This summer’s Ukraine offensive has gone slower than many hoped. It is already September. Soon, the weather will cool. Precipitation will make advancement harder. At some point, probably by November, the war will halt for the winter. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested that the Ukrainian offensive will continue even as the weather turns. That may be commentary more for Western audiences – particularly to assist Ukraine’s Western defenders to argue that the war is still winnable – than a realistic assessment.
The much hoped-for Ukrainian breakthrough this year was supposed to help silence that discussion. Instead, its slow course has brought it back. Once again the West is debating an end to the war via negotiations. Because Russian President Vladimir Putin has no intention of negotiating, the Western debate, in effect, is whether to force Ukraine to make concessions. This discussion has occurred before. Last year, Henry Kissinger and others suggested that Ukraine let Russia keep its conquests in exchange for ending the war.
But the fundamentals behind Western support have not really changed, and Ukraine still stands a decent chance of pushing Russia out in the next year or two.
Russia is the Aggressor, and Brutal
The most obvious reason to continue to support Ukraine is that it is the object of naked territorial aggression and humanitarian punishment.
Putin aims to dismember Ukraine, and he has casually used force against civilians. Russia has shelled and rocketed Ukrainian civilian areas throughout the war. Zelensky has appropriately called this a terror campaign, for it serves no strategic or military purpose. It is pure cruelty against hapless civilians. Russia has also brutalized the areas it has occupied, raping and killing civilians and kidnapping children.
It is often suggested that the US invaded Iraq in a war of choice and that this is Russia’s equivalent. There is something to this critique, and indeed, the US should learn from its Iraq disaster to never engage in such recklessness again. But the comparison is also shallow. The US removed the tyrannical regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan to institute more liberal ones and then departed. This may have calamitously overestimated America’s ability to export democracy by force, but critically, the goal of these wars was not imperial domination or national elimination. Putin’s war against Ukraine is that. Putin has been quite clear that he believes Ukraine is fake country, and he has been willing to kill Ukrainian noncombatants in large numbers to make that point. Ukraine is very obviously a sympathetic case for Western assistance.
Ukraine Will Fight On Even if the West Cuts It Off
The most curious element of Western ‘peace’ discourse is the belief that the West can push Russia or Ukraine to a deal. Putin has made it obvious he does not wish to negotiate. Ukraine and NATO have sent out various feelers, and Putin has not responded seriously.
Zelensky too, supported by Ukrainian public opinion, shows little interest in dealing or bargaining at this time. Neither party has reached what international relations theorists call a ‘mutually hurting stalemate.’
That is, both parties still believe they can win and do not wish to concede anything now. In Zelensky’s case, he could not bargain much, even if he wanted to. Ukrainian public opinion supports the war, and the public would turn against him if he were to make concessions.
This means that if Western support were to flag because of the struggling offensive, ‘peace’ would be once again pursued at the expense of the Ukrainians. The West only has leverage over Ukraine, by virtue of its assistance to that country. Withholding that assistance could force Ukraine to the table. Any deal to end the war at this point would, in practice, mean Western coercion of the war’s victim Ukraine. This grossly immoral and wrong – the West would be forcing Ukraine to lose – which is why so few peace advocates explicitly say this.
There is a lot of large talk about diplomacy, but that means de facto NATO bullying Ukraine. Indeed, this is what Russia is hoping for in next year’s US presidential race. If former President Donald Trump is re-elected, he will indeed cut-off Ukraine for his ‘friend’ Putin. Peace will mean Ukrainian defeat. ‘Peace’ advocates should at least be honest about that.
Ukraine Can Still Win
Despite this year’s underwhelming results, Ukraine still has a path to victory.
It has slowed this year’s push to once again focus on attriting Russian forces and logistics. This conserves Ukrainian capabilities while degrading Russia’s. Russia is large and can bring much material to the theater. But force reduction will eventually take its toll. Ukraine is slowly being well-equipped by the West, while Russia is scraping the bottom of the barrel by soliciting the North Koreans for help. Sanctions on Russia make it hard to reconstitute its forces with modern weapons. And Ukraine’s will to fight is high, where Russia has had to rely on conscription.
In time, this correlation of forces will favor Ukraine. The West got too excited for a breakthrough this year because of Ukraine’s lightning successes last year. But Ukraine can still win the long slog the war is turning into.