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Without A Negotiated Settlement, History Shows Russia-Ukraine War Will Be A Long, Brutal Slog

Russia and its aggressive bully tactics very well might fail, but it’s impossible to know this early.


Although Russia and Ukraine have captured the world’s attention, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of what exactly is going on. But despite the info ops, elitist jibber-jabber, and declarations that Russia has lost, we can know one thing for sure: This war is nowhere close to being over.

That hasn’t stopped the self-appointed “experts” in foreign policy and media from making sweeping declarations about the outcome, namely that Russia is losing or has already lost, just a few days in.

“Russia has proved unable to secure air superiority over the tiny Ukrainian air force — despite having the second-largest air force in the world, Pentagon officials say. Its troops have yet to take control of any significant city or meaningful chunk of territory, a senior U.S. defense official said Sunday,” The Washington Post announced on Sunday.

Headlines in both The Guardian and The New Republic reinforce the “Russia is losing” message. “With each passing day, it is becoming clearer that Putin’s gamble is failing. The Ukrainian people are resisting with all their heart, winning the admiration of the entire world — and winning the war,” wrote Yuval Noah Harari in the former.

That self-assured narrative pervades Capitol Hill and the Twittersphere as well, with even some foreign policy realists saying Putin has “lost this war.” In essence, it goes that because Russia is substantially bigger and badder than Ukraine, a failure to dominate Kyiv in 72 hours shows that Putin’s regime is floundering.

If recent history gets a word, however, we should know better. Consider the fall of Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, a country that today has a population roughly that of Ukraine.

During that conflict some 20 years ago, Iraq was a mess and Baghdad was going up against the United States and Britain, two of the most powerful militaries in the world. We had air superiority, employed weeks of bombardment, and it still took 21 days to take the capital city and another 21 to wrap up our major combat operations.

Meanwhile, Russia’s military strength doesn’t match that of the United States, and Ukraine has a much more legitimate army than Iraq did, complete with top-of-the-line military equipment supplied by the U.S. In other words, Kyiv has a lot more going for it than Baghdad; it should be much harder for Putin to take Ukraine than it was for the U.S. to take Iraq. Yet we’re still more than two weeks out from day 21 of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which won’t be until March 16.

Recent history provides an array of other examples too. In Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War, it took 43 days (Jan. 17 to Feb. 28, 1991) to liberate Kuwait. The invasion of Poland, marking the beginning of World War II, took 35 days (Sept. 1 to Oct. 6, 1939), and the Battle of France the following summer lasted 46 days.

As Research Program Director of Russia Studies at CNA Michael Kofman wrote on Twitter: “[T]his is barely a few days into the war. Ukraine has done remarkably well, but no analysts (except maybe in Moscow) expected Russia to defeat the largest country in Europe within 4 days, especially given UKR military capability.”

Bottom line, he continued, “The bulk of the Russian military has yet to enter the fight,” and “Sadly, I expect the worst is yet ahead, and this war could get a lot more ugly.”

It’s no disrespect to the remarkably brave men and women holding their ground in Ukraine to point out that conclusions about the Russo-Ukrainian war outcome are premature at best — Russia appears to be upping the ante around Kyiv on Tuesday — and historically ignorant at worst. Unless the two countries can negotiate a settlement, history shows the path forward through war will be brutal and long. It certainly won’t be wrapped up in less than a week, nor can it be summed up in a tweet or soundbite based on who might appear to be “losing” at a given moment.

War is messy and complex, and going on network television to say “big guy isn’t immediately dominating small guy” doesn’t a foreign policy expert make. Russia and its aggressive bully tactics very well might fail, but it’s impossible to know this early.

For the last two years, everyone has been a virology expert, and in the past five days, everyone became a foreign policy expert. In our fast-paced mediascape, it can be hard to know what’s true and even harder to pump the brakes. But take a lesson from conflicts past: Five days in, this war is nowhere close to over.