The West must support Ukraine for long enough to destroy Putin’s hopes of outlasting them, while Sweden faces big preparations ahead of joining NATO.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine’s freedom and existence as an independent nation-state, or about human rights and freedom from oppression. At its heart, the war is about the future of Europe and the European security order. Russian President Vladimir Putin has demolished the common European house that Mikhail Gorbachev envisioned, brutally trampling the cooperative and democratic security order agreed upon in 1990. In its place, he wants to build a new order where Russia is restored to what Putin presumes is its rightful place as an empire dominating at least half of Europe. Putin and Russia must be externally stopped, deterred and contained. If Russian aggression is not repelled in Ukraine, Moscow will be emboldened and in a strong position to threaten, coerce and disrupt the rest of Europe.
How the war might end
There are three ways in which the war in Ukraine might end: a Russian victory, a Ukrainian victory or some kind of draw.
A Russian victory seemed unlikely after the failure of Russia’s march on Kyiv and its 2022 summer offensive, followed by Ukrainian successes in the autumn. But it seems more plausible after the failure of this past summer’s Ukrainian offensive and clear signs of flagging Western support for Ukraine. Russia’s main chance of winning this war rests on its willingness to keep fighting despite horrendous losses, and to wait for the West to grow tired and Ukraine to become exhausted. Delayed support packages in the European Union and the United States’ Congress are encouraging to the Kremlin, as are the prospect of Donald Trump returning to power and mounting signs of division within Ukraine concerning the conduct of the war.
Russian victory would probably mean the annexation of much of Ukraine, with the rump state subservient to Moscow – much as Belarus is today – and the harsh suppression of Ukrainian nationality and human rights. Tens of millions of Ukrainians might flee to the safety of the EU. Feeling vindicated by victory, Putin would rebuild his forces, poise his armies on the Bug River and look to dominate half of Europe.
A Ukrainian victory, on the other hand, would seem to be contingent on Ukraine inflicting sufficient pain on Russia to trigger a military or political collapse. This looked likeliest in autumn 2022 in light of Ukraine’s successful offensives, and then again in summer 2023 during Yevgeny Prigozhin’s brief rebellion, but now seems a more distant possibility. Russia’s defences in the south and east are holding, the Kremlin has managed to drum up more soldiers and more equipment, and the economy has been put on a war footing fuelled by oil exports. Domestic Russian dissent has been silenced and the general population remains passive or even apathetic.
The current situation seems closest to the third scenario: a draw or stalemate. Ukraine’s Western-supported summer offensive having failed, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, has acknowledged that the military conflict is deadlocked. Defence is dominant, neither side can make headway in offensives even at an appalling cost in lives, and the conflict seems stuck in trench warfare reminiscent of the Western Front in 1914–18. Now, as then, it may come down to who can endure misery and death the longest. Right now, Putin seems confident that Russia can outlast the West and exhaust Ukraine, forcing it to give up.
At some intermediate point, of course, both sides may need breathing space, negotiated or de facto. It would probably take the form of a temporary pause in the fighting while both sides rebuilt their forces to prepare for a new round. A stable and lasting peace whereby Ukraine would accept the loss of the occupied provinces seems impossible as long as the current regime remains in power in Moscow, as Putin would be apt to break any promises that contravened his imperial goal of erasing the state of Ukraine from the map, as he did in invading Ukraine in February 2022. What cannot be entirely ruled out, however, is something akin to the Korean Armistice Agreement, under which the Korean War is officially still on but little or no fighting takes place, despite perpetual tension and confrontation.
Such a dispensation would come at the expense of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, of the principle that territory should not be won by force and of the freedom of the people living in the occupied territories, which would be subjected to repression and Russification. The free part of Ukraine would have to be quickly admitted into NATO and the EU, much as the Federal Republic of Germany was in the 1950s, so as to establish a firm deterrent by way of security guarantees that would call for direct NATO action against Russia in the event of its breach of the agreement.
State of play
Russia’s war in Ukraine probably will not be over for years, and the West needs to prepare for a long haul. The West, of course, is far richer and more powerful than Russia. But Ukraine is highly dependent on outside military, political, financial and humanitarian support. The West’s task is therefore to support Ukraine for long enough to dash Putin’s hopes of outlasting Russia’s adversaries. This will be materially demanding, but the cost pales in comparison to what Ukraine is paying in blood, destroyed lives and property, and national wealth. Moreover, the cost is a pittance next to that which NATO would incur in fighting a war directly with Russia to defend NATO territory. This could materialise if Russia is not stopped now.
Furthermore, if the West backs Ukraine only enough for it to avoid losing, but not enough for it to win, a stable and satisfactory result is unlikely. To muster the kind of full-blooded support that is required, the West will have to shed its inhibitions about which weapons to provide, and urgently ramp up production of arms and ammunition. This does not mean transitioning to a wartime economy, as Russia has done, but rather bringing in new manufacturers by providing incentives, simplifying overcomplicated designs and easing restrictions on production. The effort will not be wasted. Even after the war is over, whichever side wins, Russia will remain a long-term threat to Europe, and Europe will have to build a security order to contain Russia militarily, politically, economically and technologically.
