Xi Jinping Says He Is Preparing China for War
The World Should Take Him Seriously
More than a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a grim reality has settled in: the war will not end soon. Despite the heavy fighting in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut and other parts of the Donbas, the frontlines have not substantively changed in months. Russia’s much-anticipated offensive appears to be underway, but Moscow lacks the capabilities to make any significant gains. Ukraine, too, is preparing for a springtime offensive, but the country’s human and material losses could limit its success. And neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears interested in negotiations. Given the apparent impasse, the question becomes how long will the two leaders opt to fight.
The reason that Zelensky and his country keep fighting is clear: if they do not, Ukraine as it is will cease to exist. That sentiment has been repeatedly articulated by Western leaders. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it in stark terms in September, stating, “If Russia stops fighting, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends.” Even if Zelensky pursued a negotiated settlement that ceded territory to Russia, it would carry the risk that Moscow, having learned that might makes right, could attack again in the future. Zelensky faces what political scientists call a “credible commitment” problem: he cannot be confident that Putin will not merely agree to a settlement today but then simply regroup and attack again tomorrow. By agreeing to a settled peace now, Ukraine could find itself in a worse position later.
Putin’s calculus is less straightforward. He remains committed to the idea that Russia and Ukraine are one country. In his speech to Russia’s parliament in February, Putin again declared that Ukraine is part of Russia’s “historical lands.” Raising the stakes further is his view that the war is part of a larger confrontation between Russia and the West. And even as the Russian military struggles to make gains on the battlefield, he is confident that the West will eventually tire of its support for Ukraine or that political changes in the United States and Europe will result in less military assistance for Kyiv.
But it is also fathomable that, faced with mounting challenges at home and on the battlefield, Putin could look for a way out of the conflict. Russian casualties are approaching 200,000. Living standards for many Russians are declining, and the Russian economy is expected to expand by just 0.3 percent this year after contracting 2.2 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The wealthiest Russians have lost their assets in the West, and many can no longer travel freely. Russia’s status as a great power will continue to erode, especially as the country remains cut off from foreign technology and investment, forcing it to become more dependent on Beijing. The longer Putin continues the war, the worse off Russia will be.
Yet the incentives of leaders and their people often diverge. Putin is likely to continue the war in Ukraine—not because it is in Russia’s interest but because it is in his personal interest. Fighting on makes sense for Putin for one fundamental reason: wartime autocrats rarely lose power. Being at war shuts down avenues for a country’s citizens, military, and security forces to challenge their leadership. The same does not hold true for dictators who lose wars; they become more vulnerable to ejection—a fate that, should it befall Putin, could be deadly. The heads of personalist dictatorships, in which power is highly concentrated in the hands of a single individual, are the most likely of all leaders to meet a violent end.
The most promising path to stop the war, then, is through greater U.S. and European support to Kyiv. Providing more assistance could help Ukraine win a decisive military victory, making Putin’s personal incentives irrelevant. And even if Ukraine determines that that it cannot expel Russian forces entirely from its territory, positioning Kyiv to threaten Putin with a clear battlefield defeat should encourage him to partake in negotiations on terms that are more favorable to Ukraine. Until Putin faces a credible threat, he will have every reason to continue the war.
Domestic politics not only shapes leaders’ incentives to start wars; it also guides their decisions to end them. For Putin, the war in Ukraine has significantly complicated his ability to rule, not least because the setbacks there have irreparably damaged his image as a competent leader. Sustaining the war benefits Putin because it makes him more resilient to the domestic challenges that have mounted since the invasion. Using data from the political scientists Sarah Croco and Jessica Weeks , we found that since the end of World War II, only seven percent of personalist authoritarians have been unseated while an interstate conflict that began under their watch was ongoing. Other data similarly show that leaders who initiate wars are especially unlikely to be ousted amid them.
It is easy to see why conflicts protect autocrats. The execution of wars creates dynamics that make it more difficult to orchestrate a dictator’s removal, such as a rally-around-the-flag effect in which people set aside political differences and support their leader. Russia has been no exception. Although it is difficult to gauge Russians’ true attitudes about the war, polling by the Levada Center shows that Putin’s approval rating increased by ten points after the war in Ukraine began—to 80 percent—and has remained high. Other evidence suggests that even Putin’s critics may favor continued fighting against Kyiv. As the Russian sociologist Grigory Yudin has argued, “even some Russians who harbor no goodwill toward Putin worry about what losing might bring.”
Putin has gone to great lengths to provoke these anxieties. He has framed the war in Ukraine as being “about the very existence of our country”—a fear-mongering tactic useful for compelling compliance with the regime. His control over the media and his ability to frame the war as existential also allows him to marginalize opponents by branding them as anti-Russia.
Continuing the war insulates Putin from challenges from elites.
The invasion has also made it even easier for Putin to repress those Russians less inclined to remain quiescent. New laws punish detractors with up to ten years in prison if they speak out against the war, and the Kremlin has moved to shut down the country’s remaining independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations. Both moves have further mitigated the risk of the kind of mass protests that can unseat leaders. The war has also prompted hundreds of thousands of Russians to leave the country. Their exodus served as a pressure release valve for the regime, given that many of these exiles were the people most likely to challenge Putin. Should the war end, many of those Russians appear intent on returning home rather than seeking to integrate into their host societies, posing a future challenge that Putin would likely prefer to avoid.
