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What If Ukraine Is a Forever Crisis?

Three months after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the war is falling into a familiar historical pattern. As both sides dig in deeper and become more invested in the conflict, it will increasingly become a contest that can end only one way.

PRINCETON – Russia’s attack on Ukraine is coming to resemble many previous geopolitical crises. Throughout history, episodes that initially seemed like temporary disruptions have become prolonged affairs. What start out as short confrontations very often result in a seemingly endless morass.

The most famous case of such a crisis is World War I, which George F. Kennan accurately described as the “great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century. The sheer scale of the mobilization in August 1914 fostered a widespread belief that the conflict could not last long – that it “would be over by Christmas.” But what followed was a war of attrition with almost no movement on the Western Front. Just as Ypres, Flanders, was the site of fierce battles in 1914, so it was again in 1918. Will there still be battles in Mariupol in 2026?

True, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has committed his government to the message that Russia “must not win” the war, and the great German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has declared, similarly, that Ukraine “must not lose.” Yet when European political and intellectual leaders issue these dramatic statements, it is clear that they are compensating for an underlying sense of helplessness. What can such statements even mean in a stalemate? Unless Russia collapses or undergoes a sudden regime change and democratization, it is difficult to imagine how Ukraine can “not lose.”

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