From the moment that Russian forces retreated from Kyiv and Kharkiv, it has been apparent that this second phase of Russia-Ukraine war would last for some time. It may not go as long as the first phase—from 2014 until this past February—but it might. It depends.
Some of the variables have become near-constants. Russia now lacks the capacity to break the Ukrainian military or the Ukrainian people’s will to freedom. Ukraine now lacks the capacity to mount a large enough counteroffensive to break the Russian military or Vladimir Putin’s will to conquest. Russian strength is presently waning while Ukrainian strength is waxing, but the pace of change is slow.
But because this is a larger and wider war, a challenge to the post-Cold-War European peace and the global, liberal structures built and nursed by the United States since 1945, things get uncertain when one looks beyond the direct combatants. Ukraine has offered itself as the battlefield between the West and its adversaries, but parts of the West wish it had not done so; some seem to find Ukrainian suffering annoying. To be sure, Great Britain, Poland, and the Baltic states are backing Kyiv to the hilt. Support in central and southeastern Europe has been better than it might have been, minus horrible exceptions such as Hungary and Serbia. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey has been predictably transactional.
Yet Western Europe has proved itself—again—entirely unready to exercise geopolitical leadership of any sort; Germany, in particular, has simply become incapable of strategic thought or behavior. France’s vaporous vision of European “strategic autonomy” has all but evaporated. Italians are evenly divided over who to blame for the war (Russia or Ukraine or the U.S. or the European Union) and who’s the biggest obstacle to peace. Recently, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi at last made the pilgrimage to Kyiv—and to see the remains of the massacres in Bucha and Irpin. They came away both shocked by the realities of Russia’s brutality and affirming their support for Ukraine. Yet no sooner were the three off the return train to Poland than Scholz’s foreign policy adviser Jens Plottner told the German Council on Foreign Relations that focusing on military aid to Ukraine was the product of “feverishness that misses the big issues,” such as “what our relationship with Russia should be like in the future.” Wartime wags in Kyiv have a new term, “Scholz-ing,” which means talking big and delivering little.