Predicting when the Russo-Ukraine war will end is a puzzle. The conflict’s duration fits poorly with previous wars initiated by Russia since its defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig in 1813.
In April 2022, I predicted in RealClearDefense that Russia’s war would end in one of two ways, based on previous outcomes: either as a victory, in which case it would end in 8 months, or as a defeat that would drag on for 16 months, concluding in approximately June 2023. The war passed through both deadlines, showing Moscow’s commitment to hold onto its gains in the Donbas and Crimea.
I have therefore retreated into the Correlates of War dataset to harvest further insights. I now predict that the Russo-Ukraine war will end one or two campaign seasons after Putin mobilizes the under-35 cohort. My explanation is that with the exceptions of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, when worker unrest combined with a sharp Russian defeat at the Straits of Tsushima and the siege of Port Arthur, and the exhaustion of the First World War, Russia has never otherwise submitted to peace because of a threat of a domestic uprising against the regime in power.
However, my optimistic conclusion is that the global liberal social movement sometimes manifests in color revolutions, which are unprecedented. That system will even prevail against a nuclear-armed state, so eventual victory against Putin depends on Western persistence in supporting Ukraine.
Why Predicting Conflicts Like Ukraine Is Hard
Threats and actual use of force between different countries are extremely rare events. Seventy-two percent of militarized disputes between countries — defined as non-accidental government-sanctioned threats or actual uses of force — are between just two states. For example, in one contemporary datatset, there were 200,778 years of two-country interactions among all the world’s almost 200 countries. Of these, only 2,586 resulted in disputes (about 1.2 percent). There were only 95 wars by 2023 (3.6 percent of the 1.2 percent of country pairs).
Scholars like Quincy Wright (A Study of War – 1942), Lewis Richardson (Statistics of Deadly Quarrels – 1960) and Dan Reiter (How Wars End – 2009) have grappled with the fact that such small proportions limit the utility of the mathematical projections and inferential statistics needed to validate generalizations. What political scientists call the endogeneity problem means that to understand the probabilistic likelihood of decisions for war, we must compare them to the frequency of decisions by leaders to “not start a war under consideration” (which is not the same as simply not deciding anything). This is a permanent unknown that politicians typically take with them to the grave. Political scientists struggle against the assertion of many military historians that wars are unique, sui generis events that defy predictability. Similarly, political-psychological personality profiles of leaders tend to be poor predictors, as most politicians have high emotional quotients that resist simple categorization.
We are left with some true but useless tautologies: Wars happen when country leaders dislike the peace, or when they are pre-empting an enemy threat by attacking first. They also happen when the two countries disagree about the relative distribution of military power, since logically a weaker country should never start a war it could not win.
Depending on which dataset is being used, war initiators are found to win either 45 percent or 55 percent of the time, in effect a coin toss. For some personality types (Hannibal, Caesar, Bonaparte, Kaiser, Hitler, Hirohito), these are great odds. For most others, they are reckless.
What we do know is that of the wars fought since 1816, 35 cases involved the complete defeat and occupation of one of the countries, and another 26 cases had a change in regime caused in part by the victor, the latter of which is what Ukraine must do to Moscow to stop the war on its terms.
Russia Is Hard to Exhaust
The Russo-Ukraine War has outlasted every war Russia has fought by itself except the 1853-1856 Crimean War. Despite suffering losses approaching half a million dead, Russia’s desire to negotiate a peace in that war was driven by concerns about Austrian activities in the Balkans, and not by domestic instability. To put this into context, since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 there have been 95 wars between countries, of which 30 took place in Europe. Russia or the Soviet Union was involved in 10. Russia was involved in another seven wars outside of Europe — three against China, three against Japan, and one against Persia — in the same period.
The 10 European wars involving Russia include the First World War (44 months) and Second World War (47 months), which are unusual because the costs of their long duration were partially offset by the assistance provided by allies, although in the former case Russia succumbed to defeat-induced mutiny. Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was presaged by the domestic instability that compelled Russia to seek peace in the 11-month Russo-Japanese War.
