The war in Ukraine could continue as a war of attrition for months or even years, with neither side able to conduct an operation with a decisive outcome, Stanford scholar Steven Pifer told Stanford News.

The Kremlin underestimated Ukrainian’s determination to resist, says Steven Pifer, an affiliate at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. (Image credit: Damian M. Marhefka)

Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and an affiliate at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, discussed how he anticipates the conflict will continue to unfold, and what it will take to bring it to an end. He also shared a glimpse of what life is like right now for Ukrainians, who remain fiercely determined to resist Russian occupation.

Pifer’s research focuses on nuclear arms control, Ukraine, Russia, and European security. He spent more than 25 years working with the U.S. State Department, where he focused on America’s relations with the former Soviet Union and Europe, as well as arms control and security issues. He served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs with responsibilities for Russia and Ukraine (2001-2004), ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000), and special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia on the National Security Council (1996-1997).

Twelve months into the conflict, what do you find most troubling?

The war – or this latest phase in a conflict that began in 2014 with the Russian military’s illegal seizure of Crimea – has been a terrible tragedy for Ukraine and Ukrainians. Tens of thousands have died, including many civilians. The fighting has caused 13 million to flee their homes and become refugees outside of Ukraine or internally displaced within. The material damage to infrastructure, housing, and industry amounts to many hundreds of billions of dollars.

At the same time, the war unleashed by Vladimir Putin has proven a disaster for Russia. Western officials estimate the Russian military has suffered some 200,000 killed and wounded in action. While not as devastating as predicted, Western sanctions have nevertheless taken a toll on Russia’s economy. Europe has united in support of Ukraine, with Finland and Sweden abandoning decades of neutrality to seek to join NATO, and Berlin junking five decades of German policy toward the Soviet Union and Russia. The war will leave Russia diminished in military, economic, and geopolitical terms.

What might people misunderstand or underestimate about the conflict?

First, the Kremlin severely underestimates Ukraine’s resolve to resist. Ukrainians see this war as existential. If they lose, their democracy is gone, and the vision of becoming a normal European state that motivates many of the young is gone as well. Moreover, Ukrainians have seen in Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, and many other cities and towns what Russian occupation means. A few weeks ago, I spoke to a former Ukrainian co-worker at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Life is tough: electricity on four hours, then off four hours; little heat; and regular air-raid alerts. But she was very clear: “This is our land, and we will fight for it.”

Second, some people in America and Europe seem to misunderstand the roots of the conflict and have bought the Kremlin narrative that NATO enlargement caused the war. That does not withstand serious scrutiny. The leadership in Kyiv seeks NATO membership, understandably given Russian aggression over the past nine years. But Ukrainian membership lacks broad support within the alliance, and it needs agreement from all NATO members to join. Many allies at this point are not ready to commit to going to war against Russia on Ukraine’s behalf. That was well understood in Moscow. Mr. Putin’s comment to the press last June that “There is nothing to worry us in terms of Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO” hardly suggests that the alliance’s enlargement caused such deep concern for the Kremlin.

How do you anticipate the next year unfolding?

Predictions are difficult. One year ago, few analysts in the West, and seemingly none in the Kremlin, would have forecast that the Ukrainian military would largely be holding its own in February 2023.

That said, it seems clear Russia cannot win this war in the sense of achieving its original goals. Judging by the multi-vector assault on Ukraine one year ago, the Kremlin sought to quickly capture Kyiv and occupy the eastern one-half to two-thirds of Ukraine. Few serious military analysts believe the Russian military is capable of that now. However the war concludes, an independent and sovereign Ukrainian state will remain on the map of Europe, and it will be much larger than the rump state that Moscow apparently intended to leave one year ago.

Ukraine’s military racked up considerable success in the last four months of 2022, routing Russian forces out of the Kharkiv region and pushing them back across the Dnipro River in Kherson. Will the Ukrainian military build on that with additional counteroffensives, probably in the spring, after the winter thaw and mud season ends? They seem capable of liberating more occupied territory, but driving the Russians completely out of Ukraine will pose a stiff challenge, especially as the Russian army has prepared defensive positions.

Thus, the American intelligence community has assessed that the likeliest course is a war of attrition, with neither side capable of conducting a decisive operation that brings the war to an end. That could drag on for months or years. The question then may become: when do the sides reach a state of mutual exhaustion that might open a path for a negotiation? So far, however, Moscow has shown no readiness to negotiate seriously. The Russian leadership has escalated its demands of Kyiv while its army was losing ground on the battlefield.

What will it take to end the war in Ukraine?

One side or the other has to score a decisive victory, or they need to get to negotiating a settlement. Moscow has advanced demands that it must know are non-starters. The Ukrainians in early March 2022 sought to negotiate an end to the war and, among other things, offered to accept neutrality. However, the Ukrainian government’s position hardened later in March, as the liberation of towns such as Bucha and Irpin revealed large-scale Russian atrocities. It is not just the government’s position that hardened; polling shows an overwhelming number of Ukrainians support fighting to win and oppose negotiations.

A long war holds no advantages for Ukraine, and sustaining public support for the assistance that Ukraine needs over the long term may prove a challenge for the West. I thus believe the West should provide Ukraine with significant military assistance now, so that the Ukrainian military can either push the Russians out or, at a minimum, make such progress on the battlefield that Kremlin calculations change and Moscow negotiates a settlement on terms that Kyiv can accept. However, even with such a settlement, Ukraine would continue to face a hostile Russian neighbor. The West would have to work with Kyiv so that it could maintain a robust modernized military capable of deterring a new Russian assault in the future.