Two Years After Russia Invaded Ukraine: Q&A with RAND Experts


Feb 19, 2024

A member of the honor guard prepares during a Ukrainian flag-raising ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the liberation of the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, March 31, 2023, photo by Gleb Garanich/Reuters

A member of the honor guard prepares during a Ukrainian flag-raising ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the liberation of the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, March 31, 2023.

Photo by Gleb Garanich/Reuters

This week marks the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The ongoing conflict has brought renewed focus on the regional threat posed by Russian revanchism and presents challenges to security and stability both in the region and elsewhere. The geopolitical implications are immense. The conflict has established new benchmarks in the ways of modern warfare and demonstrated anew just how dangerous the world is.

We invited a group of RAND experts to discuss the state of the conflict and its prospects, its global implications, possible outcomes and solutions, and what the West and the rest of the world might be doing now and once hostilities end.

How has the situation changed in the last year?

William Courtney In 2023 in the ground war, both sides carried out failed offensives in eastern and southern Ukraine, leaving a stalemate on the ground. In the naval war, Ukraine's innovative drones and anti-ship missiles sank warships from Russia's Black Sea Fleet; Moscow relocated some remaining ships to the eastern Black Sea, helping to clear the way for Ukraine to resume grain and other merchant shipping via the Turkish straits. In the air war, Ukraine's defenses shot down growing numbers of Russian missiles and drones. U.S.-supplied Patriot interceptors even downed Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, which Putin had claimed were invulnerable.

Raphael Cohen Compared with last year, Ukraine faces two challenges. Militarily, the lines have largely stagnated, if not tilted by sheer force of mass, somewhat in Russia's favor. Politically, the West—and particularly the United States—has struggled to provide the military aid Ukraine needs to sustain the fight. Ukraine can't turn the military tide without more Western military aid, but Ukraine will struggle to get more military aid, unless it can demonstrate to skeptics—particularly in the United States—that it can win on the battlefield.

Ann Dailey Western political leaders have finally realized this will be a long war. Follow-on effects from this realization vary depending on where a country stands in its support for Ukraine. Countries like Estonia and the United Kingdom have endeavored to invest in defense industrial base production and provide long-term funding to signal to Russia that they cannot hope to win by out-waiting Kyiv's partners. This year will be decisive not just because of what happens on the battlefield, but because 64 countries—including the United States—will go to the polls.

James Black After the dramatic swings in territorial control during 2022, the war settled into a positional and attritional grind in 2023. Along with mounting Russian losses in the hundreds of thousands, and the destruction of huge swathes of equipment and consequent mobilization of Russia's economy onto a war footing to replace stocks, the grit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has long since shattered any illusion that Russian society could be insulated from the dire costs of Putin's “special military operation.”

Marta Kepe Over the last year the war has turned into a grinding war of attrition. Both sides have experienced various problems from logistics and sustainment to almost inescapable surveillance by the other side.

Continuation of Western aid to Ukraine will be important for Ukraine's military effort, but the political and military decisions about the future of Ukraine will be made by Ukrainian leaders.

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Where do you think the conflict will be one year from now?

Cohen To be blunt, it's going to depend a little on the U.S. elections and whether American aid to Ukraine keeps flowing. This war can only be won in Ukraine, but it can be lost here in Washington, D.C.

Peter Wilson Although I have been wrong about the resilience of the Russian Army, it is possible that the Russian Army may collapse during the summer of 2024. On the other hand, Ukraine may be in military dire straits if major American military assistance dries up due to ongoing Congressional paralysis.

Black The onset of grinding positional warfare and the need for both sides to replenish men and materiel lost in the various counteroffensives of the last 12 months suggest that 2024 could be a year of consolidation, attritional exchanges, and preparation for renewed offensive action in late 2024 or perhaps 2025.

Kepe Over the next few months and year I will be looking closely at the political and military leadership changes that Ukraine is gearing up for. Continuation of Western aid to Ukraine will be important for Ukraine's military effort, but the political and military decisions about the future of Ukraine will be made by Ukrainian leaders.

How has the U.S. strategy changed over the last year?

Cohen According to press reports, the United States has been pushing Ukraine to take a more defensive posture. That's probably in part to conserve resources, since offensive operations generally are more equipment- and munitions-intensive than defensive ones. And right now, the future of aid is uncertain.

Dailey Until now, the U.S. strategy has been to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” Unfortunately, this does not include a theory of victory, nor is it a viable construct given U.S. domestic political vagaries.

Wilson After the failed Ukrainian offensive, the United States appears to be more tolerant of Ukrainian horizontal escalation against high-value Russian targets in Crimea and Russia proper. A wide range of strike munitions are now being provided by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

What is driving Russia's strategy two years into the conflict?

