Ukraine News

Ukraine: Two Years and Counting… to Forever?

According to conventional standards that see warfare as a murderous contest, the Ukraine war lasted approximately a year and a half. By that time, all serious observers concluded Ukraine could not win its war with Russia. But since the beginning of the millennium, we have learned two things: that forever war is the new peace and diplomacy stands as an existential threat to the war economy.

Generated with Lexica Aperture v3.5.

February 24, 2024 02:16 EDT

Most of humanity sees war, when it affects them directly, as a disruption of their way of life. The idea of peace still defines most people’s idea of normal. The concept of a world at war upsets our very sense of identity. Alongside the absurd amount of death and material destruction in wars, language itself becomes seriously distorted. People’s perception of their environment and relationships as well. Priorities and routines are overturned. An incomprehensible drama troubles our ability to make sense of many of things we accept as ordinary.

Because of the various dangers war provokes to some people’s health and many more people’s well-being, we read the news and follow the talk with a generally helpless sense of needing to understand what is on its face incomprehensible: the programmed destruction of both people and things. However much we try and however we manage to convince ourselves that the side we prefer is good and the other evil, the sequence of events that define a war can never be clarified until we get a sense of who will win and who will lose.

Random observers can never get close enough to the acts of war to get a grip on their meaning. Nevertheless, numerous people with experience of conflict who track the evidence and pay attention to the always shifting state of play in a war will consistently apply their expertise to keeping score. What they see and what they say about an ongoing war is almost certain to diverge from the official accounts offered by anyone who identifies with one of the “sides” in a war, especially governments themselves and their legacy media.

So where do we find ourselves today, exactly two years into a war that officially began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022? Though many voices influenced by the institutions they belong to or represent may continue to proclaim the contrary, it is fair to say that the best informed coldly rational experts on all sides have now reached one largely unanimous conclusion: that Ukraine cannot defeat Russia. That doesn’t automatically mean that Ukraine will unconditionally capitulate. Nor does it mean, as some might “rationally” expect, that the foregone conclusion heralds imminent negotiations that will aim at defining the conditions for a lasting peace.

In the traditional binary logic of war, the widely shared acknowledgment of the constitutional incapacity of one of the parties to achieve its wartime objectives has always meant that, either publicly or discreetly, all sides would begin preparations for negotiating a peace. In today’s world, we tend to think that all important decision-making follows the laws of economic interest. In such a context, the ongoing cost of war in lives and material loss — including the consideration that anyone who prolongs such a war should be held responsible for supplementary damage done — should logically force all parties to begin shifting both their mindset and their public discourse as they engage in the arduous task of beginning to craft some form of mutually acceptable peace.

A turning point in the culture of war

Most people would recognize that as the scenario that has played out in almost all the wars of the past, at least until the beginning of this century. The new millennium seems to have significantly altered the pattern. This is particularly true concerning wars in which the United States plays a supporting role. The country that once proudly proclaimed “we’ve never been licked” seems now to understand that all wars are not winnable. The question then becomes how do you make sure they don’t appear to be lost?

The realization that the US is not predestined to win all wars turns out to be an unbearably angst-ridden question for anyone involved in the planning or logic of war. The embarrassment of Vietnam inexorably spawned a psychological shift in thinking about war and its outcomes. Refusing to acknowledge defeat has now become the implicit norm for all wars involving the US. Because of Washington’s role as global hegemon since the fall of the Soviet Union, this has had a profound impact on basic geopolitical reality. One may even ask whether the “rule” of not acknowledging defeat is not the latest item that has been registered as a feature of the vaunted “rules-based international order” so vociferously proclaimed and defended in the West.

Ever since Homer’s ten-year war which pitted Greek heroes against Troy, we know that some wars last longer than others. When a realistic hope of reversing the course of a war exists, refusing to accept defeat makes perfect sense. But because war as defined by Clausewitz is “an extension of politics,” our idea of the nature of war is bound to change whenever geopolitical reality undergoes a shift. In the unipolar world that emerged with the elimination of the Soviet Union as the only credible rival to the US, war shifted from being the means of adjusting power relations between individual nations or ethnic groups as it came to be considered a permanent instrument of power in the hands of the unipolar hegemon.

There were two complementary reasons for this. The hegemon quite naturally saw itself as the only credible arbiter of conflict, since it had no rivals. At the same time it possessed a veto in the one institution that should have claimed the role of arbiter: the United Nations. The second is the sheer economic domination of the US in terms of combined military technology, geographical spread (military bases in all corners of the world), the universally accepted reign of the dollar and the culturally imposed belief, spread even to communist China, in “liberal” values that axiomatically assumed economic considerations should always trump other measures of value.