Just as critically, continuing the war insulates Putin from challenges from elites. Personalist authoritarian systems such as Putin’s are already resistant to coups , given that they keep the elites weak and tie their futures directly to that of the leader. Being at war further protects autocrats from this threat. As work by the political scientists Varun Piplani and Caitlin Talmadge has shown, the risk of coups declines as conflicts go on. War insulates leaders by foreclosing many of the key pathways by which elites can overthrow them. So long as the Russian military is engaged in a grinding conflict in Ukraine, it is likely to lack the organizational bandwidth required for coup planning. Likewise, high casualties among senior and mid-level officers further impedes the military’s capacity to act. Meanwhile, Russia’s security services have largely profited from the war, as Putin increasingly relies on them for repression. They therefore have little incentive to move against him.
There are, of course, challenges that come with sustained fighting. Economic stagnation and mounting casualties, for example, could increase opposition to Putin. Yet dictators who maintain the loyalty of armed actors can withstand remarkably dire circumstances, and economic hardship alone rarely destabilizes an autocrat. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, for example, has stayed in office despite an economic collapse. Putin is also likely to be able to tolerate mounting casualties: research shows that personalist autocrats are the leaders least sensitive to wartime deaths as they effectively divert the highest costs of the war away from the most politically important groups. This is precisely what Putin has done by disproportionately recruiting prisoners and people from Russia’s poorest regions to fight.
Putin’s very clear responsibility for the invasion could make him particularly vulnerable to being overthrown.
But if Russia is clearly defeated—say, by losing parts of Ukraine that Moscow held before the February invasion—these safeguards could fall away. Research by the political scientists Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans has found that roughly 80 percent of all leaders in power at the end of a conflict remained in power afterward, and of those leaders who were ousted, all had experienced a military defeat. In fact, approximately half of all leaders who lose a war also lose power.
Personalist dictators such as Putin tend to be among the most resilient to military defeats. But the Russian leader’s expectations of what might happen if he is ousted are likely to shape his calculus. Leaders who worry that they will be jailed, exiled, or killed—a fate most common among personalist autocrats—will be especially sensitive to even small increases in risk. And Putin’s very clear responsibility for the invasion makes him particularly vulnerable. According to one study , leaders who are culpable for wars are especially motivated to continue fighting them—even in the face of hardship—because domestic actors will want to punish them if they fail.
Putin has taken steps to try to reduce some of these risks. He has, for instance, avoided clearly articulating his aims in Ukraine, creating ambiguity that could help him sell an imperfect outcome to domestic audiences. For his purposes, a draw could be sufficient: Chiozza and Goemans found that military outcomes in which both sides can claim they obtained something have little effect on the stability of a leader. But before Putin would be willing to agree to a settlement—and forgo the stability-enhancing benefits of war—he must confront the kind of clear defeat that could threaten his hold on power.
Most wars are quick, lasting only a few months. But those that last more than a year tend to drag on for over a decade . Given Putin’s ideological commitment to the invasion and the incentives shaping his decision-making, the Russian-Ukrainian war may very well fit this historical precedent. Such a drawn-out conflict poses serious risks for Ukraine and the West. Not only would a long war increase Ukrainian casualties and destruction; it would also raise the prospect that Western support will wane, leading to the worst possible outcome to this war: one in which Russia is able to expand its territorial control over Ukraine.
These risks of a protracted war have not yet been adequately weighed in Washington’s and Europe’s decision-making. Instead, the West has focused on the risks of escalation, including the risk that Putin will use a nuclear weapon. That particular risk has led the United States and Europe to moderate the types of weapons they give to Ukraine. Yet the longer the war grinds on, the more likely it becomes that Western support will dwindle. Although bipartisan support for Ukraine remains strong in the U.S. Congress, recent comments made by Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis that Ukraine is not a “vital” U.S. interest underscore the differing views held across the United States. Public support for aid to Ukraine may also be declining, falling from 60 percent in May 2022, to 48 percent today, according to surveys by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
That means if the United States and Europe want to avoid the risks of a protracted conflict, they must give Ukraine more support. Most immediately, Kyiv needs decisive weapons and in greater numbers. In particular, Ukraine requires more ammunition and air defenses, as well as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System munitions, and tanks. The United States and Europe should also strengthen Ukraine’s offensive capacity by providing army tactical missile systems: long-range weapons that would give Ukraine the ability to strike at greater distances, including Russian targets in Crimea. The West could also strengthen Ukraine by providing stronger offensive air capabilities, such as fighter jets and advanced drones.
The West has focused on the risks of escalation.
Critically, the United States needs to move beyond its rhetorical promises to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” (as U.S. President Joe Biden has often said) and make tangible commitments of abiding support. Congress, for example, could adopt legislation that lays out a long-term schedule for delivering weapons to Ukraine. Such a clear, extended plan could make Moscow more pessimistic about the future of its campaign. Money and resources are far more likely than words to shape Putin’s calculus about his wartime prospects.
Ukraine could use these resources to expel Russian forces entirely from its borders. But even if it cannot completely win on the battlefield, a credible Ukrainian offensive would increase the odds that Putin will seek a settlement on terms more favorable to Ukraine. Kyiv's ability to credibly threaten to retake territory is important in shaping Putin’s calculus because it provides an unambiguous signal of his incompetence as a leader, one the Kremlin cannot as readily manipulate for domestic audiences. If Kyiv can hold Crimea at risk, for example, Putin could see it as in his interest to avoid the domestic risks that come with a decisive defeat and negotiate an end that falls well short of his war aims. In such a scenario, the United States and Europe must be ready to provide Ukraine with a robust security guarantee—ideally, NATO membership—that would ensure that Russia does not try to invade again.
It was Putin’s own self-interested illusions about history and his legacy as a great Russian leader that started this war, and it will be his own self-interest that will end it. For now, Putin has no incentive to stop fighting. That means that Ukraine must either end the war for him or threaten Putin with a defeat—one so unambiguous that he sees it as a matter of self-preservation to negotiate.