Bryan Frederick As it has since the fall of 2022, Russia continues to bank on a strategy that it can outlast Ukraine and its Western supporters. It has shifted to a wartime economy prioritizing the production of munitions, secured important external sources for armaments including from North Korea and Iran, and created formidable defensive positions on Ukrainian territory that will be difficult to overrun.

Wilson Putin's theory of victory is that the United States and Europe can be politically destabilized and cripple military support to Ukraine. On the battlefront, the strategy of Russia's Valery Gerasimov, who heads the Russian war effort, is similar to Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant in the Battle of the Wilderness, British Field Marshall Douglas Haig at the Western Front in World War I, and General William Westmorland in Vietnam: a strategy of sustained attrition to “break” the opponent's will to resist. This strategy has already destroyed one Russian Army and is in the process of destroying a second. At a minimum the Kremlin hopes to stalemate the conflict like the Chinese did during the Korean War.

Has the threat of a Russian nuclear escalation increased or decreased in the last year?

Frederick For the first year and a half of the war, concerns about Russian nuclear escalation were rooted in the risks that might accompany Ukrainian victory and Russian defeat. That is, that Russia might use nuclear weapons to try to avert defeat. Following the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the summer of 2023 and the possibility that emerged later that fall that the United States might curtail its assistance to Ukraine, those escalation concerns have likely declined.

Wilson The threat of Russian nuclear escalation has decreased significantly due to the failure of the Ukraine offense. That threat may reemerge if the Russian Army starts to disintegrate this summer.

How much more assistance can Ukraine expect from the United States and the West?

Courtney Last year some observers predicted rising donor fatigue, but this was not evident. Bipartisan support appears to exist in the Congress for continued aid. If Congress agrees on a border security plan, aid for Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific are likely to receive strong support in both the House and Senate.

Dailey You can see from the last Rammstein Group, which includes not just the United States and the “West” but also participants from across the globe, that even without U.S. donations, support for Ukraine remains strong. This likely is because many countries feel the need to step up during what they hope or anticipate would be a short pause in U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Black It is important to stress that Western support, while a significant drain on certain military stockpiles and a source of considerable pressure for a defense industrial base racing to recover after over 30 years of low investment, is still only a tiny fraction in terms of either total defense budgets or combined GDP across the United States and NATO.

What would the war look like if the United States were to suspend aid?

Cohen Simply put, Ukraine could lose the war. Russia could win, a bloody but ultimately successful campaign. American adversaries around the world would be emboldened. And the United States would have—yet another—massive unforced strategic blunder in a geopolitical environment that increasingly has little margin for error.

Frederick A complete suspension of U.S. aid to Ukraine under the current administration is unlikely. However, if the U.S. Congress does not authorize any additional assistance, this will sharply curtail the resources that the United States can provide to Ukraine, which in turn will impede Ukraine's efforts to defend itself. Should further funding for U.S. assistance not be provided, the risks of Ukrainian battlefield reversals in the coming year will be greatly increased.

Khrystyna Holynska The inability of the West to live up to its promises or restrictions on the types or number of provided weapons would be immediately felt on the battlefield when Ukrainians are not able to defend themselves or provide fire support during missions. It would also affect the morale of the soldiers and the society.

Black A suspension of U.S. aid to Ukraine would be a huge victory for Russia, a fillip to China, a potentially fatal blow to Ukraine, and a seismic shock to the credibility and cohesion of the NATO alliance, not to mention calling into question the supposed leadership and democratic values of the United States in the eyes of the world.

What are the geopolitical implications of the evolving China-Russia relationship?

Miranda Priebe Even before the war, both countries saw cooperation as an important way to counter their primary rival: the United States. The conflict has accelerated this trend. Deeper cooperation between Russia and China can affect U.S. interests in many ways. For example, increased cooperation on military technologies could allow these states to more effectively counter U.S. military advantages. It is unlikely that the United States can reverse recent developments, but it can avoid policies that drive the countries even closer together.

Cohen If you look at documents like the 2018 and then the 2022 National Defense Strategy, they are largely premised around the idea that the United States may have five named adversaries (China, Russia, Iran, DPRK, and terrorism) but will only need to fight one war against one adversary in one part of the globe at a time. That is simply not the world we live in right now. U.S. adversaries are growing increasingly interconnected and U.S. defense strategy needs to catch up.

Courtney Russia's war on Ukraine has strained the “no-limits” partnership to which Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin agreed in February 2022, just weeks prior to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. China does not appear to be sending significant, if any, lethal arms to Russia. Some electronics and other technology are likely flowing. China's financial system, which has much at stake in ties with U.S. and European financial institutions, seems not to be violating Western sanctions.

Sanctions have been growing steadily. Are they working?

