Emily Harding is deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Imagine, if you will, a headline from January 2032. It reads, “Cease-fire signed between warring parties in Ukraine, ending 10 years of fighting over control of Kyiv.”
As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues to escalate, such a timeline is not impossible, nor is it pessimistic. Instead, it is the most likely way for Ukraine to win a drawn-out battle with Russia, and that victory will only be possible with NATO members’ continuous support to resist a Russian occupation.
The Ukrainian military is currently fighting hard to defend its country against Russian aggression — harder than Moscow anticipated. In the first few days, Ukrainian forces shot down multiple Russian helicopters and aircrafts, citizen-soldiers deflected attacks on Kyiv, and Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island in the Black Sea became heroes for their defiance under fire. Scattered reports from the front lines also show Russian troops saying they thought they were only on military exercises, balking at being asked to fire on Ukrainians.
Thanks to Ukrainian bravery and a risky Russian attack strategy, Moscow is far from assured of a quick victory — indeed, the war is long from over. But if Russia manages to win a conventional fight and take Kyiv in the coming days, there is little doubt that Moscow will immediately seek to install tame leadership and claim the new regime is in charge of all elements of state power.
Ukrainian military units will then be faced with a terrible choice: They can either surrender to the puppet government, not knowing whether they are on an alleged list of Ukrainians to be killed or captured; they can attempt to flee with thousands of other refugees; or they can melt into the shadows and continue the fight as insurgents.
Ukrainian insurgents would have distinct advantages. They have a populace that is more than willing to support them and world powers that are eager to see Moscow pay a price for its aggression. If an insurgency develops, NATO members should step up to provide critical support to the fighters, in the form of arms, training, secure communications and safe havens. If Moscow’s control stops at the Dnieper River, this insurgency could be based out of a protected enclave in western Ukraine. But if the whole country falls, NATO members on Ukraine’s perimeter will need to establish safe egress routes for people and ingress routes for weapons.
The goal of such an insurgency would be to raise the costs for Moscow to maintain control of Ukraine and to raise pressure on the Kremlin. Domestic opposition in Russia is already brewing, with protests being held across the country. On the first day of fighting, there were more arrested protestors in Russia than casualties in Ukraine. Discontent in Moscow will only continue to grow as the economy worsens and Russian casualties rise. As the conflict progresses, Putin will likely want to make his puppet regime the face of the fighting — but the international community must remember and make clear that it is Russians causing the war, and Russians committing the war crimes.
As such, NATO members’ goal must be to stop Russian aggression at the Dnieper and to prepare for a long battle to win Ukraine back. The corresponding strategy will require offense, defense and, most of all, patience.
Offense will include holding devastating sanctions in place to grow opposition within Russia to Putin’s adventurism, keeping a functioning Ukrainian government in place with financial — and military — support, and a robust set of actions demonstrating NATO’s solidarity and commitment. Defense will be perhaps more critical, particularly in creating resilience and proper security measures in the cyber domain. Putin will seek to dissuade NATO support for Ukraine in deniable ways, and of late, cyber measures have been his tool of choice.
Patience, of course, will be the hardest challenge. In these early days of the crisis, world attention has been focused on the life-and-death struggles taking place on the streets of Kyiv, and outrage at Russian aggression is high. But soon, much more will be asked of the international community to back its rhetoric with sacrifice: Oil prices will go up, refugees will need homes and cyberattacks will cause disruptions.
It’s important to remember that most insurgencies last an estimated eight to 10 years. Despite 24-hour news and short-term election cycles, NATO members need to have the mindset of a 10-year support strategy for the Ukrainian people.
That may be a painful reality to face, but unless they do, the alternative to the headline above will be much darker. It would instead describe Ukraine fully in Moscow’s grasp, and a Russian threat looming over Moldova and NATO’s eastern flank.