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Could the Ukraine War Become the Mother of All Frozen Conflicts?

Image Credit: Social Media of Ukraine Armed Forces.

At the 1-year mark of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, expectations about the final outcome run the gamut from the belief that a definitive Ukrainian victory is imminent to warnings that Russia will ultimately prevail.

The United States and NATO are doubling down on their strategy of military assistance to Kyiv, believing that Ukraine can win the war. The recent decision to send Abrams tanks and longer-range missiles highlights the dramatic escalation.  

Both the level of optimism and the extent of NATO’s aid has noticeably increased since the surprising success of Ukraine’s autumn military offensives in both northeastern and southern Ukraine that regained control of significant swaths of territory from Russian occupation forces. Former general and CIA Director David Petraeus epitomizes that attitude, saying that Russia can’t win and that there is “nothing (Putin) can do” to stop Ukraine from winning.  

However, even some voices within the U.S. foreign policy establishment have expressed greater caution about Kyiv’s chances for victory in the long run. The most significant example was a January 7, 2023, op-ed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in the Washington Post. The title of the piece, “Time Is Not on Ukraine’s Side,” conveyed their concerns. 

As I’ve argued here, the worries that Rice and Gates expressed are warranted. It is difficult to see how Ukraine can win a drawn-out war of attrition.  Russia’s material advantages—a population more than 3 times greater than Ukraine’s, a much larger, better equipped, active-duty military, and a far greater ability to mobilize reserve military forces—will become more important the longer the war continues. 

Because Western leaders are likely to reach that painful realization at some point, prospects will grow for another option: a ceasefire similar to the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 without resolving any of the underlying disputes. If Ukraine’s fortunes fade, the United States and the other leading NATO powers will have a growing incentive to press their client not to pursue a suicidal course. An armistice certainly would be preferable to a multi-year war of attrition that would inflict tens of thousands of additional casualties and destroy what is left of Ukraine’s infrastructure.  

However, the Korean model created a volatile powder keg that has produced numerous alarming crises over the decades.  A similar “frozen war” in Ukraine would be even more dangerous—potentially much more dangerous. In the case of Korea, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the opposing armies cuts cleanly across a narrow peninsula and is only 160 miles long. A DMZ in Ukraine would involve multiple fronts and collectively would be many hundreds of miles in length. 

There is another crucial difference between the 2 situations. The United States has a formal defense treaty with South Korea, and U.S. troops are stationed near the DMZ as a tripwire to deter North Korea from launching a new attack.  Washington does not have any formal defense arrangements with or obligations to Kyiv. Indeed, efforts on the part of U.S. leaders to secure membership for Ukraine in NATO, or failing that, to transform Ukraine into an informal U.S./NATO military asset, was a key factor triggering Russia’s invasion.  It is highly improbable that the Kremlin will agree to end the fighting, if doing so meant that U.S. or NATO forces would be stationed in Ukraine to police the cease-fire lines. 

In the unlikely event that Vladimir Putin’s government did consent to such an arrangement, the result would be, by far, the world’s most dangerous frozen conflict, with NATO and Russian forces directly confronting each other. 

The Biden administration’s policies have been decidedly unhelpful since the beginning of this crisis. In the months leading up to Russia’s invasion, U.S. and NATO officials spurned the Kremlin’s efforts to secure concessions guaranteeing a neutral Ukraine and the reduction of U.S. military deployments in NATO’s eastern members. Washington’s performance has not improved since the onset of fighting.  Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett believes that he was close to facilitating a peace accord just weeks into the conflict.

Contentions that the Biden administration and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government “blocked” such a settlement appear to be excessive. However, there is little doubt that both governments intensely disliked the prospect of a neutral Ukraine, and they encouraged Kyiv to stay the course with promises of greater military aid.  

Since then, the reckless support of Ukraine coming from Washington and London has led to spiraling bloodshed and destruction. Biden needs to drastically alter his policy.  Instead of continuing to provide a blank check of support to Ukraine, he should press Volodymyr Zelensky’s government to negotiate the best peace accord that it can with Russia.  Such an agreement undoubtedly would require Ukraine to renounce ambitions for NATO membership and to recognize that Crimea is now part of Russia. Moscow has indicated (during Bennett’s mediation efforts and on other occasions) that in exchange for those concessions, it would drop demands for Ukraine’s “denazification” and demilitarization. The Kremlin likely also would agree to withdraw its forces from other portions of occupied Ukraine.  

The probable alternatives to such an admittedly imperfect peace agreement are a definitive Russian victory after a multi-year war of attrition or a cease-fire that would create the mother of all frozen wars, with all of the dangerous tensions that follow. 

Ukraine deserves better, Russia deserves better, and the world deserves better.

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Author Expertise and Experience 

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022)

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).



  1. Neil Ross

    February 22, 2023 at 4:45 pm

    Well written. I agree, there are no clear indications yet that the second year of conflict will be any different than the first. Time will tell.

