A war in Ukraine that began with a Russian debacle as its forces tried and failed to take Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, has seemingly begun to turn, with Russia now picking off regional targets, Ukraine lacking the weaponry it needs, and Western support for the war effort fraying in the face of rising gas prices and galloping inflation.
On the 108th day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war, driven by his conviction that Ukraine is territory unjustly taken from the Russian Empire, Russia appeared no closer to victory. But its forces did appear to be making slow, methodical and bloody progress toward control of eastern Ukraine.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, once again promised victory. “We are definitely going to prevail in this war that Russia has started,” he told a conference in Singapore in a video appearance. “It is on the battlefields in Ukraine that the future rules of this world are being decided.”
Yet, the heady early days of the war — when the Ukrainian underdog held off a deluded and inept aggressor and Putin’s indiscriminate bombardment united the West in outrage — have begun to fade. In their place is a war that is evolving into what analysts increasingly say will be a long slog, placing growing pressure on the governments and economies of Western countries and others throughout the world.
Nowhere is that slog more evident than in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Despite urgent pleas to the West for more heavy weapons, Ukrainian forces appear to lack what it takes to confront Russia’s use of artillery for scorched-earth shelling of towns and villages. While Ukraine is holding Russia back in the major regional city of Sievierodonetsk, it is suffering heavy losses — at least 100 fatalities a day, although their full extent is not yet known — and desperately needs more weapons and ammunition.
Russia also appears to be making headway in establishing control in towns it has captured, including the leveled Black Sea port of Mariupol. It has set out to convince and coerce the remaining population that its future lies in what Putin views as his restored empire. Citizens there and in cities like Kherson and Melitopol face a bleak choice: If they want to work, they must first obtain a Russian passport, a blandishment offered to secure a semblance of loyalty to Moscow.
Propaganda that compares Putin with Peter the Great, Russia’s first emperor, blares from cars in Mariupol in what Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the city’s mayor, called a “pseudohistorical” onslaught.
The comparison, one that Putin has made himself, is dear to the Russian president’s heart. He has repeatedly insisted that Ukraine is not a real nation and that its true identity is Russian. His invasion has, however, cemented and galvanized Ukrainian national identity in ways previously unimaginable.
Russia has its own difficulties, particularly in southern Ukraine, where the provincial capital of Kherson captured earlier in the war is still contested. Attacks by former Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have picked up in recent weeks. Russian losses in the war are not yet known but certainly run into the tens of thousands, a potential source of anger toward Putin, whose autocratic hold on Russia keeps tightening.
If the Russian economy has shown surprising resilience, it has been hit hard by Western sanctions; a brain drain will undermine growth for many years. Putin’s pariah status in the West appears unlikely to change.
Elsewhere, however, in Africa and Asia, support for the West — and for Ukraine — is more nuanced. Many countries see little difference between Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the U.S.’ invasion of Iraq in 2003; they seem unlikely to be persuaded otherwise.
More generally, there is resentment in much of the developing world of what is seen as U.S. domination, viewed as a hangover from the 20th century. In this context, the strong partnership between China and Russia is viewed not with the hostility and anxiety that it provokes in the West, but rather as a salutary challenge to a Western-dominated global system.
The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd Austin III, on a visit to Asia to warn of potential Chinese aggression against Taiwan, tried Saturday to shore up support for the West’s ardent backing of Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
“It’s what happens when big powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbors,” he said. “And it’s a preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in.”
Speaking at a security summit in Singapore, Austin said that Russia’s invasion was “what happens when oppressors trample the rules that protect us all.” He spoke after Zelenskyy had expressed concern in his nightly address that the world’s attention may drift away from Ukraine.
With inflation hitting levels not seen for four decades in the U.S. and Britain, financial markets tumbling, interest rates rising and food shortages looming, such a drift in focus away from a long war toward more pressing domestic concerns may be inevitable. The war is not to blame for all of these developments, but it does exacerbate most of them — and there is no end in sight.
A combination of high inflation and recession, viewed as plausible by many economists, would be reminiscent of the 1970s, when the first oil shock devastated the global economy. With midterm elections in the U.S. only months away, President Joe Biden and the Democrats can ill afford a campaign season dominated by talk of $5-a-gallon gasoline and nearly double-digit inflation.
Yet the ingredients of a long war are clear enough. There is no sign of a Russian readiness for territorial compromise. At the same time, Ukrainian resistance is still strong enough to make any formal cession of territory almost unimaginable. The result is grinding deadlock, a far cry from Putin’s apparent initial conviction that Russian forces would stroll into Kyiv to a warm welcome.