By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
A recent RAND Corporation paper, “Avoiding a Long War,” has caused a stir in the policy community, even inspiring New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to cite it approvingly. The authors of the paper, Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe, argue that a long war in Ukraine is not in the U.S. interest and, thus, that Washington’s policy should focus on avoiding it.
At first glance, the argument seems perfectly plausible. Who would want a long war if a short one is possible? Who could possibly prefer more death and destruction to less death and destruction? (Well, Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin might, but more on them later.)
Framing the argument in this way is misleading, because the choice between long and short war isn’t the only choice facing the United States and Ukraine. The other, more important, choice is between victory and defeat. And a long war that brings victory surely is preferable to a short one that brings defeat.
The RAND paper deftly elides this complication by arguing that neither Russia nor Ukraine can achieve something called “absolute victory,” which it defines as “permanently removing the (interstate) threat posed by its adversary.” It follows that, since absolute victory is impossible, the only choice is between short and long.
But is absolute victory truly impossible? Putin’s indifference to the extraordinarily high number of Russian casualties suggests that he’s willing to sacrifice millions of young Russians to attain his goals. His rocket and drone attacks on Ukrainian civilians also show that he’s willing to pursue genocide. True, the Russian armed forces have been severely degraded — as were Nazi Germany’s by 1944-1945 — but why should that stop Putin from decimating Russia in order to destroy Ukraine absolutely? The destruction of Germany didn’t stop Hitler.
By the same token, Ukraine could attain a near-absolute victory if it were to be supplied with the requisite number of weapons immediately, a point made by former Ambassador Michael McFaul. And not only would the “surge,” to use Atlantic Council President Fred Kempe’s term, produce a robust victory; it also would take place in a relatively short time.
As this last point reminds us, there is a range of perfectly acceptable victories that fall short of absolute. Were the Russian capability to attack its neighbors to be degraded for 10 or 20 years, Ukrainians and their neighbors would be delighted. They also would be apprehensive, knowing that Russia could use this time to rebuild its armed forces and plan a new attack. But Ukraine and the West also could use this breather to prepare for and deter another Russian invasion. A breather also could witness a change in the Russian regime; it certainly would witness Putin’s departure.
And then there’s the question of what exactly constitutes “a long war.” The RAND paper fudges the issue by using the adjectives “long” and “longer” interchangeably. But they are not synonyms. A longer war is a relative notion: It could last two days, as opposed to one, or 20 years, as opposed to one month. In contrast, a long war could just as easily last three years as 20, because length is in the eye of the beholder and not some absolute quality. Most Ukrainians probably would say that the ongoing war is both long and too long, but that a longer war is unavoidable even if undesirable.
Conceptual confusion is not the RAND paper’s biggest failing. That distinction goes to its eschewal of a serious consideration of domestic factors. Russia, Ukraine and the United States are treated as equivalent entities that pursue security vis-à-vis one another. But this is akin to disregarding Nazi ideology, Prussian culture, Nazi institutions, and Hitler in assessing Nazi Germany’s pursuit of war.
A recent Atlantic Council study showed that many experts believe that Russia soon could become a failed state and that the Russian Federation could collapse within the next decade. Russian and Ukrainian analysts generally agree with such a dire prognosis, claiming that continued failure on the front could undermine Putin and his regime, and, if and when they go, the Russian Federation might be exposed to centrifugal forces and break up.
There is also general agreement that Putin’s authority has been greatly eroded, that political elites are sharpening their knives in preparation for a post-Putin future, and that Russia’s economy could become as backward as that of the two occupied Donbas “people’s republics.”
To be sure, none of these scenarios needs to happen. But they cannot be ignored, if only because they influence Russia’s war-making capacity and could easily affect the length of the ongoing war.
Western policy should be attentive to questions of length for all the reasons that the RAND analysts correctly invoke. But far more important is the question of outcomes. Does the West want Ukraine to win, even if less than absolutely, and thereby contain the Putin regime, end its war mongering, and reassert the primacy of international law? Or does it want Russia to win by destroying itself, Ukraine, and a good part of the world?
Seen in this light, the West’s foot-dragging on supplying Ukraine with all the weapons it needs today could produce the very outcome Charap and Priebe most fear — a long or longer war.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”