There were minor precursor skirmishes between Russia and the Ottoman Empire between 1806-1812, which did not escalate because Napoleon’s support for Persia led Constantinople to wisely refuse his invitation to join the campaign against Moscow. Three post-1816 wars involved campaigns against Turkey (16 months in 1828-1829, 10 months in 1877-1878, and the 29-month Crimean War), and the First World War involved a Russian conflict with the Ottoman Empire.
In the first two cases, the Ottoman Empire sought peace amid its teetering disintegration. In the Crimean War, Napoleon III lost interest once his capture of Sevastopol had restored France’s prestige, and Russia outlasted the English, whose government’s determination was compromised by an active peace movement. Russia engaged in small-scale skirmishing with the Persian Empire from 1804-1813, which sued for peace once their ally Napoleon had abandoned Moscow. Near the end of the 18-month Russo-Persian War (1826-1828), Tehran sued for peace when its army became too demoralized to continue fighting.
Another three wars are post-revolutionary liberation movements that prevailed against disarrayed Russian occupation forces in Estonia (1918-1920), Latvia (1918-1919), and during the 25-month long Russo-Polish War (1919-1920). The remaining two conflicts are the three-month Russo-Finnish War (1939-1940) and the five-day Soviet invasion of Hungary (1956).
In none of these conflicts was Russia exhausted, either on the battlefield or on the home front. Russia made peace in 1920 with Warsaw after the Russo-Polish War in order to focus on the civil war in the Ukraine. Similarly, Moscow’s peace with Finland in 1940 was prompted by concerns of Anglo-French intervention, not because of the political consequences of high casualties.
Threats Clarify Resistance
As part of its Asian campaigns, Russia’s two initiated wars against China both resulted in victories due to Peking’s relative isolation: a three-month conflict related to the Boxer rebellion in 1900, and a four-month conflict with a Chinese warlord in 1929. Russia was defeated by Japan over a one-month clash at Changkufeng in 1938, and then inflicted a costly stalemate on Japan for over four months at Nomonhan in 1939, both instances in which Japan was the initiator. In none of these conflicts were the losses substantial, nor did they impact Russia or the Soviet Union’s domestic stability. Russia’s defeat of China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and the Soviet Union’s destruction of the Japanese Manchurian Army in 1945, were both campaigns conducted while Russia was embedded in broad coalitions.
I would like, consequently, to examine a set of five variables that do a better job of timing the termination of the Russo-Ukraine War to one or two campaign seasons after the initial Russian mass mobilization of the under-35 urban population cohort.
The first variable: Ukraine’s commitment to continued resistance, which is high, is driven as much by a similar culture of self-defense as the Russians, given Ukraine’s lack of defensible frontiers, as it is by a fear of Russia’s brutal methods. Eighteen months into the conflict, Ukraine shows no evidence of wavering, which would be revealed in indicators as rates of desertion, surrendering, collaboration, or routing. Embolden by Western aid, by the fact that Ukraine has not yet fully mobilized its manpower, and by Russian attacks on the Ukrainian civilian population that remind of Russia’s hostility to Ukrainian interests, this variable is unlikely to change for four years or more. For this analysis, the high levels of motivation demonstrated by the Ukrainians can be taken at least as durable as that of the Soviets during the Second World War.
The resistance of South Koreans during the Korean War, and of the South Vietnamese for nearly four years after the departure of the U.S. in 1972, indicate that populations are willing to commit if they agree with their political leaders about the definition of a clear threat. Naval Postgraduate School Professor Carter Malkasian has demonstrated that political victory can be achieved even in a war of attrition if there is a sustainable and punishing loss ratio inflicted on the enemy. The Iran-Iraq War persisted for eight years before it was terminated by dramatic territorial changes inflicted by the Iraqi Army. However, while Ukrainian counteroffensives and maneuvers may recapture territory, they will never compel Russia to terminate the war unless Ukraine has the potential to provoke a popular revolt in Russia.
The second variable is the sustainability of consistent Western economic and military support to Ukraine. This is complicated by differing interests in the Western alliance. The strongest supporters are frontline countries that worry about Russian military threats to their territories — states such as Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic States, and Finland — and particularly those states with Russian populations, such as Estonia. Even states that are seeking independent foreign policies, like Turkey, France, and Hungary, provide economic and military assistance to Ukraine, as do states that are dependent on imported Russian energy, like Germany and Italy.