Europe should be prepared to shoulder the lion’s share of the post-war responsibility. It is the European continent, European security and the collective European future that are at stake. Europe is rich and can afford to protect itself. And even if US President Joe Biden should win the next election and keep America’s isolationist forces at bay, the United States will still demand a more equitable sharing of burdens and will in the medium term have to shift its resources to meeting China’s geopolitical challenge.
Sweden’s evolving vocation
Like most European countries, Sweden believed that the threat of major war had ended in 1990, and dipped heavily into the peace dividend, reducing its once-large military to a small force geared for international peace operations. Despite clear warnings – Putin’s Wehrkunde speech and the suspension of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in 2007, the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas in 2014 – Sweden was unprepared for Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine. Sweden then found itself with a considerable security deficit, or deterrence deficit as I have called it. Its peacetime attempts to offset that strategic shortfall by cultivating bilateral ties with NATO members proved grossly inadequate, as the political and military situation made it brutally clear that NATO security guarantees could realistically apply only to members. Sweden’s decision to join NATO resulted from the shock effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Social Democrats’ strong party discipline, the centre-right opposition parties’ standing support for NATO membership and, not least, Sweden’s traditionally strong ties with Finland.
Finland was once an integral part of Sweden, and the two countries have remained close. But Finland’s exposed geopolitical position, its 1939–40 Winter War against Soviet invasion and its semi-soft post-Second World War co-optation by the Soviet Union – grimly canonised as ‘Finlandisation’ – have produced a very different mindset. Finland’s hard fate has forced it to be a nation of realists, and it joined NATO out of a sense of imminent danger, driven by its tragic history and, notably, public opinion. Sweden, with its charmed modern history and shielded geographic position, could afford to be more idealistic. To a significant degree, it applied for NATO membership out of a sense of moral outrage, but Sweden also felt compelled to follow Finland, despite the Swedish government having categorically ruled out NATO membership at a party conference just six months earlier. If Sweden had remained non-aligned, it would have constituted a barrier between Finland and its NATO allies, a politically painful and probably untenable position. And Sweden’s support for Ukraine against Russia runs deep in the population, political parties, press and government. Politically jarring as the shift may be, idealism informs hard-nosed policy. Sweden’s challenge is to make it work.
Sweden’s NATO challenge
Sweden is busy preparing to become a full NATO ally and to share the Alliance’s burden of deterring Russia. The mental challenge alone is considerable: learning to think as an ally as opposed to a solitary actor; seeing solidarity in terms of commitments of resources rather than grand pronouncements; and fully embracing deterrence, including nuclear deterrence. Swedes will have to become team players rather than backseat drivers. But this adjustment will have to occur while Sweden undertakes three other urgent tasks: readying the armed forces for warfare, expanding the army, and adapting its military capabilities to Alliance operations.
The readiness imperative applies to all three services, but most emphatically to the army, which faces similar problems to those of the German army, including too many unfilled positions; shortages of equipment, ammunition, consumables and spare parts; and inadequate training, especially at higher levels of command. Politically as well as practically, realising the NATO-mandated capacity to field two forward-deployed brigades within ten to 30 days – whether by requiring conscripts to serve abroad or by hiring many more contract soldiers – will be difficult. In addition, doubling the size of the army from two to four brigades may exceed Sweden’s ability in the short term, especially after having donated so much equipment to Ukraine.
While the army will be performing basically the same tasks as before, the naval and air services will have to take on new tasks and capabilities. The air force will need to discard its focus on defensive counter-air and naval strike in favour of ground attack, long-range precision strike and suppression of enemy air defences. The navy, for its part, will have to shift from being a ‘light’ navy whose primary mission is to repel a Russian seaborne invasion close to shore to a heavier force that enhances NATO’s sea-control mission by maintaining maritime superiority in the Baltic Sea and securing sea lines of communication to Finland, the Baltics and Poland. This will mean abandoning long-held dispositions and doctrine, as well as acquiring new types of weapons and more capable ships suited for the open sea.
The fight for Europe
In the 25 years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, many in Europe had hoped that Russia could be brought closer to the West. But this era is decidedly over. Russia has emerged as a predatory power that seeks to reinstate empire and upend the European project.
Empires seldom crumble or fall without turbulence or bloodshed, and the problems Europe is now facing can be seen as delayed effects of the fall of the Soviet empire. It is arguably fortunate that this problem is arising at this moment rather than in the 1990s, as the states of Eastern Europe are now largely politically stable, self-sufficient and integrated into the EU and NATO. This observation, however, is not likely to console the Ukrainians. Should Russia win the ongoing war outright, it would be apt to conclude that it had defeated a weak and divided West. Deterrence in Europe would be severely weakened and, with America turning to face China, Europe might well emerge more vulnerable than it has been since the Second World War.
In Europe as in Sweden, idealism and practical compulsion have converged. The ‘Europe whole and free’ envisaged by George H.W. Bush in 1989, less than six months before the Berlin Wall fell, has not yet been won. To secure it, the West must decisively turn back Russia’s assault on Europe’s peaceful and democratic order by helping Ukrainians preserve their nation substantially intact.