As the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on into its fourth month, it is increasingly apparent that neither side is likely to achieve a decisive victory any time soon. It is similarly apparent that simply letting the sides bleed each other white, on the assumption that the conflict will remain a limited one, is reckless. The fresh dispute between Moscow and Vilnius over Lithuania’s decision to severely limit the transport of Russian goods to Kaliningrad is merely the latest example of how easily the confrontation between the two sides may spin out of control. The costs of indefinite hostilities now loom large, ranging from the disastrous local impact on Ukraine itself to severe global economic consequences—particularly in the food and energy sectors—going far beyond Ukraine, and Europe more generally—with the potential to destabilize the international system itself.
NATO can undoubtedly strengthen Ukraine’s position by providing more arms and military training, enabling Kyiv to achieve limited tactical successes. But should these successes—contrary to current conventional wisdom—go beyond territories conquered by Russia after February 24 and start to look like a humiliating defeat for the Putin government, Moscow is more than capable of significant escalation, both through military mobilization and putting the economy on a war footing. Such a development might well force the United States to choose between suffering a major military setback in Ukraine or moving up the escalation ladder—closer and closer to the nuclear threshold. Those who dismiss Moscow’s ability to improve its military situation forget that Russia today is fighting not just a “special military operation” but indeed a limited war, one quite different from a full-scale war where Moscow would deploy all the resources it could muster—military, economic, and political—if absolutely necessary for the protection of the regime.
Washington, meanwhile, continues to raise the stakes by the week. The more modern heavy and offensive U.S. and NATO weapons go to the Zelenskyy government, and the more Washington and Brussels portray Ukraine as a key defender of Western interests and values, the faster they become the de facto proprietors of the Ukrainian project.