The moral arc of the universe is long, the saying goes, but it bends toward justice. That is a pleasing way to see the first year of Russia’s war in Ukraine. True, Ukraine hasn’t seen much justice in a conflict that has ravaged its territory, economy, and people. But the war has at least smashed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military and confounded his imperial aspirations. It has seen Ukraine wildly outperform nearly all initial expectations. It has unified and invigorated the West. The good guys are winning, it seems. The bad guys are getting the cosmic comeuppance reserved for those on the wrong side of history.
It is tempting to think that this outcome was inevitable. Putin’s regime and armed forces were so rotten, territorial conquest in the modern era had become so difficult, and the power of a democratic community united in support of Ukraine was so overwhelming that Moscow never had a chance. The war simply revealed the resilience of the liberal world—and the weaknesses of its enemies.
It is a nice story, but it is mostly not true. The war, particularly in its early months, was a very close-run thing. Ukraine’s success—its survival, even—was never guaranteed. Different choices in Kyiv, Moscow, and Washington could have produced radically different outcomes, for Ukraine and for the rest of the world. Had Putin defeated Ukraine, Western policymakers might be grappling with pervasive insecurity in eastern Europe, an empowered axis of autocracies, and cascading global instability. Ukraine has come to be seen, perhaps prematurely, as the war that strengthened the liberal order; it could easily have weakened it, instead.
Understanding what could have been in Ukraine is essential as the conflict enters its second year. Just because the war has gone relatively well for Ukraine and the Western world doesn’t mean that things will keep going their way. War is one of humanity’s most contingent undertakings, and the outcome of this struggle will hinge as much on future decisions as on decisions taken so far. Events in Ukraine also remind us that world order is not a product of natural law or moral inevitability. It is the result of policies pursued under the excruciating pressures of crisis. Great global dramas can turn on small things; the arc of the universe is exactly what we make of it.
MAKE YOUR OWN DESTINY
By any reasonable historical standard, today’s world is remarkably peaceful, prosperous, and democratic. That world is the result of global clashes that ended in victories for the supporters of a liberal order—but didn’t have to.
If a battle or two in northern France had gone differently in August and September of 1914, Germany might have quickly triumphed in World War I. Even after the war turned into a slugfest, Germany still might have prevailed. Had the German monarchy heeded the counsel of civilian advisers who urged against resuming unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, the United States would not have entered the war, and Germany’s enemies—a near-revolutionary Russia, an exhausted France, an almost insolvent United Kingdom—might well have folded.
Had World War I gone differently, the rest of the twentieth century might have, too. A victorious Germany would have ruled a vast Mitteleuropa from Belgium to the Middle East. Autocratic forms of government would have been ascendant; illiberalism and instability might have radiated outward from a German-dominated Eurasia.
The stakes of World War II were even higher. In hindsight, the victory of the Grand Alliance—so superior to the Axis in money, manpower, and machines—seems inevitable, but it didn’t look that way at the time. Bold strategies and good timing allowed Germany and Japan to overrun Europe and much of the Asia-Pacific. In early 1942, the Axis might have severed the Allies’ global supply lines with coordinated operations in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. The Axis missed the opportunity; Germany and Japan were eventually crushed. Yet contingency and chance still mattered: the difference between victory and defeat in key clashes such as the Battle of Midway could have been as small as how accurately a few pilots dropped a few bombs at a pivotal moment.
The outcome of the next great conflict, the Cold War, ushered in an age of globalization and democratic dominance. But although the capitalist bloc outperformed the communist bloc over the long run, it easily could have faltered at the outset. Had Washington not undertaken the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty—two then radical departures from the U.S. diplomatic tradition—in the late 1940s, western Europe might have collapsed and taken the global balance of power with it.
Counterfactual history isn’t just a game of what-if. Thinking about how major events might plausibly have gone differently underscores that today’s reality isn’t the only reality that was ever possible. War is a complex and unpredictable phenomenon, so the world that great wars shape is contingent, too.
BEATING THE ODDS
A year ago, many analysts didn’t expect an independent Ukraine to exist right now. When Putin invaded in February 2022, he envisioned a quick smash-and-grab operation that would seize the capital and other major cities, decapitate Ukraine’s government, and destroy the country’s ability to resist. The expectation, in the Kremlin and also in Washington, was that Kyiv would fall within days and that conventional resistance would cease shortly thereafter. Moscow would then control most of the country, leading to a Ukrainian insurgency with uncertain prospects. Some Western analysts were already looking beyond the war to the ramifications of a Ukrainian defeat.