  2. 403NotFound

    February 22, 2023 at 5:23 pm

    Calling it ukraine war is a big misnomer.

    Why not call it the great anti NATO-nazi patriotic war.

    That’s more appropriate considering the massive billions being poured into the conflict. Like poker players betting all their estates and posessions on the game’s final outcome. The great game.

    The most correct name would be Donbass war or Donbass conflict.

    It’s actually the continuation of the war that started in 2014 with ukro forces attacking russia-speaking separatist forces in donbass using massive heavy firepower.

    The ukros were actually ln the cusp of achieving TOTAL VICTORY till russian army volunteers entered the 2014 donbass war on the side of the separatist forces and slaughtered trapped ukro units at several battles, sept 2014 battle of lugansk airport included.

    That time, then president petro poroshenko said, “the situation has aggravated in recent days-there’s direct overt aggression against us from a neighbouring state.”

    It is indeed the donbass war.

  3. Tamerlane

    February 22, 2023 at 5:44 pm

    Excellent spot on analysis, from this American military officer’s perspective. It is high time we had a dose of realism in this hyper-bellicose hubris consumed administration. The longer this war continues the greater the danger of permanently joining Russia, Communist China and the global south together in a grand anti-American alliance, and the greater the odds of WWIII. Fundamentally, time is not on Ukraine’s side. Secs. Rice and Gates are correct, and anyone with a jot or tittle of common sense can perceive that the greater the conflict lasts the greater Russia’s war of attrition will favor Putin and co. There’s nothing wrong with taking a win and helping our own American national security, for once.

  4. YS

    February 22, 2023 at 6:03 pm

    IMHO, or at least the longer I follow the conflict the more it looks like Syria case, not Korea.

    Russian forces somewhat controlling relatively stable borders and sky, and Ukrainian nationalists side reduced (with dwindling support from NATO) to insurgency like Syrian groups (SRF, ISIS etc…)

    …and Syrian civil war is going on since 2011

  5. Walker

    February 22, 2023 at 9:03 pm

    No wonder the Russian stooges like Tamer and 403 fawn over this guy. He is of the same moronic isolationist philosophy as Daniel Davis.

    He makes the same logical mistakes as Davis. Specifically on two points.

    1.) Russia is larger and therefore will win a war of attrition. – This is certainly a concern for Ukraine. Russia can throw away lives to get what it wants. And it is doing so. But recent lies coming out of Turkey claiming Mossad sees Russians killing Ukrainians 10 to 1 show that Russian propaganda is actually worried that it can’t outspend Ukraine in lives. 3 to 1 is usually the number required for an aggressor to overcome a defender and therefore is in Russia’s favor. But Bakhmut is showing that Russia can’t win with a 3/1 advantage. And then we must realize that Russia doesn’t really have a 3/1 advantage. Russia still has to be careful of the number of conscripts it pulls before turning the populous into rebellion. Ukraine does not have this issue. Ukraine will always have the moral advantage. And Russia using its conscripts and cannon fodder will only make Russian efforts more demoralized. Add to the fact that Russia doesn’t even attempt to train its troops before sending them to their deaths and Russian superior numbers are almost all but wiped out. Again we can see the reality of this on the battlefield as Russia’s Spring offensive is a bloodbath for its own army.

    2.) Russia has superior weapons. – This one is a sign that Ted is nothing more than an idiot. Russia doesn’t have superior weapons. It used to have superior weapons, but not any more. It now has inferior weapons in larger supply. Ukraine has the superior weapons on the battlefield. Russia has better weapons in the way of fighter jets that it is afraid to bring to bear because Ukraine would shoot them out of the sky and be a huge win for Ukraine. That is a look Russia can’t afford. On the battlefield, Russia has all but given up mechanized weapons as what they have left is of such inferior quality it is a detriment to the troops.

    Certainly it could turn into a frozen conflict that could take years to resolve. But not really. Russia has a limited time that it must make its goals. It can not continue to spend troops like useless pennies indefinitely. It must make some line that forces Ukraine to admit a level of defeat that forces Ukraine to a disadvantageous negotiation table. Putin seems to realize this by setting the line to be to take all of Luhansk and Donetsk by the end of the month. This is impossible. What Russia needs is a win that is large enough to turn off support of Ukraine from the outside. I don’t see that happening. But it does explain why Russian trolls love these isolationists like Ted-n-Dan. If their ideas win out, Russia has a chance. It won’t. Biden in Ukraine this week shows it isn’t working. The longer this war drags on, the more likely we will increase the level of weapons we give to Ukraine. Who would have ever imagined we would be giving Ukraine tanks? If Ukraine has a successful summer offensive, it is very possible we will be giving them F-16s.

    This war isn’t going to end anytime soon. But it could end before this time next year. Russia can’t do it, but Ukraine possibly can as long as the majority of Americans don’t listen to idiots like Ted. And there is no sign of that happening. Its why they spend so much time and articles to try.

