How an “Endless War” Begins
Yaroslav Trofimov’s new book offers key lessons from the first year of the Ukraine war for how to end wars and prevent them from happening.
The contours of America’s debate over foreign policy have shifted dramatically over the past three decades. The dominant frame of foreign policy debates in the 1990s, triumphalism about democracy, globalization, and free markets, came to an end with the 9/11 attacks.
At the start of the 2010s, the discussion moved away from the “global war on terror” and the effort to spread freedom and democracy and towards a more fragmented and inward-looking discussion about global affairs, one characterized by more self-doubt in America about its role in the world than perhaps ever before.
This transformation inside of America’s foreign policy debate occurred around the same time as shifts in geopolitical tectonic plates happened: China steadily took steps to play a bigger role in the global arena and economy while Russia played a more assertive role in sowing division and gridlock in democracies in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. Add to that mix the rise of a range of complicated, borderless transnational issues like climate change, terrorism, immigration, and cybersecurity.
In this new, confusing landscape in the politics of U.S. national security, debates became more polemical and caustic, with increasingly niche foreign policy camps advocating divergent agendas that undercut America’s sense of purpose in the world. Years of costly combat operations by the U.S. military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to a new isolationist mood on the left and the right that called to “end endless wars,” as if military conflicts around the world were simply the product of bad decisions made in Washington, D.C.
Our Enemies Will Vanish: The Russian Invasion and Ukraine’s War of Independence, Yaroslav Trofimov’s riveting account covering the first year of Russia’s war against Ukraine and Ukraine’s efforts to fight back in order to preserve its independence, offers a vivid reminder that “endless wars” don’t just happen by accident. They’re the result of actions by extremist forces determined to obliterate others who they see as a challenge to who they are and what they stand for, as well as indifference, inaction, or slow responses from the outside world.
Trofimov, the chief foreign affairs correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, takes the reader to the frontlines of Ukraine’s battlefields, providing important insights into why these fights matter in the bigger picture along the way. As the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches next month and a seemingly endless debate over continued U.S. military support to Ukraine remains stuck in Congress, this is an important book to read. Offering firsthand accounts across several fronts in Ukraine’s fight for freedom and independence, Trofimov shows both the strategic and human costs of this conflict—and why it matters that the United States and European partners continue to offer Kyiv the crucial support it needs to fight on.
In telling the story of the first year of the Ukraine war, Our Enemies Will Vanish in its own way made me think of three key ingredients that contribute to long, costly wars.
Ingredient One: A Ruthless Dictator or Extremist Group Willing to Murder and Break All the Rules
The first and most essential ingredient in starting an endless war is sometimes forgotten in America’s solipsistic foreign policy debate: the actions of brutal autocrats and retrograde extremist movements using military force and terrorism to change political realities and crush their opponents. This ingredient is certainly present inside today’s Russia led by Vladimir Putin, but it also exists in many of the conflicts we all see unfolding around the world today. And it is also a feature in some extremist political movements at home, those so strident in their own views that they are unwilling to compromise with others and lean towards violent action to advance their worldviews.
Trofimov describes the scale of atrocities that Russia committed against innocent civilians and combatants alike, at times up close with horrific details, such as the killing of hundreds of civilians by dropping bombs on a drama theater with the Russian word for “CHILDREN” painted in large white letters in front of the entrance. Ordinary Ukrainians are tortured by Russian soldiers, while others have their heads bashed in with a sledgehammer.
Our Enemies Will Vanish reminds me of another book based on reporting from the frontlines of a different war that still continues, Syria’s civil war. Sam Dagher’s 2019 book Assad or We Burn the Country depicts how a vicious, autocratic state murdered hundreds of thousands of its own people. In that forgotten war, the Syrian government is still murdering its own people as the conflict’s 13th anniversary approaches, and many of the tools and tactics used in that war have been replicated in Ukraine over the past two years. In both Syria and Ukraine, Russia deliberately used methods designed to dehumanize and eliminate its opponents and target innocent civilians. Intentional human carnage is the strategy.
These harsh military tactics, combined with assertive disinformation campaigns, are designed to instill a sense of helplessness in those countries targeted by war and a sense of hopelessness and resignation in countries like the United States about any action they might take to help people defend themselves.
Most endless wars today start with leaders and groups willing to break all of the rules of war and shock outsiders into indifference about what might be done.
Ingredient Two: A Clash of National Identities
As Trofimov reminds readers early on, the current war in Ukraine is a struggle for independence and power, and it has deep roots in the country’s history:
Internal strife has repeatedly caused national catastrophes throughout Ukrainian history, as political rivals engaged in petty intrigues and sought foreign help, forfeiting their country’s independence.
Born and raised in Kyiv, Trofimov knows these debates over national identity as well as he knows the streets of the capital city and key landmarks and regions of the country. He deploys his deep background knowledge of this context in key moments without tripping up the fast-paced narrative portraying events on the battlefield and in the halls of power in Europe and Washington, D.C. He reminds readers:
The word ‘Russia’ comes from the Kyiv Rus principality, a state established in the ninth century by Viking princes who sailed down the Dnipro [River] on their way to seek Byzantium’s riches. Modern Ukrainians consider it as their country’s rightful heritage. So do the Russians, a claim that turns the very presence of a separate and independent Ukraine into an existential threat to Russia’s foundational narrative.