Within Ukraine, those consequences would have been awful—show trials, summary executions, and all the mayhem visited upon the areas that Russia did manage to occupy. The global consequences also would have been ominous. Putin might have parlayed victory into his long-sought post-Soviet imperium. A puppet Ukraine might have been dragooned into a union state with Russia and Belarus; Moldova would have come under pressure once Moscow created a land bridge to Transnistria, a separatist region that already hosts a contingent of Russian troops. And following Russia’s successful intervention in Kazakhstan in January 2022, the de facto occupation of Belarus preceding the war, and a brutal beatdown of Ukraine, which former Soviet republics would have defied Moscow’s commands?
Perhaps the Baltic states, thanks to their alliance with Washington. But NATO would have faced insecurity up and down its eastern front. Through Belarus and Ukraine, Russia could have sought to intimidate Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The costs and difficulties of defending U.S. allies would have multiplied along with the potential avenues for a Russian attack, as a Moscow-led union state would have a much longer border with NATO. Finland and Sweden probably still would have sought NATO membership, but the debate within the alliance over whether to admit them—and antagonize an emboldened Putin—might have been much more contentious.
The future of the authoritarian axis, by contrast, would have been bright. A Russian victory would have given the Moscow-Beijing partnership significant geopolitical momentum. An overstretched United States would have faced militarily ascendant rivals in both Europe and Asia. Successful aggression might still have triggered military spending hikes by scared democracies in Europe and Asia, but it also would have fostered an atmosphere of global disarray that favored predators and left democracies fighting back from a weaker position than they occupy today.
As for ideological consequences, Putin would have been strengthened at home; his popularity would have skyrocketed, as it did after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Admirers of autocracy around the world would have lauded Putin’s ruthlessness and cunning. The United States, fresh off its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, would have faced still more claims that democracies were in retreat.
To be sure, victory in Ukraine wouldn’t have made Moscow bulletproof. A grinding insurgency, perhaps supported by NATO countries, might have sapped Russian power. The United States and many allies would have slammed Russia with sanctions. But an aggressive sanctions campaign might not have outlasted a conventional war that ended quickly, since in this scenario some European countries might have favored returning to business as usual. Enthusiasm for backing an insurgency might also have waned for similar reasons.
Fortunately for Ukraine and the West, almost none of this happened. Russia’s post-Soviet empire is crumbling: the Central Asian states are restless and not even Belarus will join Putin’s war. NATO’s situation has changed for the better. The alliance has rallied around Ukraine, enhanced its eastern defenses, and is in the process of welcoming Finland and Sweden. The global community of advanced democracies looks robust and resilient, as Russia hemorrhages influence and power. Sino-Russian relations have suffered, in part because Putin has asked for aid that China is reluctant to give. No one seems wowed by the achievements of autocracy today. On the battlefield and around the world, the gap between what Putin sought and what he got is enormous. But it is not clear that Russia was always destined for disaster.
True, the war revealed that many Western observers had simply overestimated Russia’s military power, which was undermined by a range of factors, including pervasive corruption and a force structure that disproportionately favored armor over infantry. Many Western analysts, perhaps influenced by the rapid collapse of Afghanistan in 2021, had equally underestimated Ukraine’s will and capability to fight.
Even so, it was far from certain that Ukraine would withstand Russia’s initial onslaught. After all, flawed regimes and militaries can still deliver on the battlefield. Just before the Red Army— weakened by Stalin’s purges—was initially humiliated by Finland in 1939–40, it had crushed a stronger power, Japan, in Manchuria. And the reason so few analysts accurately predicted the course of the current war in Ukraine is that it was shaped by developments that were difficult to anticipate: Russia failed catastrophically to exploit its advantages, Ukraine demonstrated unexpected strengths and overcame its deficient preparation for war, and the outside world, especially the United States, boosted Kyiv with unprecedented support.
None of this was inevitable. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looked more like Ashraf Ghani than Winston Churchill in January 2022, when he seemed almost indifferent to a looming disaster. The United States and its European allies had given Ukraine only modest and hesitant backing after previous Russian invasions, in 2014 and 2015. Change any of the aforementioned factors that shaped the war and its course might have looked very different.
WOULDA, SHOULDA, COULDA
Consider the chaotic early days, when Ukraine’s predicament was dire. The country’s military was ill prepared and badly outnumbered on key fronts, facing as much as a 12 to 1 disadvantage around Kyiv. Russian forces swept across the south of Ukraine, taking Kherson and establishing a land bridge to Crimea. In the north and east, major cities—including Kyiv and Kharkiv—were besieged. Russian saboteurs and assassins were in Kyiv, seeking to kill Zelensky and decapitate the government.
Within days, the situation seemed so grim that the United States asked Zelensky if he planned to flee (and possibly offered to evacuate him), a course of action that some of his own advisers recommended. Had Zelensky gone, or had Kyiv fallen, Ukrainian elites might have wavered or defected—as Afghan elites did once a Taliban takeover seemed inevitable, and as some Ukrainian officials did in the south during the Russian advance. The government might indeed have fragmented. Yet Putin’s gambit failed because Zelensky stayed—thereby beginning his transformation into a symbol of national cohesion and resistance—and because of several interrelated factors.
