War of attrition: What next for Ukraine?

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In February 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a full – scale invasion of Ukraine. As the war grinds on, it is unclear what exactly come s next. According to theory at least, as long as Ukraine continues to receive external support from NATO, the conflict is unlikely to end. Equally, Putin himself is unlikely to make any concessions. As th is devastating and expensive war continues, this column argues that the international community’s best hope might be for an extended ceasefire , rather than true peace.

More than 18 months have passed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While the specific circumstances of the war are due in part to the characteristics of Vladimir Putin, the overall conflict is deeper, with the fighting unlikely to end even in the face of a change in leadership in Russia. As long as NATO supports Ukraine, neither side can truly win the war. In one form or another, it is likely to continue for decades rather than years. At this stage, people should hope at best for a ‘cold peace’ – where a long-lasting ceasefire puts an end to hostilities, with neither side giving up their territorial claims.


There are questions surrounding how exactly the geopolitical conditions emerged to allow the invasion to take place. Did Putin invade Ukraine because Joe Biden pursued a policy of appeasement by withdrawing from Afghanistan? Was this a signal of a lack of commitment, leading Putin to full scale invasion?

The United States is not weak. It is, in fact, fully committed to a strong response to a large provocation. This is indicated by the strong steps taken in response to the full-scale invasion – most notably the military assistance, without which Putin would have long since succeeded in his war of conquest. A strong power does not need to respond to small provocations to demonstrate its strength. Indeed, to do so is a failure of deterrence. If a provocation occurs in the face of strength, it is either opportunistic (in which case it should be ignored), or it is because Putin was not to be deterred. As he invaded, we know it is the latter. This means he no doubt would have invaded Ukraine even if Biden had kept American troops in Afghanistan. (For more on appeasement, see: Levine and Ohanian, 2023).

Is Putin the only problem?

What would happen if (hypothetically) Putin was replaced by an inclusive democratic government in Russia? Would this lead to an end of Russian territorial claims against Ukraine, or would it lead the Ukrainians to compromise (for example, by ceding Crimea in exchange for withdrawal of Russian troops from the rest of its territory)? Theoretical and empirical research suggests not.
From an evolutionary standpoint, a state, country or society that is not expansionary is doomed to failure. According to theory, political events and the outcome of conflict are by their nature random: powerful and aggressive leaders like Putin come and go, and through bad luck it is inevitable that territory will be lost. A country that does not at least try to regain lost territory is doomed to be whittled away until nothing is left.

From an empirical point of view, states are indeed expansionary. This is true for both democracies and autocracies. To take one of many examples: although Francisco Franco is long dead, Spain still maintains that Gibraltar (which has been British since 1713 and whose inhabitants have no wish to join Spain) is – and should be – part of Spain. Somewhat contradictorily, it equally maintains that Ceuta (which it has held since 1578) should continue to remain part of Spain, and refuses to cede it to Morocco.

The European Union (EU), democratic as it is, is also expansionary. It does so not through point of sword, but rather through a mixture of blackmail (refusing market access to non-members) and bribery (offering substantial subsidies for joining the union). Its success is measured by the fact that it is the most durable European superpower since the Roman Empire.

Given this, it is unlikely that Ukraine will renounce Crimea. Nor is it likely that Russia will renounce its claims to either Crimea or to the Donbas region – at least not in the next 445 years. If the theory stands up, both countries are set to hold firm. (For more on state power and conflict-driven evolution, see Levine and Modica, 2021).

Cold peace?

While NATO supports Ukraine the war cannot be won (or lost) by either side. From a theoretical perspective, without outside intervention the cumulative nature of military success means that one side is likely to win. Historically, wars without intervention have been relatively short. For example, World War II lasted ‘just’ six years. By contrast, the war in Sudan – with lots of intervention by outside powers – has gone on for more than six decades, shows no signs of stopping any time soon.

When outside powers intervene and neither side can win or lose, wars do not stop. This is the situation in Ukraine. As indicated, neither side is likely to renounce their claims which means a peace treaty is not on offer. But there could be a long-term ceasefire: the model here is North and South Korea, which have technically been at war since 1950. But since the ceasefire in 1953, there has seen very little in the way of bloodshed. As matters in Ukraine appear to be at a stalemate, perhaps this may become realistic in the near future. (for more on the evolutionary model of intervention and peace, see: Levine and Mondica, 2018).

What next?

It is worth commenting briefly on why Afghanistan collapsed despite aid from the United States, but Ukraine fights on and fights well. In short, the nature of assistance to Afghanistan was ill-chosen. Rather than providing support that enabled the Afghans to fight (as the United States has done in Ukraine), the Americans instead paid them to fight, relieving the local forces of the necessity of patriotism or any of the other things that lead an army to fight. Undermining the local Afghan forces in this way paved the way for collapse once the foreign power withdrew in 2020. (For more on the US intervention in Afghanistan, see: Dutta, Levine and Mondica, 2021).

So, not only does outsider intervention matter, but the nature of the intervention is also important to consider. For now, in the case of Ukraine, the world will have to watch on as the conflict grinds on. Putin is unlikely to admit defeat, and the Ukrainians will stand firm (boosted by overseas support from NATO and other partners). The conflict will continue to have terrible effects – both in humanitarian and economic terms. An extended ceasefire might be the best people can hope for at this time, but that is surely better than nothing.


David K. Levine