Last week brought a little clarity to the fog of the Ukraine war: The significant date of May 9, the celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Hitler’s Germany, came and went with no change of Russian strategy.
When Vladimir Putin came out to inspect the military parades and intercontinental ballistic missiles, there was neither a declaration of pseudovictory nor an announcement of escalation that would have put all Russia on a war footing and begun mass conscriptions for the front. More of the same, then, seems to be the Russian plan — meaning a continuation of the grinding war in Ukraine’s south and east, with the goal of regime change essentially abandoned in favor of the goal of holding territory that might eventually be integrated into the Russian Federation.
From the American perspective, this looks like strategic vindication. Despite some reckless braggadocio about our role in taking down Russian targets, we have steadily escalated our support for Ukraine — including the $40 billion package that will probably clear the Senate next week — without provoking reckless escalation from Russia in response. The risk that a proxy war would encourage Moscow to climb the ladder toward a larger conflict has been manifest in the constant saber-rattling on Russian state TV — but not, thus far, in the actual choices of the Kremlin. Putin obviously doesn’t like our armaments flowing into Ukraine, but he appears willing to fight the war on these terms rather than gambling at more existential stakes.
Our success, however, yields new strategic dilemmas. Two scenarios loom for the next six months of war. In the first, Russia and Ukraine trade territory in small increments, and the war gradually cools into a “frozen conflict” in a style familiar from other wars in Russia’s near abroad.