Finding a Way Out of the Societal War Over Ukraine

Finding a Way Out of the Societal War Over Ukraine

Hope for bringing an end to this tragic, dangerous quagmire hinges on recognizing the fundamentally society-centric nature of the conflict.

Most of the world has been focused on the brutal kinetic war that has been waged in Ukraine for almost a year. But from day one, this conflict has predominantly been a societal confrontation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to keep Ukraine as a proxy devoid of an independent identity. Since 2014, Moscow has tried to subdue Ukraine (and deter the West from integrating it into its midst) through a combination of subversion and intimidation short of war. The failure of this approach led in late February 2022 to a brief but equally dismal flirt with blitzkrieg-style conquest, whose rapid unraveling led Russia to refocus its strategy on waging a war of attrition aimed at crushing Ukrainian society's collective resolve and the Western public’s staying power, while ensuring the Russian people's forbearance and mobilization.

In pursuing its society-centered strategy, Russia has viciously and unconscionably applied covert action, conventional weapons, nuclear threats, economic (and especially energy) leverage, information control and manipulation, cultural and religious influence, and even population transfers. Countering the Russian onslaught in their own ways and subject to dramatically different ethical standards, Ukraine and the West have also leveraged many of these very tools to thwart Russia’s grand design. Their focus has been directed at reviving Ukraine’s independent cultural and political identity while building up a separate Orthodox religious affiliation. These means have been harnessed to shore up Ukrainian endurance and mobilization for war and solidify the West’s commitment to and material support for Kyiv, notwithstanding the toll it exacts on their societies. In parallel, this approach has sought to undermine the Russian public’s tolerance and mobilization for the war and international support for Moscow.

These actions and interactions have served the three protagonists both well and poorly. All sides have thus far managed to stay the course, to an astonishing degree in the case of Ukraine and to a surprising extent by its Western allies. However, the war has exacted a huge toll on all sides, and no side has approached anything even remotely resembling victory. As a result, the confrontation has become a drawn-out war of attrition, a destructive, painful, and costly struggle of societal endurance and patience with an end neither in sight nor easy to imagine. These costs have been exacerbated further by the protagonists' open-ended commitment to total victory, which appears unrealistic. Russia is pursuing the annexation, destruction, and subjugation of Ukraine while leveraging its energy assets to stay afloat economically and harm Europe. Ukraine courageously defends itself but also professes its intent to militarily reclaim all its lost territory, including Crimea. And the West dreams of routing the Russian military (and its Wagner and Chechen proxies) by providing unprecedented levels of military, intelligence, and economic support to Ukraine and stirring dissent in Russia by imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. The resulting situation appears static, but it is inherently unstable.

After nearly a year of massive bloodletting, destruction, and monetary hemorrhage, none of the parties can articulate a credible theory of victory. Each is mobilizing for a long war, one that both Russia and Ukraine increasingly portray as existential. Yet societal patience with the open-ended confrontation and the costs it exacts is beginning to wear thin in Russia, Europe, and even the United States. It is difficult to tell where it will collapse first, as it may snap unexpectedly as patience wanes over an open-ended conflict that is taking a toll on all three societies. This impatience is reinforced by anxiety over further escalation—Belarus’ entry into the war, Ukrainian strikes deep into Russia, spillover into Transnistria/Moldova or the Baltic states, even Russian demonstrative nuclear use—happening in a desperate effort to break the stalemate or as a rage-driven response to a real or imagined grievance.

There is a fully understandable desire to see the Russian aggressor defeated, punished, and dissuaded from contemplating a replay against Ukraine or any other country. But the odds of securing all three exclusively by military means are close to zero. Hope for bringing an end to this tragic, dangerous quagmire hinges on recognizing the fundamentally society-centric nature of the conflict. Leaders must internalize the realization that the end of this dreadful duel of societal endurance will not come from a breakthrough on the physical battlefield. It will have to come from tapping the most potent societal emotions—fear and hope—to break the stalemate by encouraging all sides to contemplate heretofore unthinkable compromises in their respective war aims.

