forces will ultimately prevail.
Columnist Jason Willick looks at the war through the lens of U.S. politics. President Biden, he says, is positioned to take advantage of divided government by using as his foil Republicans who oppose continued support for Ukraine.
Antony Beevor, a former tank commander with the British Army, says the Ukraine war has revived the role of the main battle tank.
Columnist David Ignatius examines three main characters of the war: Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden. A year into the war, Ignatius writes, Putin’s staying power begins to seem questionable, while Zelensky and Biden have never looked stronger.
Columnist George F. Will discusses the importance of continued support for Ukraine, writing that Putin can win only if Ukraine’s allies neglect to maximize their moral and material advantages.
Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, reconsiders what it would mean to win in Ukraine. A new Cold War, he writes, might not be the worst outcome.


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First: If what is at stake is not just Ukraine’s survival but the future of Europe and even the global order, why are there no American troops fighting on the battlefield alongside brave Ukrainians? Answer: President Biden determined from the outset that the United States “will not fight World War III for Ukraine.” If the United States sent American troops to the battlefield to kill Russian troops, it would quickly become a war between the United States and Russia and could escalate to a nuclear war.

As surely as the leaders of the “evil empire” ever did, Putin commands a nuclear arsenal fully capable of destroying the United States. Serious students of national security know that in this MAD (mutual assured destruction) world, Ronald Reagan’s incandescent insight remains a foundational truth: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” As certainly as it did during nearly half a century of Cold War, America’s own survival requires finding ways to defend and advance our interests without engaging in a direct conflict with Russia.

Second: Is CIA Director William J. Burns right when he asserts that Ukraine is a war that Putin “doesn’t believe he can afford to lose”? Yes: If conditions on the battlefield force Putin to choose between a humiliating loss, on the one hand, and escalating the level of destruction, on the other, odds are that he chooses the latter. As he has demonstrated in the campaign of missile strikes destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure, he is able and willing to move up this ladder. The outcome of this war is not existential for Russia. But it is for Putin.

If Putin’s only alternative is decisive defeat, he might believe he has no choice but to conduct tactical nuclear strikes on Ukraine. President John F. Kennedy, having survived the Cuban missile crisis, where he believed there was a 1 in 3 chance of war that would extinguish hundreds of millions of innocent souls, offered future statesmen one big lesson. In his words: “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”

See more charts on the war in Ukraine

Third: If the fighting somehow ended today, would anyone have a doubt about who won and who lost? Whatever tactical territorial gains Putin might hold when this phase of intense war stops, no one will have any doubt about the fact that Putin’s war was a grave strategic blunder. He succeeded in achieving precisely the opposite of what he intended. Ukrainians’ sense of identity and confidence that they can build a viable modern nation has never been stronger. NATO has never been more unified and its European members far more willing to invest in their own military capabilities than in a generation or more. By re-creating a vivid Russian threat, Putin has condemned his country to a new Cold War against a united transatlantic adversary whose combined economy is more than 20 times its size.

Fourth: If we imagine a map of Europe in 2030 and weigh the factors that could shape Ukraine’s place on it, how much would it matter whether the killing stopped 100 miles to the east or west of the current line of control? Ukrainians will never give up their goal of liberating every inch of Ukrainian territory — nor should they. But as Zelensky and his supporters in the West consider options on the road ahead, they should review the postwar history of West Germany. By building a vibrant free-market democracy within larger European institutions secured by a U.S.-led NATO, West Germany created conditions in which the recovery of the country’s Soviet-occupied eastern third was just a matter of time. Could Ukraine become the West Germany of the 21st century?

If these answers are roughly right, we should expect the future of Europe to be defined by a new Cold War with Ukraine on the front line, NATO right behind it and a long wait for a post-Soviet Russia to come to its senses.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.