It is easy to see the war in Ukraine as a sign of a violent and inescapable world. But if the future looks bleak, it may be because we focus on the conflicts that are emerging and overlook the allure of peace.
An example of this came on March 9, two weeks after the Russian invasion. Shortly after sunset, India accidentally launched a cruise missile to Pakistan. As expected, he quietly followed. Both sides have tried to avoid escalation – as they have done for decades.
Focusing on times when peace fails is a kind of prejudice, one that makes us think that war is more common than it really is. The India incident is a good reminder of a simple truth: war is so destructive that enemies would rather hate each other peacefully.
Even Vladimir Putin, author of The Conflict That Changes the World in Ukraine, tried to avoid war in his own malicious way. For two decades, he used all possible dishonest means to sway Ukraine: dark money, propaganda, political agents, poisoning, and separatist support. He did it all because, as evil and costly as these things were, no one was as reckless as war.
I am not referring to all this in order to reduce the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s brutal war deserves our utmost attention. But it would be misleading, not to mention frustrating, if we did not also consider the allure of peace. Most importantly, the two together will give us insight into when and how the current conflict may end.
First, why did you invade Russia? Every answer to the question “Why are we fighting” is an example of society or its leaders ignoring the terrible price it will pay. Remote and isolated, Putin apparently underestimated the uncertain cost of Ukraine’s invasion. Also, as a dictator, he knew he would not have to pay most of them (his people). And he seems willing to bear the costs he will incur to achieve his own goals: personal and national glory, as well as self-preservation and power — the eradication of democracy on his doorstep.
But in the end, the cost of this war will be a powerful incentive to reduce the fighting. The most obvious cost was the deaths of tens of thousands, and the cities lay in ruins. Less obvious, but crucial, is the drainage of treasury on both sides.
Berkeley economist Yuri Gorodnichenko estimates that Ukraine needed half of its pre-war monthly national income to continue its conventional war. Of course, Ukraine does not earn close to that amount. Even if its factories and fields were to produce at full capacity, the state could not bring these goods to market – the Russian occupation of Mariupol and its blockade of other Ukrainian ports meant that few goods left.
Russia has deeper pockets, but the price of the battle is still high. One Russian central banker believes that his country’s subsequent recession will be as deep as the economic collapse after the Cold War – only worse, because the recovery will be slower. If the fighting continues, he expects a “reversal of industrialization”. This is bad news for a president who has built his popularity on prosperity. That may be why Putin did not use his May 9 Victory Day speech to escalate the conflict.
The cost on both sides could mean that the Ukraine war will be calculated in months, not years. However, the bargaining power in the coming months will lie on the side that is most willing and able to pay the expensive price of war. This means that Ukraine’s allies, led by the United States, will face charged decisions as the fighting continues, with complex strategic dynamics – few of which are discussed in public.
Looking to the future, the Ukrainian economy cannot support an indefinite conventional war on its own. Insurgency is one option, but continued regular warfare is likely to depend on the West’s willingness to help cover the bill. If so, NATO’s determination (and money) will help determine the length and brutality of this war.
As long as Putin believes that the Russian army and treasury can endure more than Ukraine, he has an incentive to launch a war of attrition. NATO can counter this incentive. A firm commitment to pay for the war now and continue to pay could undermine Russia’s plan to make Ukraine tired, and hasten the end of the fighting.
The downside, however, is that Western hesitation or ambiguity about his support could persuade Russia to turn back to that war of attrition. The United States has just allocated $ 40 billion to Ukraine. Britain added another 1.3 billion pounds ($ 1.6 billion). According to Gorodnichenko’s figures, this equates to about six or seven months of Ukraine’s war bill. Will these costs increase enough for Putin? Or should the West go further?
If only the option of “giving back Ukraine at all costs” was a simple and safe option. Peace can exert a gravitational force, but that does not mean that nothing escapes its orbit. If Russia mistrusts the West’s determination, misrepresents the threat or is at least ideologically inclined to catch on, the struggle can be long and intense. NATO may forever support another war, one with a small but frightening risk of escalation between NATO and Russia.
We need to support Ukraine’s arms, financial aid and debt relief in this time of need, but let us be clear about what it means to send a firm and dedicated signal. This means that six or seven months from now, if Putin does not shy away, the West’s unity and passion will not wane. If we dodge or evade, the highest cost of the ongoing war will be borne by the Ukrainians.
Christopher Plattman, professor of global conflict studies at the University of Chicago, and author of Why We Fight: The Roots of War and Paths to Peace.