At first glance, it seems that many wars, from World War I to the conflict in Iraq, will quickly end in a short and violent shock. But it often confuses such predictions, turning into lengthy slogans, with domino effects that cause far-reaching and far-reaching political, economic and humanitarian effects.
Russia’s war on Ukraine follows this pattern. After beginning with predictions of a blitzkrieg for control of Kyiv two months ago, the war is set to last for weeks and months, if not longer.
Anytime two major nuclear powers like Russia and the United States enter into indirect conflict, as in light of Washington’s massive infusion of weapons into Ukraine, the possibility of direct confrontation remains.
A longer war means more uncertainty for Western leaders.
In the US, it will also cost people already struggling with inflation, higher grocery bills and gas tank costs, which could lead to huge political problems for President Joe Biden in a midterm election year.
Why will the war continue?
There is a fundamental reason for the war to continue.
The strategic picture in Ukraine, where the country is far from defeated and the invaders not yet defeated, means that neither side has a strong incentive to pursue urgent diplomacy to end the war.
Ukraine does not trust Putin after his unprovoked invasion, which was intended to crush its independence and national identity, and the massacres he visited in the country. The heroism of the citizens’ army and the rushing influx of offensive Western weapons encourage hopes of victory in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, Putin has so far not achieved any of his goals after the humiliating withdrawal from the Kyiv suburbs. Despite reported heavy losses in men and materiel, his generals set new war goals for their forces – capturing the entire southern Ukrainian coast – to stifle the country by cutting off its access to the Black Sea.
The United States recognized these developments through a shift in strategy laid out this week that seeks to use an effective proxy war to weaken Russia so severely that it can no longer threaten Europe.
But Ukraine fears the expansion of the battlefield. Officials warned Wednesday that a new front could emerge in the southwest along the Moldovan border, including the pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria.
The threat of an all-out energy war that could lead to recession and severe hardship in Europe — and spillovers in the United States — became more likely on Wednesday when Russia cut gas supplies to NATO members Poland and Bulgaria. which was once in the orbit of the Soviet Union.
Everyone suffers from a longer war
The initial outcome of a longer war – one that already featured some of the worst atrocities in Europe since the Nazi era – would tragically mean that many Ukrainians would be killed or forced from their homes. But the deprivation and threat to life within the country’s borders will not be contained.
But it is worse in the developing world. Rising grain prices in countries already afflicted by poverty and malnutrition are a matter of life and death for millions of people.
Fast-moving indications of the spillover of the Ukraine war on Wednesday coincided with more nuclear strikes by Putin, who warned that Russia’s adversaries who intervened in Ukraine would face a heavy price.
“We have all the necessary tools for this. Tools that no one can boast of. We will not brag. We will use them if necessary,” Putin said.
The chilling rhetoric may be a sign that Russia is feeling pressure because its goals of invasion have not yet lived up to its expectations. But his words are a troubling reminder of the continuing danger of conflict escalation, especially as the United States tests Russia’s red lines as weapons systems flow into Ukraine.
In Washington and Moscow, there is now a common acknowledgment that this war is about much more than Ukraine, perhaps a stepping stone into a prolonged and broader geopolitical struggle.
Senior Russian officers also appreciate the broader dimensions of the conflict that has destroyed the realities of the post-Cold War world, and turned their country into an international pariah state.
“Now we are at war with the whole world,” Russian General Rustam Minnikaev said in statements reported by the “Financial Times” and “BZ” in Berlin.
What would a longer war mean for Americans
Assuming Biden succeeds in his primary goal of preventing a catastrophic direct conflict between the two largest nuclear-armed superpowers, the impact in the United States of a longer war in Ukraine will be primarily economic and political.
It will deeply touch the lives of Americans — and Biden’s political prospects, not only in a midterm election year expected to bring heavy losses to Democrats but also in the lead-up to his possible re-election race in 2024.
The World Bank’s warning about commodity prices must have alarmed the White House and underscored the fact that Ukraine was on the verge of the worst place for war at a time when food and energy prices were already soaring. That’s because Russia, now facing crushing Western sanctions, is a major exporter of natural gas, oil and coal. Ukraine – the “breadbasket of Europe” – is a major exporter of wheat and corn. A potential wholesale disruption to his crop this year could prove to be a disaster.
With inflation already at its highest since the 1980s, Biden is accused of screwing up the economy, despite a strong overall recovery since the pandemic and historical job creation numbers.
Another wave of food price hikes in the run-up to the midterm elections could wipe out Democratic congressional candidates.
So far, Biden has been trying a questionable strategy of blaming the war for high inflation, calling it “Putin’s price hike,” even though the high prices predate the invasion. Such a nuance is unlikely to survive the brutal reality of the campaign trail, with Republicans already leaning toward a simple message about soaring grocery bills, which could make Democrats’ attempts to link them to former President Donald Trump’s extremism less prominent.
The war could also harm Biden beyond its economic impact.
The president united the Western alliance behind an attempt to punish and isolate Putin, who has restored a foreign policy reputation badly tarnished by the failed US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
But recent polls have suggested the war is far from a political win for the president, despite he has kept his promises to keep American soldiers out of the fight. When he beat Trump in 2020, no voter believed he would engage in a proxy war in Europe with Russia, let alone a rerun of the Cold War and apocalyptic nuclear rhetoric that would at least last as long as Putin remains in office.
The shocking turn of events in Europe is a reminder that presidents’ best-laid plans are always upended — and how the Biden administration has been hostage to events beyond its control.
But it is questionable how long American voters’ interest in the war in Ukraine will last given the struggles many face back home. If the war’s vision fades as it degenerates into a protracted conflict of attrition, Biden’s efforts to blame Putin for the economic backlash will become increasingly difficult.
And a president with a 41% approval rating, according to the CNN average of recent national polls, will be vulnerable to another broad partisan accusation heading into the midterms — that he flounders while the world burns.
Prolonged high inflation, economic malaise, and a backdrop of global chaos would also sow fertile ground for Trump’s populist demagoguery as he prepares for his potential rematch with Biden in 2024.