Many wars, from the First World War to the conflict in Iraq, at first seem certain to end quickly in a brief and violent shock. But often they confuse these predictions, degenerating into extended slogs with domino effects that cause far-reaching and far-reaching political, economic and humanitarian effects.
Russia’s war against Ukraine follows this pattern. After starting with predictions of a blitzkrieg to take over kyiv two months ago, the war is expected to drag on for weeks and months, if not longer.
Whenever two nuclear powers as great as Russia and the United States are engaged in conflict, however indirect, as is the case given Washington’s massive injection of weapons into Ukraine, the possibility of a direct confrontation remains.
And a longer war means more uncertainty for Western leaders.
In the United States, it will also cost people already struggling with inflation, soaring grocery bills and soaring costs to fill their gas tanks, which could lead to huge political problems for President Joe Biden during a midterm election year.
Why the war will go on forever
There is a fundamental reason why the war will go on forever.
Ukraine’s strategic picture, with the country far from defeat and the invader not yet defeated, means that neither side has a burning incentive to pursue urgent diplomacy to end the war.
Ukraine has no faith in Putin after his unprovoked invasion, which aimed to crush its independence and national identity, and the carnage he inflicted on the country. The heroism of its citizen army and the accelerated flow of offensive Western weapons encourage hopes of victory in kyiv.
Putin, meanwhile, has yet to achieve any of his goals after a humiliating withdrawal from the outskirts of Kyiv. Despite heavy losses in men and material, his generals set new war goals for their troops – the capture of the entire southern coast of Ukraine – to strangle the country by cutting off its access to the Black Sea.
The United States has acknowledged these developments with a change in strategy introduced this week that seeks to use effective proxy warfare to weaken Russia so badly that it can no longer threaten Europe.
But Ukraine fears a widening of the battlefield. Officials warned on Wednesday of a possible new front in the southwest along the Moldovan border, involving the pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria.
And the threat of a full-scale energy war that could trigger a recession and severe hardship in Europe – and repercussions in the United States – became more likely on Wednesday when Russia cut off gas supplies to Poland and of Bulgaria, two members of NATO. that were once in the orbit of the Soviet Union.
Everyone suffers from a longer war
The main outcome of a longer war – a war that has already featured some of the worst atrocities in Europe since the Nazi era – will tragically mean that many more Ukrainians will be killed or forced from their homes. But deprivation and death threats will not be contained within the country’s borders.
But it’s worse in the developing world. Rising grain prices in poverty-stricken and already malnourished countries are a life-or-death issue for millions of people.
Rapid indications of a widening Ukrainian war footprint on Wednesday coincided with more nuclear rattles from Putin, who warned that Russian enemies who interfere in Ukraine would face a heavy toll.
“We have all the tools for this. The ones no one can boast about. And we won’t boast. We will use them if necessary,” Putin said.
The chilling rhetoric may be a sign that Russia is feeling pressure because its invasion goals have so far fallen short of expectations. But his words are an ominous reminder of the constant danger of an escalation of the conflict, especially as the United States tests Russia’s red lines with its weapons systems spurt pouring into Ukraine.
In Washington and Moscow, there is now a common recognition that this war goes far beyond Ukraine, and could be the start of a protracted and broader geopolitical struggle.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has warned the world needs to prepare “for the long term” against Putin, whom she described as “a desperate thug”. She argued that the West should not only arm Ukraine, but also the Western Balkan countries, Moldova and Georgia to counter the Russian threat, prompting Moscow to warn that foreigners should not ” inflate” these countries with weapons.
“Geopolitics is back,” Truss said in a speech in London. “After the Cold War, we believed that peace, stability and prosperity would spread inexorably around the world. … We were wrong.”
Russia’s top brass also appreciate the larger dimensions of a conflict that has shattered the certainties of the post-Cold War world and made their country an international pariah.
“Now we are at war with the whole world,” Russian General Rustam Minnekaev said in comments quoted by the Financial Times and BZ newspaper in Berlin.
What a longer war will mean for Americans
Assuming Biden succeeds in his primary goal of preventing a disastrous direct conflict between the two most nuclear-heavy superpowers, the impact in the United States of a longer war in Ukraine will be primarily economic and political.
It will profoundly affect the lives of Americans — and Biden’s own political prospects, not only in a midterm election year that is expected to bring heavy losses for Democrats, but also as he approaches his possible re-election in 2024.
The World Bank‘s commodity price warning must have alarmed the White House and underscored the fact that Ukraine was just about the worst place for a war to break out at a time when food prices and energy were already high. Indeed, Russia, now facing crushing Western sanctions, is a major exporter of natural gas, oil and coal. Ukraine – the “breadbasket of Europe” – is a key source of wheat and maize. The likely disruption to his crop this year could spell disaster.
With inflation already at its highest level since the 1980s, Biden is accused of botching the economy, despite a strong global recovery since the pandemic and historic job creation figures.
Another surge in food prices ahead of the midterm elections could doom Democratic congressional candidates.
So far, Biden is trying a dubious strategy of blaming the war on high inflation, calling it “Putin’s price hike,” even though high prices predated the invasion. Such nuance is unlikely to survive the brutal reality of the campaign trail, where Republicans are already hunkering down on a simple message about soaring grocery bills, which could make Democratic attempts to tie them less salient. extremism of former President Donald Trump.
The war could also hurt Biden beyond its economic impact.
The president has united the Western alliance behind an effort to punish and isolate Putin, restoring a reputation for foreign policy badly tarnished by the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
But recent polls have suggested that the war is far from a political winner for the president, even though he has kept his word to keep American soldiers out of the fight. When he beat Trump in 2020, no voter thought he was signing a proxy war in Europe with Russia, let alone a repeat of the Cold War and blood-curdling nuclear rhetoric that could last at least that long. that Putin is in power.
The shocking turn of events in Europe is a reminder that presidents’ best-laid plans are always subverted – and of how Biden’s administration has been held hostage to events beyond its control.
But one wonders how long American voters’ attention will stay on the war in Ukraine given the struggles many are facing at home. If the visibility of the war fades as it escalates into a protracted conflict of attrition, Biden’s efforts to blame Putin for his economic comeback will become more difficult.
And a president with a 41% approval rating, according to the latest CNN average of recent national polls, will be vulnerable to another broad GOP accusation as the midterms approach — that he fumbles while the world burns. .
Prolonged high inflation, a sense of economic malaise and a backdrop of global chaos would also sow fertile ground for Trump’s grandstanding and populist nationalism as he prepares for a possible 2024 rematch with Biden.