Howard Shatz Sanctions are having an effect, but certainly not as big as hoped. Russia is undertaking an enormous rise in spending to pay for its war, with the federal budget deficit in 2023 the third-highest level ever. The sanctions have also forced Russian businesses to undergo costly redirections of their business to the East, particularly to China, and have made Russia far more dependent on China for goods, finance, and international support. In considering the effectiveness of sanctions, one other question must be asked: How well would Russia be doing if there were no sanctions? The sanctions may be leaky and Russia may have found workarounds, but an unsanctioned Russia would certainly be better off than it is now.

Did F-16s ever arrive, and are they making any difference?

Wilson The F-16s could prove to be a very effective launch platform of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile land attack cruise missile. This will provide “green” pilots combat experience while not flying to Russian air defenses. F-16s will provide an improved strategic air defense capability. More demanding is the use of F-16s nearer to the heavily defended battlefront to provide direct air support.

Putin has made some noises about negotiations; are these for real? Or a ploy? How might the West think about these?

Courtney As Russia ramps up its war economy and sends more troops and arms to the front, the Kremlin seems committed to continuing to wage its brutal war and seek to control more Ukrainian territory. Thus far, Kremlin hints of interest in negotiations seem aimed at reducing combat pressure so that Russia can relieve frontline troops, who appear to be suffering from low morale and high casualties, and can rebuild units for future fighting.

Priebe It is hard to know how serious these reports are, but it is worth following up to find out. Some commentators argue that showing an openness to negotiations would signal weak will and encourage Russia to keep fighting. It is not clear that this is true. Moreover, Ukraine and Russia will have to talk at some point to bring the war to an end. This is a process that might take a long time, so it makes sense to start sooner rather than later.

Is regime change in Russia a possibility?

Courtney Regime change in Russia is unpredictable. No large-scale, organized political force for regime change is yet apparent, but in theory multiple scenarios might be possible. A stalemated war with high casualties plus economic strain and low morale could lead to pressures for a more liberal regime. In another scenario, however, Putin and his ex-KGB cohort could face popular unrest and be blamed for a failed war. Another ultra-nationalist, repressive leadership could come to power.

Priebe It is unclear when a new leader will come to power or how such a change would affect Russia's foreign policy. Therefore, the United States should not base its wartime policy on the hope that Putin will be replaced with a leader that will end the war in Ukraine. A long war in Ukraine is not in the U.S. interest, so the United States should not plan on waiting Putin out. Instead, the United States should consider how it can make an end to the war more likely given current Russian leadership.

The United States should not base its wartime policy on the hope that Putin will be replaced with a leader that will end the war in Ukraine.

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What is the status of the refugee situation? What can be done?

Holynska Millions of Ukrainians remain displaced either internally or abroad. Their decision calculus will undoubtedly be based on many factors, including the incentives Ukraine might offer in case of their return. Currently, the public discussions in Ukraine fluctuate between carrots (opportunities that might be created) and sticks (priority or exclusive access to resources to those who remained and experienced the war firsthand). If Ukraine wants to rebuild as a democracy with a prosperous economy, the ability to convince highly educated and entrepreneurial Ukrainians living abroad to return might be crucial.

What options exist for rebuilding Ukraine after the end of hostilities?

Shatz A Ukraine rebuilding effort will depend on U.S. and European joint leadership, with Ukraine itself setting the priorities. There will need to be strong security arrangements to deter Russia from attacking again and, for purposes of reconstruction, to give investors confidence that they can take risks and that their investments will be secure. The United States should take the lead on security, while Europe should take the lead on reform and economic recovery, especially since Ukraine will be simultaneously working toward membership in the European Union.

Holynska Success of Ukraine's postwar rebuilding is no less important than the end of active hostilities. Rebuilding will be costly, so the Ukrainian government must ensure transparency of the process and decisions it makes. The ability of the government to involve all stakeholders—including the West and Ukrainian vibrant civil society—in the decisionmaking process and to clearly communicate and explain the choices made is crucial to ensure that the sacrifices made by many for a free and democratic Ukraine are honored.

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at RAND and was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the U.S.-USSR commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.

Raphael S. Cohen is director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE and a senior political scientist at RAND.

Miranda Priebe is director of the Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy and a senior political scientist at RAND.

Ann Dailey is a policy researcher at RAND, an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves, and served as senior advisor for Russia strategy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Howard J. Shatz is a senior economist at RAND and a professor of policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

Bryan Frederick is associate director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE and a senior political scientist at RAND.

Marta Kepe is a senior defense analyst at RAND.

Peter A. Wilson is an adjunct senior international and defense researcher at RAND and teaches a course on the history of military technological innovation at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

James Black is assistant director of the Defence and Security research group at RAND Europe.

Khrystyna Holynska is a Ph.D. candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and an assistant policy researcher at RAND.