Not least were Russian mistakes. Putin’s plan of attack was deeply flawed. Not expecting a serious fight, Russia spread its troops over several lines of advance, reducing their ability to overcome strenuous opposition on any of them. Obsessed with secrecy, the regime communicated that plan to key commanders, ministers, and units just days before the war. This approach didn’t stop U.S. intelligence from sniffing out the attack. But it did leave Russian forces woefully unprepared for a sharp, nasty conflict. And combined with Putin’s failure to appoint a single theater commander, it left Russian services and even individual units fighting their own separate wars—for instance, Russian airborne forces attempted high-risk airfield seizures without proper suppression of enemy air defenses or support from heavier ground forces—instead of working as a team.
Some of these problems were related to the personalized nature of Putin’s regime. But Russian planning didn’t have to be as bad as it was, and even modest improvements might have paid major dividends. Had Russia concentrated on fewer fronts—whether reinforcing the drive on Kyiv or prioritizing the effort to cut off Ukrainian forces in the east—it might have overwhelmed Ukraine’s outnumbered and outgunned defenders. Had the Russian leadership given key units more advance warning, those units might have prepared better tactical plans and logistical support operations. In the end, the Russian offensive was just shambolic enough to let Ukrainian forces fight a successful delaying action, holding the capital and sucking Putin’s military into a long, bloody slog.
Russian mistakes were exacerbated by an unexpectedly tenacious, if somewhat haphazard, Ukrainian defense. The Ukrainian state was not ready for the war that unfolded, since most officials expected at most a major operation in the east. Putin was denied an open road to the capital mainly by the heroic commitment and sacrifice of understrength units that initially held key points, such as the bridge between the cities of Bucha and Irpin, against daunting odds. That effort was aided by large numbers of civilians and reservists who augmented regular units, reported the location of Russian forces, and otherwise contributed to an all-of-society resistance.
The Ukrainian military also performed impressively in key respects. It used terrain adeptly, conducting hit-and-run attacks against Russian columns moving through wooded areas and flooding the banks of the Irpin River to slow the enemy’s advance. It exploited simple technologies, such as cheap drones that could target Russian tanks. At key moments, Ukrainian commanders deployed scarce resources where they had an outsize impact—for instance, using limited artillery capabilities to prevent, or at least impede, Russia from easily taking Hostomel Airport outside Kyiv and from thereby creating an air bridge that would have enabled Moscow to deliver crucial reinforcements to the capital’s doorstep.
Ukraine’s previously underwhelming political leadership also began to overperform. Zelensky in particular summoned all of his skills to rally the population, maintain governmental cohesion, and win international solidarity. Ukraine pulled through the first phase of the war because it did just well enough, in just enough areas, to thwart a less than competent attack—and because an astonishingly broad and brave response to the invasion helped compensate for a nearly fatal dearth of preparation for it.
This defense, in turn, was strengthened by foreign support. Although the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden was pessimistic about Ukraine’s prospects, it was determined to make conquest harder for Putin. Having learned from its own contingency planning failures during the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington prepared extensively for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Before the invasion, a relentless drumbeat of U.S. warnings helped deny Putin the cloud of ambiguity in which he sought to start the war. Those warnings also encouraged some Ukrainian commanders to disperse air and artillery assets that might otherwise have been destroyed. Critically, the United States alerted Ukraine to key elements of the Russian invasion plan, such as the seizure of Hostomel Airport, which may have accelerated Kyiv’s response. Washington probably aided Ukraine in other essential ways—by helping blunt the much-feared Kremlin cyberoffensive, for instance—but few details are publicly available. In any event, that the U.S. government was so ready for the war offset the fact that the Ukrainian government was not.
Most important was the near-complete reversal of previous policies regarding the arming of Ukraine, a change that began under the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and accelerated dramatically under Biden. A Ukraine without Western military support never would have survived the opening months, or even weeks, of fighting against a better-armed Russia. But even before the invasion, the United States and several NATO allies began to rush antitank and antiaircraft weapons, ammunition, and other supplies to Ukraine. And according to Politico Europe, when Ukraine ran desperately short of ammunition after weeks of fighting, Bulgaria—with U.S. and British assistance—approved the emergency provision of Soviet-standard munitions to fill the gap. From that point onward, Western assistance—strategic and tactical intelligence, economic aid, and military support—consistently provided the margin between success and failure for Ukraine. Meanwhile, the United States also performed an essential “holding the ring” function—and ensured that the balance of outside intervention decisively favored Kyiv—by threatening China with sanctions and other consequences if it provided the military and economic aid Putin sought.