  6. Jim

    February 22, 2023 at 9:45 pm

    Peace negotiations leading to a settlement which both sides can live with is the best way to saves lives, save infrastructure, save Ukraine.

    Sadly, I fear hard-liners on all sides won’t back down.

    To the extent hard-liners hold on to maximalist positions, this war will continue on… drag on… with boilerplate phrases like “as long as it takes”… dribbling out of the administration which means as long as the war can be sustained politically @ home.

    Say “Hello, forever war.”

    Some people think the war can be sustained politically right through the 2024 election… certainly, Joe Biden is betting his presidency on it… seemingly indefinitely.

    I have my doubts.

    They’re betting on the American People being like “the frog in the warm water slowly turned up to boil.”

    That’s a cynical way to go to war… and a total disservice to the American People & our Republic.

    Sadly, what I heard from Biden on his foreign trip suggests he’s willing to throw the dice… pushing it to a showdown leading to a wider war… including the possibility of it going nuclear.

    Isn’t an uncomfortable peace better than the risk of nuclear annihilation?

    Or do hard-liners want to throw the dice… crossing the Rubicon, a threshold of no return.

    Taking that risk… with our Republic.

  7. Partner

    February 23, 2023 at 6:13 am

    I am struck by the stupidity and shortsightedness of this author.

  8. Merlin

    February 23, 2023 at 8:41 am

    Putin brought Satan missiles to North Korea. about 50 thermonuclear bombs. submarines. Putin wants North Korea to destroy Los Angeles and San Francisco. war cannot be avoided, Putin intends to destroy America

  9. Paul Hoffman

    February 23, 2023 at 1:01 pm

    Merlin…what utter nonsense.

  10. Neil Ross

    February 23, 2023 at 2:31 pm

    Jim/Walker, if I may inquire.

    As to Walker’s point about cutting off Ukraine’s supply of Western weaponry. How difficult would it be to take out the handful of Dneiper River crossings and why hasn’t Russia done this? Are they that inept or do they have other plans for the crossings?

    And nobody doubts how well the UAF have defended key defensive positions. Can either of you tell me how Russia found it so easy to invade from Crimea and take much of the Kherson oblast in just 4 days? Where were the UAF defensive lines? If they had defended Kherson as well as they are now defending Bahkmut, Russian forces would still be in Crimea.

  11. Walker

    February 23, 2023 at 6:30 pm


    I think you are mistaken. I don’t ever say that Russia can cut off Ukraine supply of weapons coming in from allies. Russia can’t ever do that. What I say is that if the war drags on and Ukraine isn’t able to make any progress in retaking land, the west may start to see giving Ukraine weapons as a waste of money and start pushing Ukraine to negotiate. This is Russia’s best chance to win the war. But based on what we are seeing, this isn’t likely to happen but we will see in a couple months when the ground dries out whether the Ukrainian offensive kicks off.

    For your question on how Russia was able to take so much land early last year the answer is really easy. The local politicians in those areas were corrupt and on Russian payroll. The FSB thought they had this all taken care of all the way to Kyiv. But they didn’t. Just some areas. Kherson is a prime example of this. As for why the military wasn’t prepared. The line of contact is long and all conflict areas have had time to dig in. Before Russia invaded especially from Crimea and Belarus, the exact paths they would take weren’t known. Also remember, there was only a few weeks between Biden administration saying that Russia was going to invade and the real invasion. So again basically no time to dig in. Also remember that before the invasion, Ukraine wasn’t being given much in the way of weapons to fight back. Many people didn’t believe that Russia was really going to invade.

    I think the point you are trying to make is that Russia can repeat its early successes. If they could, why haven’t they? Or better yet, why did they stop? Care to enlighten us with what the rest of the class already knows?

  12. dave

    February 24, 2023 at 2:34 am

    NATO, and Ukraine are out of weapons, and still threatening countries. Whole thing is laughable as retard Joe falling on the stairs again when he left Poland.Everyone knows Ukraine can`t win since the start. Now What? Already sent thousands of NATO mercenaries. That didn`t work now what?

  13. Rich

    February 24, 2023 at 7:51 am

    America is quickly going bankrupt. This “conflict” will be over as soon as America can no longer pay its financial obligations, which will happen this year. Russia on the other hand is not. Americans will not tolorate sending billions to Ukraine as we slide into recession and Russia knows this. All this talk of Superiority and fighting endless conflicts requires money first and foremost. Money that will not be available.

  14. Neil Ross

    February 25, 2023 at 12:27 pm


    Thank you, I do appreciate your reply. I guess I always assumed that the UAR would have dug in across the 5km wide Perekop Isthmus as soon as the Russians annexed Crimea, as they had done along the border with the occupied DNR/LNR. I apparently was wrong. As for the Dneiper river crossings, I will accept your interpretation that the Russian forces have neither the weapons nor the expertise to take out these bridges. Thanks again.

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