And so in the 21st century the cultural status of war became transformed. Instead of being an extension of politics, it subsumed politics by occupying the default position in defining relationships. The Cold War installed the principle affirmed by realists such as John Mearsheimer that anarchy and therefore the potential for war must be seen as the starting point and a defining factor of international relations.

From Cold War to Global War on Terror

Since Dwight Eisenhower’s time — and despite that president’s belated warning issued three days before leaving office — the US “military-industrial-Congressional complex” has not only thrived and expanded but ultimately reoriented the mindset of nearly every bureaucrat and elected official in US power centers, whether at the Pentagon, the White House, Congress or Wall Street.

Over the past three decades, there has been a convergence between physical warfare (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, to mention only the most obvious), economic warfare (the exponential multiplication of sanctions) and lawfare. I would extend the list by adding the linguistic warfare that over the past two decades has taken on an Orwellian or metaphysical dimension. Censorship in a variety of forms has installed itself as a basic feature of our increasingly managed techno-culture.

The new linguistic warfare, which every party seeks to exploit to its advantage, is not limited to the predictable onslaught of propaganda that always comes to the fore in times of conflict. It defines its own terms, writes its own rules and judges severely everyone who it claims has failed to embrace those rules.

An earlier concept of conflict in the era of nation-states that began in the 17th century saw war as similar to the drama we now associate with team sports competition. War appears as an occasion to demonstrate superior force and to emerge as an acknowledged winner. When the final bell sounds, the public, but also the losing team defer to the victor’s superiority. Victory comes with a number of advantages or privileges, including bragging rights.

The 20th century produced one notable exception to the rule that says the fighting stops when one side has won. The Korean War did reach a moment when all active fighting stopped. But the war never officially ended. It was left in suspense. Though North Korea was flattened, much as Gaza has been reduced to rubble in the past four months, there were no declared winners or losers. This unique termination of conflict with no attribution of a trophy for the winner appeared to be a consequence of the psychological terms of the Cold War. It was a moment in history marked by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This meant that conflicts had to avoid seeking too radical a resolution. Everyone in Korea had a clear memory of what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The illogic of the Korean war’s conclusion began having the effect of transforming the way politicians — entrusted with the task of managing the logic of war — thought about outcomes. With regard to Vietnam the US was prepared to apply the Korean model and would have been happy with a permanent two-state solution. But the more ancient template prevailed when the US, acknowledging its incapacity to continue, stopped funding the war, pulled out and allowed its enemy to unify the nation.

When George W Bush sought to avenge Osama Bin Laden’s spectacular 9/11 attack on New York and Washington by overwhelming the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and subsequently declaring “mission accomplished” in Iraq, he was clearly working within a psychological framework that could be dated back to Julius Caesar’s ancient veni, vidi, vici model of war. Despite calling his program a “global war on terror” — implicitly abolishing the notion of national boundaries — he clearly sought to assume operational and ideological control of two nation-states that had been eviscerated and reduced to political rubble.

The miscalculation became immediately apparent, but Bush’s commitment to success was such that both campaigns, superficially successful at the start, turned into something that lost all sense of linear logic. The course of events took the US well beyond the multiple, chaotic phases of the Vietnam War. It even permitted commentators to amend the vocabulary applied to international conflicts. We entered the era of “forever wars.”

Which kind of war is the Ukraine conflict?

Vladimir Putin shocked the world and especially the neighboring Western nations with his full-scale military operation initiated precisely two years ago. The invasion of Ukraine initially appeared to follow the classical example of a war that like a boxing match would end either with a quick knockout, a twelve-round decision or a technical knowckout.

That was undoubtedly Vladimir Putin’s intention. But he may not have realized that something had changed in the way the world thought about war. Putin clearly understood that the issue involved more than Ukraine. But to his mind, because NATO still had no official status in Ukraine, a controled assault on a weak nation should have allowed him to easily intimidate Ukraine’s military and force a settlement that would include the permanent exclusion of NATO. Despite renewed claims — as recently as the security conference in Munich earlier this month —  that Putin’s goal is to reconstruct the Soviet empire and then somehow push westward to conquer Europe, there has never been an iota of evidence for any intention of that kind.