BY THE SKIN OF THEIR TEETH
In short, a combination of Russian blunders, Ukrainian commitment and creativity, and foreign support helped Kyiv manage a narrow escape. Yet even after Putin’s initial assault failed and the badly bloodied Russian military pulled back from Kyiv, the conflict’s trajectory remained uncertain.
In the spring and summer of 2022, Russia retained crucial advantages, such as deeper artillery and ammunition reserves. Putin still had decent options. Had he mobilized 300,000 additional troops in the spring instead of waiting to do so in the fall, he could have paired a manpower advantage with an artillery advantage when Russian forces refocused on assaulting Ukrainian positions in the Donbas. Russia also could have begun systematically attacking Ukrainian infrastructure in the spring of 2022, before it had depleted its stockpiles of precision-guided munitions. Timing is everything in war, and Ukraine has succeeded in part because Putin has consistently lagged in adapting to changed conditions.
Despite these failures, by June 2022, Russia’s assault in the Donbas was putting Ukraine under pressure. Ukrainian forces were at a tremendous artillery deficit; they absorbed heavy losses and were nearly enveloped near Severodonetsk. Western intervention again helped tip the balance. The provision of U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and M-270 multiple-launch rocket systems, as well as British-made M777 howitzers, offset Ukraine’s artillery disadvantage and—combined with highly accurate intelligence from Washington and other supporters—allowed Kyiv to launch devastating strikes against Russian ammunition dumps, command hubs, and logistics nodes. When the Russian offensive ground to a halt, Putin’s forces were so weak that they folded in the face of twin offensives that Ukraine later launched in Kharkiv and Kherson.
NOTHING SET IN STONE
Counterfactual history can help illuminate the future as well as the past. In this case, it underscores the degree to which Ukrainian success has turned on factors that are not guaranteed to persist. For one thing, Ukraine has enjoyed a remarkable degree of social and political cohesion since the war’s early days. But that cohesion could be tested in the coming year, as the war drags on and Ukraine’s elite looks ahead to presidential elections in March 2024. And as Ukraine’s politics grow more fractious, sound decision-making—on issues as fundamental as where and when to launch future offensives—could become more difficult.
Similarly, Ukraine has benefitted tremendously from Russia’s poor planning, difficulty adjusting to battlefield setbacks, and political leadership that has struggled to grasp the extent of the challenges it confronts. If Moscow’s performance improves even modestly, Kyiv could face a whole new war.
No one should rule this out. Militaries in even the most repressive societies can learn, and Russia may be fighting a smarter, if still quite savage, war than it was last year. Having first minimized the invasion and promised Russians that it would not affect their lives, Putin has finally acknowledged that a long, consuming war lies ahead. His military is preparing layered defenses in occupied areas while building up newly mobilized forces and carrying out vicious infrastructure attacks meant to grind down Ukraine’s economy and exhaust its air defenses. Its winter offensive around Bakhmut has resulted in egregious Russian losses, but, as the military analyst Michael Kofman has noted, it has also deprived Kyiv of the initiative and traded expendable Russian forces—especially convicts—for higher-value Ukrainian personnel.
Just because Ukraine hasn’t lost the war doesn’t mean that it has won. A range of futures are still possible, if not equally likely, from an outright Ukrainian victory resulting in the liberation of all occupied territory to a scenario in which Russia hangs on to substantial parts of Ukraine for the foreseeable future to an escalation into direct confrontation between Russia and NATO.
There is also a warning for Washington in this analysis: the heaviest burdens may still lie ahead. Ukraine has survived so far because the United States and its allies have dramatically reduced the power disparity between Kyiv and Moscow and ensured that Putin can’t simply escalate or batter his way out of the conflict. Yet as Russia mobilizes more manpower and economic resources—while also importing drones, artillery, and other capabilities from Iran and North Korea—the cost of helping Kyiv stay ahead in this contest will increase. Witness the recent decision by several NATO countries to provide Ukraine with battle tanks, an episode that may simply presage the need for other advanced capabilities, whether longer-range missiles or fourth-generation fighter aircraft, in the months ahead.
Finally, if the outcome of the war is not set in stone, neither are the contours of the world that the war will make. The conflict’s result will shape the perceived efficacy of autocracy and democracy, the degree of security that NATO enjoys on its eastern front, and the level of Russian influence over its neighbors. On these and other issues, the implications of a war that results in a resounding Russian defeat will be different than those of a war that ends with Russian troops occupying significant parts of Ukraine, with Moscow possessing the ability to renew hostilities when it wishes. The latter outcome might not look like such a triumph for the free world, after all. There are still other scenarios, such as a Chinese decision to aid Moscow more directly, that could change the global landscape dramatically. The war in Ukraine offers a variety of lessons, but perhaps the most crucial one is this: global order is neither inherently robust nor inherently fragile. It has exactly as much strength as those who value it can muster—and sustain—when it is tested.
Hal Brands is Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a co-author of Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China.