Tuning into Russian state television on February 24, 2022, you would have heard Russian President Vladimir Putin lambaste Ukraine for subjecting the “bullied” people of Ukraine’s Donbas region to “genocide” and “bloody crimes.” You would have heard him declare his intent to be that people’s savior.

“I decided to conduct a special military operation,” he declared, with “aims to protect” as his pretext.

Moments later – if you were in Ukraine – you would have heard the first sounds of war: explosions and sirens declaring an invasion had begun.

The West’s condemnation came swiftly. Putin was in violation of international law. His attack was, in the words of President Joe Biden, “unprovoked and unjustified.”

“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies… will respond in a united and decisive way,” Mr. Biden vowed. “The world will hold Russia accountable.”

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had previously cautioned Russia: “When you attack, you will see our faces and not our spines, our faces.”

He was right.

In fact, he was more right than anyone at the time probably could have imagined.

Today, one year, billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost later, the war in Ukraine still wages on and is, in fact, – according to some – bloodier than ever before.

And the end is nowhere in sight.

Of course, the war was supposed to be short-lived. But the world had underestimated the fierce resiliency of the Ukrainian people or, perhaps, overestimated Putin’s strength.

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To understand where the war stands today for Russia, we must first understand something about Putin. He has to win this war. He at least has to get something “gainful” out of it; something to convince his people that the returns were worth the price tag. For him, there can be no other option. After propping himself up as a hero – likening himself to Peter the Great – and sending thousands of Russians to their deaths, to bow out with nothing would be irrevocably damaging to his reputation and pride – in a way the West cannot fully understand. Many worry he would rather go nuclear than suffer such humiliation.

Putin reportedly believed the war would only last a couple of weeks. Ukraine was supposed to be an easy target; Kyiv was supposed to fall quickly. A mere two days after the war began,  U.S. intelligence officials were already informing journalists that Putin could have a “puppet state” in place of Zelensky’s government “within days.”

“The military may last slightly longer,” one intelligence officer allegedly told Newsweek, “but this isn’t going to last long.”

Such predictions proved to be woefully wrong, of course. Putin’s plans to erect a “marionette government” in Kyiv were quickly frustrated. Some reports suggest that in less than a month, his goals had already shifted to simply “liberating” Donbas – his purported rationale for launching the invasion, to begin with.

Although Russia secured a few victories over the summer of 2022 – including the capture of Mariupol, a notable city located between the previously annexed Crimea and Donbas region – they came at a great price, seriously exhausting Russian forces. Not only was Kyiv still far from Putin’s grasp, but maps reveal that, from about August onward, his army was actually repelled from its furthest points of military occupation.

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Having made so little progress after a year, it is staggering to imagine how long this war might last if Putin keeps on until he takes Kyiv. On the other hand, if Russia is too committed to back down, the same is certainly true of Ukraine.

The people of Ukraine have paid dearly for their freedoms and have signaled their refusal to accept Russian occupation under any terms. Their army has successfully staved off Putin’s dominance; however, it seems unlikely they could ever push Russia out of Ukraine altogether. This has put both nations at an impasse – albeit a very violent one.

Will Putin, tail between his legs, admit defeat? Will Ukraine capitulate? Neither option seems likely. Yet neither nation seems to have the wherewithal to win decisively, either. What, then, is the endgame?

It behooves the West to answer this question – and to answer it yesterday.

Even as President Zelensky drags us into ever-deeper levels of support, we must define our objective. Further, we must know how – and if – we can obtain it without escalating the conflict. Just this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that China may be on the verge of providing Russia with lethal support. If this happens, and if the U.S. truly is “fully committed” to Ukraine, as Biden says we are, it is foreseeable that we could be drawn into an armed conflict with China.

Such a lose-lose situation is born only out of poor, haphazard leadership.

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What we see now, after a year, is that the West has no plan. We never had a plan. Out of the commendable goodness of our hearts, we rushed into backing Zelensky, but we had no off-ramp. Seemingly, no one had an off-ramp. The world today is a tinderbox. Our best-case scenario (that Russia is pushed out of Ukraine completely) is only accomplishable by means (increased U.S. and Western support) that very well may bring about the worst-case scenario (armed, global conflict between nuclear superpowers). Even if China does not get involved, the possibility that Putin might prefer to unleash his nuclear arsenal than accept defeat should be enough to make us extremely wary.

Meanwhile, as Americans continue to debate what our role in the war should be, the people of Ukraine continue to suffer and die. The number of casualties is shockingly high. Even children are being slaughtered. And while there is no easy next step, may we pray that the war ends swiftly.

God only knows where we will go from here. May the West be ready.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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