Just weeks into the war, Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency published an article arguing that “Ukrainism is an artificial anti-Russian construct without its own civilizational content.” Former Russian president and prolific social media user Dmitry Medvedev also argued that the Ukrainian state would suffer the same fate as the Nazi Third Reich. Trofimov describes the mindset among Russia’s power elite as a “new, brazen, thuggish imperialism,” but notes that its ambitions “were ludicrously out of sync with Russia’s abilities.”
Ukraine’s resilience as a country to withstand a full-scale Russian invasion in this first year was in large part due to a strong sense of national identity that helped Ukrainians rally together against the common enemy. The title of the book comes from a line in Ukraine’s national anthem:
Our enemies will vanish
Like dew at sunrise,
And we, oh brothers, will become the masters once again
Of our own land.
Longer-term efforts to shift the Ukrainian military toward NATO standards and away from Soviet-style doctrine, which helped make Ukraine’s forces adaptable by not being overly centralized, were another big factor in mounting a strong defense in the early days of the war.
The sense that Ukrainians are fighting for their own freedom and that their battle is connected to a wider fight draws many people from other countries into the battlefield. Some of these figures make cameo appearances in the book, like a medic from Tennessee who was part of the Ukraine’s International Legion or wealthy entrepreneurs and businessmen financially underwriting volunteer self-defense units that sprung up in Ukraine. The idea of fighting for freedom remains a beacon to many around the world.
The strong sense of nationalism, along with the history and stories that are crafted to reinforce those identities, are the rocket fuel that often propel these endless wars. These narratives make it difficult for diplomacy on a negotiated solution to succeed, because it involves on some level negotiating a party’s own national identity, and this makes some conflicts hard to resolve, no matter how loudly anti-war protestors might call for ceasefires or chant “end endless wars” at protests on the other side of the world.
Ingredient Three: Ignorance, Apathy, and Wishful Thinking in Open Societies
The third key ingredient for an endless war is found in the power centers of the West, where a mix of ignorance, apathy, and wishful thinking about the world have benefitted inchoate political and advocacy movements focused on exceptionally narrow issues rather than the bigger, global picture.
After Russia invaded and occupied Crimea and other territory in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Obama administration “saw no reason to get involved beyond mild sanctions” and refused to provide any weapons to Kyiv. From Trofimov’s perspective. “Obama focused on working with Moscow to achieve his foreign policy priority, the Iran nuclear deal.” When Russia intervened on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war in 2015, moreover, the Obama administration assessed it would result in “a messy quagmire akin to the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan.” But ironically Putin decided to invade Ukraine in 2022 after seeing America as impotent after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan the previous summer.
The Biden administration stepped up its engagement to support Ukraine before the war began, sending top officials to warn Russia’s leaders against the invading and trying to convince Ukrainian and European leaders that a war was likely to start. President Biden expended a great deal of political capital at home in 2022 making the case for supporting Ukraine’s defense, and he did so while managing a crowded foreign policy and domestic agenda during a midterm election year.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian leaders including President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders have made clear their frustrations about what they see as slow and reactive military support coming from Europe and the United States. In an interview with Trofimov, the head of Ukrainian intelligence explains:
If someone thinks we must have restrictions on some types of weapons, I would like to remind them that Russia uses here absolutely all the types of weapons in its possessions, from cruise missiles launched by submarines to strategic bombers. The entire spectrum of Russian arms has been employed here, except nuclear weapons, so far.
It’s that “so far” about nuclear weapons that has worried President Biden and some of his top officials. In late September 2022, Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan went on network television in America to make public warnings already delivered privately to Russia about the severe consequences if Russia used nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This fear of a wider escalation is why the Biden administration has imposed red lines on itself and often given Ukraine military equipment after months of refusing to do so.
Self-deterrence, designed to avoid a wider and deadlier conflict, ironically may end up prolonging this conflict, and leave Ukraine and its supporters one step behind Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. Ukraine ended the first year of the war still independent, but also still without key parts of its territory lost to Russia’s invasion in the years since 2014.
This is a book that should be read by those who are concerned about wars around the world and how to end them, and not just Ukraine’s conflict. Trofimov’s account of the first year of the war in Ukraine gives the reader a sense of the complexities of ending conflicts—it doesn’t involve simply arguing for a peaceful resolution diplomacy based on wishful thinking, and ending wars certainly doesn’t come from simply shrugging our shoulders and fatalistically labeling conflicts as a “forever war.” Rather, the best way to end a war is to recognize the drivers of a particular conflict—to see what the core ingredients are—and take actions to deter and ultimately weaken the forces that sparked the war. Waging peace is sometimes as difficult as waging war.
Trofimov’s book ends in February 2023, a year after the war began, along with a short 4-page epilogue that covers most of the second year of the war. He closes the book on a mostly upbeat note, arguing that the fact that Ukraine remains independent and still fighting for its existence is a good sign.
What lies ahead in the third year of this war remains a big question mark, one made even bigger by the debates inside of the United States and Europe about their will to continue to support Ukraine’s defense. Much will depend on the current debates in Congress as well as the outcome of this November’s election in the United States. Indeed, Ukraine already faces shortages of U.S.-supplied arms and ammunition like Patriot air defense missiles—shortages that make it all the more difficult for Ukraine to defend itself against Russian attacks that have stepped up in recent weeks.
But one thing is clear after reading Our Enemies Will Vanish: Ukraine will fight on, even if it has to do so alone.