According to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grand plan, this was to be the harsh winter that would fracture Ukraine and split its Western allies.
That didn’t happen.
Putin unleashed rocket attacks on Ukrainian cities and their power grid, but the Ukrainians repaired their transformers and fought on.
Putin unleashed a mercenary force, the Wagner Group, who used convicts to try to take the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut. They’re still trying.
Putin cut off natural gas supplies to the West in hopes of persuading convenient Europeans to leave Ukraine. But the winter in Europe was one of the warmest on record; Gas prices are lower than before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Instead of abandoning Ukraine, the United States and its allies are sending more aid: Patriot missiles and Bradley fighting vehicles from the US, Challenger tanks from Britain, armored vehicles from Germany and France.
That doesn’t mean that Ukraine will win. The Winter War has become a stalemate with few territories changing hands.
While President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s promise of victory may be good for morale, it remains premature.
Putin has told foreign visitors that he is planning a two or three year war. He says he’s confident his larger forces could outlast Ukraine and its allies.
Both sides are preparing for new offensives this spring.
Russia is training an estimated 150,000 conscripts to launch new attacks, drawing on its seemingly limitless manpower.
Ukraine is waiting for these new weapons from the West, including anti-aircraft missiles and armored vehicles, more advanced than any it has now.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and European officials are set to meet in Germany this week to agree on a supply list that could include advanced heavy tanks for the first time.
Pentagon officials say the goal is not just to allow Ukraine to defend itself, but to push Russia out of areas it invaded last year.
“We are positioning Ukraine to be able to move forward and retake territory,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura K. Cooper told reporters.
US officials don’t believe Ukraine is likely to retake all of Russia-held lands; They don’t expect the Russian army to collapse.
Instead, they hope that Ukraine’s battlefield successes will convince Putin that the war is a lost cause and that it is time to negotiate a ceasefire. When negotiations begin, the US wants Ukraine to negotiate from a position of strength.
But this optimistic scenario has a problem: neither Russia nor Ukraine seem willing to compromise.
Putin has refused to give up any of the five Ukrainian regions he annexed to Russia, even though four are not fully under Russian control.
Zelenskyy has reinforced his position that Russia must give up every inch of Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean Peninsula, which Putin occupied in 2014. Opinion polls show that a solid majority of Ukrainians support these demands.
All of this leads some foreign policy experts to conclude that the most likely outcome is not a military victory or a negotiated peace, but a “frozen conflict.”
“Instead of assuming that the war can be ended by triumph or talks, the West needs to think about a world where conflict rages on with no victory or peace in sight,” said Ivo Daalder of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and James Goldgeier of American University wrote in Foreign Affairs last week.
“Not all wars end – or end in lasting peace settlements,” they noted.
They cite as examples the Korean War, which officially continued despite a 1953 armistice; the 1973 war between Israel and Syria, which produced only “disengagement agreements”; and Russia’s seizure of Crimea and other parts of Ukraine in 2014, a clash largely frozen before last year’s invasion.
A freeze would not resolve the underlying conflict. It would not be the resounding defeat for Putin’s aggression that Ukrainians and their allies around the world are hoping for.
Ukraine would rightly fear that such an outcome would give Russia time to regroup, rearm its ailing army and try again.
This would mean that the United States and its allies would have to continue to provide massive support to Ukraine – both to enable it to defend itself against the next Russian invasion and to rebuild its economy. Daalder and Goldgeier propose a formal NATO security guarantee for Ukraine, even if the country does not become a member of the alliance.
Their proposal amounts to a strategy to stabilize Ukraine and contain Russia, similar to the containment policy employed by the United States against the Soviet Union during the 45-year Cold War. With any luck, Ukraine and the West can wait and see Putin and seek an agreement with his successors.
Such a strategy would be costly and even risky. Frozen conflicts are not always without problems; Just look at Korea, Syria and Crimea.
The plan would call on Americans to support aid to Ukraine for years or decades, even as Republicans complain about the cost once the anti-Soviet party is dissolved.
But foreign policy is often a choice between options that are far from ideal – and a cold war is less destructive and probably cheaper than a hot one.