Ukraine can still recover with bolder Western support – but right now it’s on the ropes

The Ukrainian world heavyweight boxing champion beat back a giant opponent, but his country can’t defeat Russia on its own

Ivan Liashko, service member of the 13th Operative Purpose Brigade ‘Khartiia’ of the National Guard of Ukraine and a D-20 howitzer crew commander, fires towards Russian troops, amid Russia’s attack on Ukriane, in a front line in Kharkiv Region, Ukraine May 21, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
A Ukrainian howitzer crew commander fires towards Russian troops in the Kharkiv Region of Ukraine, May 21, 2024
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | Valentyn Ogirenko

As I contemplate a forest of small Ukrainian flags on the Maidan in central Kyiv, placed there by bereaved relatives as a memorial to the war dead, I’m accosted by a burly Ukrainian soldier in combat uniform. He’s with the elite 95th Air Assault Brigade and he has been fighting Russian aggression for more than a decade. “At the moment of victory,” he tells me, “please pour the first glass on to the ground for those who have fallen.”

Gesturing to the seemingly normal life around us in the Ukrainian capital, with young people drinking at nice cafes, almost as though this were Paris or Vienna, he says, “Every peaceful day here costs a lot of lives at the front.” But he chokes up on the last words and his eyes fill with tears. “Sorry, sorry!” he exclaims, embarrassed by this moment of weakness. Then he grips my hand one more time, grasps the straps of his khaki rucksack, and marches off through the civilian crowd like a ghost from the trenches of the first world war.

The mood in Ukraine is sombre these days. The casualties keep mounting. In the military cemetery in Lviv, I see widows and bereaved mothers sitting silently beside the fresh graves of their loved ones, heads bowed, a life sentence of suffering etched on their faces. Medical experts estimate that at least half the population is suffering from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Vladimir Putin’s forces are grinding forward, using their numerical advantages and exploiting the slowness of the West to supply sufficient air defence and ammunition. They have opened a new front north of Kharkiv, which is closer to the Russian frontier than London is to Oxford. It’s feared that Russian forces will now get within artillery range of the besieged city, which is already being pounded by Russian missiles, drones, and glide bombs. Only yesterday, I learned that the printing plant in Kharkiv where the Ukrainian edition of my book “Homelands” was recently printed has been hit, with people killed and wounded. Russia’s main purpose seems to be to stretch the roughly 1,000km-long frontline so that, as Ukraine diverts troops to defend Kharkiv, Putin’s army can push forward in the east, taking more of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces that he already claims are irrevocably part of the Russian Federation. One Western military expert says this is a “moment of jeopardy” for Ukraine.

Major Andriy Pidlisnyi, a battalion commander who’s been on active service since the first days of the full-scale war, tells me the mood among his troops is “not good”. And, he adds, “They think it’s time for others to go and fight.” But where are those others? A hotly contested law reducing the conscription age to 25 finally came into force last week, but wherever I turn I hear stories of young Ukrainian men trying to avoid the draft.

Russian aerial assaults have destroyed nearly half the country’s energy-generating capacity. Even now, in summer, people experience frequent power cuts. One expert estimates that, at current capacity, many Ukrainians could experience power cuts of up to 12 hours a day next winter – and the winters here are bitterly cold.

There is growing anger towards the West for not doing enough, fast enough, to enable the country to defend itself. One senior government minister told me US Congress “will never be forgiven by the Ukrainian people” for the endless delay in voting the latest round of support for Ukraine. There is also nagging unhappiness with the performance of the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, whose term would have ended on 20 May were the country not under martial law, and especially with the presidential administration headed by his powerful enforcer, Andriy Yermak. Several separate sources told me that Zelensky, the former TV star, obsessively studies his ratings – and those are gradually going down.

There is growing anger towards the West for not doing enough, fast enough, to enable the country to defend itself

Interestingly, one criticism I heard repeatedly is that he continues to feed unrealistic hopes of total victory – that is, the reconquest of all Ukraine’s sovereign territory in its 1991 frontiers, including Crimea. Even senior officials privately give a more cautious definition of victory. “Publicly, I support what the president says,” one told me. “Unpublicly, I think we should survive as an independent Western state that has the possibility of development.” And everyone is deeply worried about what Donald Trump will do if re-elected president of the United States on 5 November.

Under the pressure of terrible losses, exhaustion, trauma, and concerns about dwindling Western support, public opinion has also shifted a little. At the end of last year, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology offered respondents two options for what Ukraine should do if “the West significantly cuts aid”. A clear majority of 58 per cent said the country should go on fighting, even with “risks for the territories controlled by Ukraine”. However, 32 per cent preferred the second option: “The hostilities cease with serious security guarantees from the West, but the liberation of the [Russian-occupied] territories is postponed for the indefinite future.”

Note that this is only in the case of slashed Western aid and only with serious security guarantees. What territory is lost will be crucial to the popular verdict. It’s one thing to compromise over Crimea and the parts of the Donbas occupied by Russia since 2014; quite another to sacrifice the vast swathes of Ukrainian land between the two, where some 2.5 million people had their homes and livelihoods before the full-scale invasion. The bigger the territorial compromise, the stronger would have to be the immediate Western guarantees of security, and the more credible the prospect of EU and NATO membership in a not distant and uncertain future. Even in that case, many Ukrainians would still be furious at their own government for negotiating what they would see as defeat, and lastingly bitter against the West for effectively compelling them to accept it.

So, Ukraine is on the ropes. Using that boxing metaphor, one immediately thinks of the new world heavyweight champion, the Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk, who was seemingly down and out under the ferocious assault of the giant Tyson Fury, but then came back to win on points at the end of a brutal 12 rounds. A narrow victory in 12 rounds, not a knockout blow in the fifth, is the best that Usyk’s homeland can hope for now.

The big difference is this: unlike the boxer, Ukraine can’t possibly defeat a larger opponent on its own. It needs more and bolder military support from the West right now, so it can put Putin Fury on the ropes. Then, and only then, can Ukraine get to the point where it may achieve an outcome that a majority of its own people will regard as victory, and most Russians as defeat. That should be the West’s objective too.

This article was first published in the Guardian on 24 May 2024.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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