The U.S. interest in particular, as the largest contributor to NATO, is to address the Russian threat in the near-term, so that it cannot ally with China in the future and distract a U.S. defense of Taiwan. As with Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided the U.S. with an opportunity to inflict considerable attrition on Russia’s armed forces, while also justifying global sanctions to support the possibility of a liberalizing regime change in Moscow. China is far less likely to attack Taiwan if it is diplomatically and strategically isolated.
Bipartisan support in Washington for continued financial and armaments assistance to Ukraine remains strong, given that disbursements are still less than the total amount spent on operations in Iraq. U.S. support would drop if Russia indicated it would escalate to weapons of mass destruction to defend Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics, although Washington may still encourage Ukrainian resistance if it believed that regime change in Moscow was attainable.
Help Is Not on Russia’s Way
Like many aggressive authoritarian states, Russia has poorly formulated foreign policies that are self-isolating, and this is the third variable. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had already alienated the USSR in its 1979 border standoff with Syria. Libya’s erratic Moammar Gadhafi had likewise alienated his country from socialist Arab states, the Soviet Union, and even its main oil customers such as Italy.
The Kremlin’s political architecture consists of Putin, nominally backed by the United Russia Party, standing atop a series of Siloviki factions that exchange power for funding with the oligarchs, all of whom oversee an increasingly staggering state apparatus. Like most authoritarian states, far fewer ministers are represented at the highest Cabinet levels than in democracies, with the Foreign Ministry most often supplanted by the domestic security apparatus and the military, and by the leader’s belief that they can simply call up their fellow autocrats.
The consequence is Russia’s inability to cultivate reliable alliances with other countries, unless those states are already hostile to the U.S. Therefore, Russia’s only allies are weapons providers like Iran. China, fearful that it would be chainganged given its focus on its domestic stability, is reluctant to enter into any agreement with Moscow, however much Beijing would like to divert American attention and treasure to Ukraine. China’s peace overtures in April 2023 were at best aimed at saving Russia from liberal regime change, which would further isolate Chinese President Xi Jinping in the event Beijing moved against Taiwan. In effect, this variable indicates that Russia’s wartime stamina will not be significantly shored up by allies.
Mass Mobilization Is Dangerous
The fourth variable, a key factor to war duration, is the conflict’s impact on Russia’s under-35 population. This cohort is the main driver of the world’s color revolutions, regardless of culture. Vladimir Putin has a persistent political support level of 70 percent, but this backing is soft and will drop to one-third if youth from Russia’s European metropolises begin suffering significant battlefield casualties.
As of April 2023, the rate of battlefield losses from the Moscow region is less than 3 per 100,000, as compared with much higher ratios drawn from rural and ethnic minority communities. Mass recruitment of youth will lead to passive resistance during training and deployment and mass desertion and mutinies for troops that are rotated out of the frontline, before they are disarmed. These losses, as well as imposing a police state in anticipation of these reactions, will also alienate some of the older generation, typically the parents of these under-35 cohort. The faster Ukrainian attacks compel further Russian mobilization, the sooner the war will end.
Finally, the Ukrainian campaign season is summer, and this timing will determine when Russia’s political elite gambles on youth recruitment. Given concerns in the Kremlin about a military revolt led by the under-35 cohort, they are likely to pursue a strategy of attrition in the fall and winter of 2023. There may be a call-up of a million under-35s in the Fall of 2023, especially if Ukraine continues to advance, but it will likely be falsely advertised as excluding service within Ukraine. This will lead to their deployment in the campaign season of the summer of 2024. Revolt will likely take place by fall 2024, and cause political unrest in the spring of 2025, or possibly a year later if two campaign seasons are required for social mobilization.
Russian domestic stability is historically more robust than the stereotypes of the Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of the USSR suggest. However, the Ukrainian goal of inciting regime change is nevertheless conceivable, given the liberal sentiments of Russia’s under-35 cohort. Critics of pro-Ukrainian Western policy, such as University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, have argued that Russia, by virtue of its size, cannot be defeated by Ukraine. Rather, given the severe disparity in the motivations of the median military age recruit, Russia’s army may indeed crack before Ukraine’s.
Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University (Montreal), former army engineer officer, and has written extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted field research for over ten years.