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The Ukraine war at six months

Will Moscow run out of time before Kiev and Brussels?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the press in Kyiv on Aug. 23. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Kravchenko

The Ukraine war at six months
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Six months ago this week, Russia invaded Ukraine. The war may be only half a year old, but the days before it now seem like a previous lifetime. In truth, the war has ushered in an altogether new geopolitical era. For the first time since World War II, Europe finds itself in an interstate war as an aggressor nation attempts to change borders by force and conquer a neighboring country.

Something like that had not happened in over 75 years, and much of Europe and the United States were lulled into believing it would never happen again. History never fails to surprise, and often confound. Christians, with our belief in the fallenness of human nature and the pervasiveness of sin, should be less surprised when war breaks out.

Virtually everyone (including yours truly) has been wrong at some point, in some way, about this war. Before Russian tanks rolled across the border, many European leaders and even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself were wrong in their declarations that Russia would not invade. Once Russia invaded, the Biden administration and American intelligence community (which rightly predicted the invasion) were wrong in their assessments that Ukrainian resistance would collapse and Russia would rapidly conquer the country.

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his advisors were likewise wrong in their overconfidence that the Russian military would win a quick victory. They were similarly wrong in their belief that the West would not mount a vigorous response in support of Ukraine. Then, a couple months into the war, when the Ukrainian forces had held fast and inflicted massive losses on the Russian invaders, many Western observers were wrong in their expectations that Russian forces would withdraw and Putin might even lose his hold on power. And so on.

I recount these errors only as a reminder of how hard it is to predict the course of events, especially with something as complex as warfare or a leader as inscrutable as Putin. Humility and caution are ever in order.

That does not mean that some assessments at this juncture are not possible. How fares the war? It has certainly been a calamity for the Ukrainian people, with at least 13,000 civilians killed and likely many more, and millions of Ukrainians displaced from their homes. An additional 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in combat defending their country. Ukrainian evangelicals have especially suffered, including the loss of some 400 Baptist churches. The approaching winter may bring even more misery, as the economy teeters, grain production has plummeted, food supplies are restricted, and gas supplies for heating are imperiled.

In Lincoln’s words, the “progress of … arms, upon which all else chiefly depends,” now favors Ukraine.

The battlefield itself seems to be at an inflection point—though in what direction it will inflect remains uncertain. In Lincoln’s words, the “progress of … arms, upon which all else chiefly depends,” now favors Ukraine. Ukrainian forces, equipped with advanced American and British weapons, have fought the Russians to a stalemate on the eastern front, and appear to be counterattacking in the south, in an effort to retake the strategic city of Kherson. Ukraine has opened a new front in Crimea and elsewhere behind Russian lines, that seems to combine insurgent attacks with deep strikes at Russian munitions and fuel depots. Such targeting erodes Russia’s ability to wage war, but the purpose of the strikes is as much political and strategic. They are designed to display Russia’s vulnerability to the world, and erode Russia’s will to fight.

Going forward, three “clocks” will determine the outcome of the war: the Moscow clock, the Kiev clock, and the Brussels clock. The question is which one runs out of time first? The Moscow clock depends on the rate of Russian economic decline from sanctions, depletion of weapons and ammunition, erosion of the Russian military’s morale, and the Russian public’s willingness to support the war. Given recent CIA estimates of over 80,000 Russian casualties, including perhaps 15,000 or more combat deaths in just six months, the Kremlin may face growing resistance from its people and even its troops to continuing to bear such ghastly costs.

The Kiev clock depends on similar factors. How much longer can Ukraine sustain its war effort, with adequate munitions, motivated and equipped troops, and an economy at risk of collapse? All of these will come under growing pressure as winter looms. Another factor will be whether Ukrainian forces succeed in actually reclaiming territory in the east and south lost to Russia, or whether the battle lines continue to be static.

The Kiev clock is in turn synchronized in part with the Brussels clock, which represents Europe’s continued willingness to support the Ukrainian war effort. Transatlantic solidarity thus far has been remarkable, with the United States and our European allies partnering to punish the Russian economy while providing substantial economic and military aid to Ukraine. Such solidarity will face growing strains, however, as winter approaches and countries such as Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom face dwindling gas supplies, soaring costs, and restive publics.

Ukraine’s future depends on whether the Moscow clock winds down before the clocks in Kiev and Brussels. Given the stakes, we had better watch all three clocks closely.

William Inboden

William Inboden is professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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