Moreover, we now know that Putin nearly achieved his aim when negotiators initialed a peace deal in March 2022, a mere month after the opening of hostilities. We also know, thanks to various witnesses, that the US and NATO authorities, dutifully represented by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, instructed the Ukrainians to abandon all negotiations and to prolong the war. It didn’t take long before the mantra “for as long as it takes” became the rallying cry, repeated endlessly by Joe Biden, that could still be heard only a few days ago in Munich, this time voiced by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Most commentators who have paid attention to the state of play on the ground have described the conflict in its current form as a war of attrition, implicitly comparing it with World War I. But there is more to the drama than the visible reality of trench warfare or even the breathless reporting of an important but isolated event, such as the Russian capture of Avdiïvka.

When considering the possible outcome of a war, there are multiple and highly disparate variables that must be assessed. They include the state of equipment, troop levels and demographics, all of which seem to play out in unfavorable terms for Ukraine. But they also have logistical, political, geopolitical and psychological considerations, not the least of which is war fatigue. In the background are other factors, such as the taste among Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs for corruption. And, of course, there is the one issue that the media routinely has been covering recently: whether the US and/or Europe will continue to make the commitment required to keep a forever war going on literally forever.

What does all this mean in practical terms? Many military experts anticipate a sudden collapse of Ukraine’s military system, especially if the Russians advance towards the Dnieper, which the fall of Avdiïvka should facilitate. This game-changer in the military balance has become even more likely following President Zelenskyy’s dismissal of the popular general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi as his top commander, replaced by the controversial Oleksandr Syrskyi.

The NATO countries have not only persisted in denying the likelihood of collapse, they continue to claim that Ukraine is destined to win. It leaves the impression that anything short of Kyiv’s total victory would result in a loss of face for everyone in the West. In so doing, they are forced —  possibly against their will or better judgment and most likely against the interest of their own people and economy — to attempt everything in their power, however unrealistic, to ensure that actual collapse does not happen or at least to dispel the impression that it is inevitable.

But there’s a deeper question. Even if the US Congress were to pass its next $61 billion gift to the Ukraine war effort, would it have any effect other than simply to further stimulate the already obscenely profitable defense industry in the US? The equipment that package would provide could only become operational on the ground in a year’s time, raising the question of whether Ukraine can remain intact while awaiting delivery and the preparation required to be useful in battle.

From zero sum to zero outcome

Stepping back from Ukraine, the history of recent US wars in the Middle East — which have unexpectedly been given a new life around the periphery of Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza —  the pattern of seeing every conflict as potentially perennial and worth investing in year after year with little anticipation of an endgame seems to have become the norm. To the practitioners of 21st-century wars, conflicts that play out and then dramatically end are a thing of the past. The wars in which the US is directly or indirectly involved have transformed the very concept of war. We are now living in the age of the forever war. It stands as a kind of risky variation of MAD in which the idea of extending wars indefinitely is seen as preferable to nuclear confrontation.

The drama that unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq beginning in 2001 and that is still unfolding in Ukraine, demonstrates that contrary to all our beliefs about international conflict in the past, the logic of war is no longer binary. Thanks to various innovations — technological, political and economic — the logic of war now has a third term that takes it beyond winning and losing. The idea of winning and losing was far too simplistic. We now have various verbs to choose from when describing the third option: prolonging, extending, containing and finally, exploiting. We might even add, when thinking about those who talk most in public about war — the politicians and the media — enjoying.

So, in the coming months and perhaps years, unless a dramatic collapse is allowed to occur, the West will deploy all its forces to ensure that Ukraine will still be the bone of contention no dog is allowed to chew. There are grounds for thinking keeping it going will not be as easy as just sending more money and equipment to Kyiv. We know that the true objective of the US is to weaken Russia. So that may eventually be the focus of any future appreciation of who will be the winner and who the loser. If Russia were to collapse, which seems totally unlikely, the US State Department and Pentagon would be clear winners. So might be a number of Ukrainian oligarchs as well as some political personalities. But even in such circumstances, Ukraine itself and the Ukrainian people would be losers.

For two years, Ukrainian society has been decimated and reduced to beggary. There is little hope that it could emerge, even in the very best scenario, with anything positive to put on display. Maintaining the torture by turning it into a forever war will only add to the misery. But if Biden, Blinken, Stoltenberg, the already discredited Johnson, Von der Leyen, Scholz, Macron, Baerbock and so many others in Europe can keep the suspense alive by prolonging the war as far as their resources permit, they are convinced that, whatever the outcome and even if it means losing face, their world will remain pretty much intact. In such situations, that’s all that really matters. The blood-spangled banner of the current rules-based international order can continue to fly proudly in the dawn’s early light or, more likely, disappear silently into the darkness of a rapidly fading twilight.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


Only Fair Observer members can comment. Please login to comment.

Leave a comment

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member