Sage leadership will henceforth be tested by leaders’ willingness and ability to internalize and credibly invoke fear and inspire hope to convince all societies involved to lay down their arms, even if they insist on sustaining other forms of hostile behavior toward each other thereafter. More specifically, they would need to acknowledge the fear that an open-ended conflict looks grim for all: further carnage, destruction, and economic devastation in Ukraine and Russia; the possible expansion and escalation of the conflict, and the prospect of their internal acquiescence and external support collapsing in the short run; and traumas haunting their societies for decades to come. But they must also inspire hope in their societies that deconfliction will usher in better times in the domains they really care about. Where could this hope and fear come from?

For Western European leaders, fear would build on anxiety about the prospects of severe popular backlash from their citizens, who are already struggling to cope with high energy prices, inflation, and the costs of supporting Ukraine, and fear the impact of further intense fighting—possible spillover of the war westward, more (permanent) Ukrainian exiles and refugees, energy insecurity, and acute governance challenges. Hope could be primarily predicated on the promise of a reliable and affordable energy supply to guarantee comfortable survival through the apex of Europe’s energy vulnerability, the winter of 2023. Hope could be further inspired by Europe’s success in sustaining alliance cohesion, resisting Russian aggression, rebuilding its military might, and stymieing Russia’s future ambitions to destabilize its neighbors.

For its part, the Biden administration must begin to fear that its population—which has borne the brunt of providing intelligence, financial, and material assistance to Ukraine—will dread the price of keeping Ukraine afloat. It must also begin fearing the distraction and partisan rancor in Washington that will come not just from staying the course, but also from gearing up to respond militarily should an increasingly frustrated Vladimir Putin elect to expand and extend his war effort. But the administration can find and inspire hope that America’s success in dealing such a blow to Russia will not only dissuade it from future adventures but also impress on China what it would risk by trying to take Taiwan by force. Additionally, Washington can expect that the cessation of overt hostilities in Europe will free its hands to focus on its internal woes and compete economically with China (and prepare for a possible military clash with Beijing).

The two hardest societies to win over and empower to weigh in with their leadership will be Putin’s Russia and Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukraine. As both leaders have so much vested in the fight, they will not be easily swayed. But even in Russia and Ukraine, the odds look more favorable now than at any time over the last year.

For the brave and patriotic Ukrainians, fear would build on the real possibility that the future holds in store for them many more scars than they have already endured: hundreds of thousands of casualties, extensive devastation of national infrastructure, millions of displaced citizens, more abducted children, and a daily struggle to cope with the adversities of war. It would feed on the sure prospects of a continued Russian campaign to physically destroy Ukraine’s livelihood and infrastructure, exacerbated by the all but certain resumption of intense fighting in the spring. This fear would be further amplified by concerns of diminished European or U.S. support, not only now but also later, when a massive reconstruction effort will be required to put Ukraine back on its feet and woo back its refugees.

Zelensky has thus far managed to hold his people together with his admirable courage and leadership, steadfastly upholding harsh conditions for any ceasefire or settlement. But even he cannot ultimately remain indifferent to signs of domestic fragility and growing impatience among Kyiv’s backers. Zelensky and his supporters might be swayed to soften their demands and carry their population with them in return for tangible steps capable of inspiring hope: a promise of additional military support if Russia continues fighting, ironclad Western security guarantees against renewed Russian aggression, a smooth path to European Union accession (and close affiliation in the interim), and a major commitment for reconstruction aid once the conflict abates.

Similarly, for Russia, fear would come from the likelihood of an open-ended confrontation in which Ukraine enjoys extensive military support—including the major combat platforms it will soon receive from its Western supporters—as well as precise targeting information, which has already shown its efficacy against vulnerable and chaotically managed Russian forces. Even the remarkably adamant and aloof Putin cannot remain completely oblivious to the increasingly palpable signs of domestic fatigue and anxiety resulting from Russia’s many casualties (including among forcibly recruited reservists), the public’s loss of confidence in the military’s competence, and the mounting costs of the war and Western sanctions.