OpinionThese charts suggest peace isn’t coming to Ukraine anytime soon
Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy and director of the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Brookings Institution, Constanze Stelzenmüller is the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, and David Wessel is the director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at Brookings.
When the Iraq war began almost 20 years ago, Gen. David Petraeus asked, “Tell me how this ends?” It’s a question that applies to the Ukraine war today.
The data that we and our Brookings Institution colleagues (list below), have gathered on the status of this war, presented here, suggests that it could last for quite some time. Nothing in the trend lines strongly suggests otherwise.
The Russian offensive peaked about a month after the invasion, when it controlled at least 22 percent of Ukraine’s territory.
Then it stalled and shrunk. Ukrainian forces reclaimed about one-quarter of that land in the following months.
Since November, most of the fight has concentrated in eastern Ukraine. It’s now mostly a stalemate.
The Ukrainian economy is severely stressed but holding up.
Citizens in both countries and elsewhere do not yet seem ready to demand that their political leaders change course. The tragic and heart-wrenching human losses do not yet seem to be high enough to make either side relent. And the millions of Ukrainians displaced within and outside Ukraine are, for the most part, somehow getting by, with a little help from their friends and neighbors, both in country and in Europe in particular.
History provides useful perspective. We are haunted by two previous conflicts: World War I and the American Civil War. Each was widely expected to last just months, yet each lasted about four years. Both featured hideous battle scenes in which waves of soldiers exposed their flesh to enemy fire in attempts to gain hundreds of yards or maybe a few more miles of territory for their side (for more, read Michael E. O’Hanlon’s 2023 book, “Military History for the Modern Strategist: America’s Major Wars Since 1861”).
In neither of those wars (nor most others) did the belligerents quickly lose heart when the going got tough. In fact, losing friends and compatriots on the battlefield tended to make political leaders as well as the citizens double down on their resolve so that those horrible deaths would not seem to have been in vain.
Initially, many analysts, including in the U.S. intelligence community, believed that Ukraine would be quickly overrun by superior and larger Russian forces. Some predicted that Ukraine’s economy would collapse in the face of Russian aggression and partial blockade.
Later, when Ukraine demonstrated its remarkable capacity to resist and its charismatic leader rallied the world to support his nation’s cause, expectations shifted.
The Russian army, some argued, would break in the face of its huge losses, especially as Russian families who lost sons and brothers to the fight came to doubt the conflict’s purpose, and as Russian citizens objected to how President Vladimir Putin had made their nation an international pariah. Russia’s economy would collapse under the strain of war and effects of Western sanctions.
Other scenarios emphasized the international community. Dramatic increases in global energy or food prices would lead the world to push hard for a quick end to the fighting, perhaps even at the cost of unpalatable territorial compromise by Kyiv. Fear of military escalation to include NATO nations, and even the specter of nuclear war, would force a ceasefire. Western countries (which have committed more than $100 billion in assistance to Ukraine) would tire of the effort as their own economies suffered.
And so the war has not ended quickly. Pressure to make peace could rise within and outside Ukraine and Russia in 2023 (or thereafter). But the data doesn’t suggest that will happen right now.
Yet another reality is this: Little about war is predictable. Dynamics often change when least expected. But they don’t change capriciously, or on their own. Someone has to make the change happen.