As you read this, thousands of young Ukrainian men and women are going through their last training drills, checking their weapons, and waiting for D-day. In the big Ukrainian counter-offensive that may start any time now, some of them will be killed and many more will be wounded. None will emerge unchanged. We thought we had said goodbye to all that in 1945, but this is Europe in 2023.
Nobody knows what will happen in this campaign. Nobody. But we can at least be clear what we want to happen – and firm in supporting the Ukrainians to achieve it. Decisive Ukrainian victory is now the only sure path to a lasting peace, a free Europe, and ultimately a better Russia. This alone would be the new VE Day.
Ukrainians have a theory of victory. It goes from success on the battlefield to change in Moscow. For preference, that would be a change of regime, getting rid of the war criminal in the Kremlin. But in the highly unlikely event that Vladimir Putin were to acknowledge his own failure and withdraw his troops, while still remaining in power, that would be victory too.
How do they think this might happen, given Russia’s dug-in defending forces and major advantages in numbers and air power? One answer is: the way it happened before in Russian history, with military setbacks triggering the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. If the Ukrainian army can push rapidly south to the Sea of Azov, encircle a large number of demoralised Russian forces, and cut the supply lines to the Crimean peninsula, there might be some non-linear collapse of Russian military morale on the ground and regime cohesion in Moscow.
Crimea is the key to this scenario. Ukrainians want to head for the peninsula (but not immediately try to occupy it) for precisely the reason that many Western policymakers wish them not to: because Crimea is the thing that really matters to Russia. They add that Ukraine can never have long-term security while Crimea is a giant Russian aircraft carrier pointed at its heart.
It’s a bold and risky theory of victory, but does anyone in the West have a better one? Many Western policymakers seem almost as afraid of Ukrainian success as they are of Ukrainian failure, fearing that Putin will escalate in response. So, they nourish a confused idea that there is a Goldilocks outcome – not too hot, not too cold – that will open the way to the nirvana of a ‘negotiated solution’. Or, more cynically (self-styled ‘realistically’), they are privately prepared for Ukraine to end up losing perhaps one-sixth of its sovereign territory, in a partition that they can call ‘peace’. But at best this would be a semi-frozen conflict, pending renewed war. Here we encounter, once again, the unrealism of ‘realism’.
Most Western military analysts think that Ukraine is unlikely to achieve a decisive victory, thus making moot the question of whether this would trigger the hoped-for political consequences in Moscow. If you have two exhausted armies, that favours defence over offence. Ukraine has great vulnerabilities in its air defences. The fact that there’s only one obvious path towards Crimea means that Russia is prepared to defend that line. (So it is possible Ukraine might try something else, but even taking back a substantial chunk of Donbas would not have the same psychological effect in Russia as a threat to Crimea.)
The counter-offensive can deploy nine new western-equipped and trained brigades, but these have a mix-and-match zoo of different western weapons and scant experience in the complex combined arms operations needed to overcome Russia’s defensive lines. Because capitals such as Washington and Berlin have been nervously pondering every item, the Ukrainians don’t have the quantity and quality of Western tanks, armoured vehicles, long-range missiles and fighter planes they might have had if the West had not held back for fear of escalation.
The next six months will be decisive. If, come next winter, Ukrainian forces are still bogged down halfway, the West may not deliver a comparable military boost for another offensive next spring. Beside objective difficulties in gearing up our defence industries, there might be waning political support, especially in the United States in the run-up to next autumn’s presidential election. There would then be disillusionment in Ukraine. Putin would still be in power. He could use his propaganda apparatus at home to sell his partial occupation of Ukrainian territory as a historical restoration of Catherine the Great’s empire.
The alternative, perhaps unlikely but still possible, is a decisive Ukrainian victory. Since that would mean a defeat that even Putin’s state lie-machine could not conceal, the path to victory would bring a moment of increased risk. Although nobody knows exactly what’s going on inside the Kremlin black box, intelligence-based analysis suggests that Putin has war-gamed and rejected the option of using tactical nuclear weapons, as this would bring no clear military advantage and alienate China and India. But the situation around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which was seized by Russia in February 2022 and around which the occupiers have now evacuated the local population, is extremely worrying. He also has other possible asymmetric responses, such as a cyber-attack or targeting a gas pipeline.
What should we do about this? Don’t be scared, be prepared. There is no risk-free way forward. Avoiding an immediate risk can mean creating larger risks down the road (which is the mistake the West made after 2014 when it allowed Russia to keep Crimea and negotiated the sticking plaster Minsk Agreement for occupied eastern Ukraine). These risks include not only recurrent armed conflict in Ukraine but also encouraging China to have a go at Taiwan. I’ve lost count of the number of times Ukrainians have said to me that the West’s biggest problem is fear. “The choice is between freedom and fear,” President Volodymyr Zelensky recently told the Atlantic. So we have to keep our nerve and show just a little of the fortitude that those thousands of young Ukrainians are demonstrating, as they prepare to risk their lives to defend their freedom.
I’m acutely aware of the need to avoid any hint of armchair heroism. Even if I travel to Ukraine occasionally during this war, I’m not taking a small fraction of the personal risk that Ukrainians face. Responsible governments must recognise, anticipate, and carefully weigh the real dangers of escalation. Prudence is not cowardice. But there’s also another thing to avoid: the woolly talk of ‘peace’ and ‘responsibility’, which actually means urging, or ultimately even compelling, other people to sacrifice their own homes, freedom, and security, so that citizens of countries such as Germany, France, or Italy can, if only in the short term, go on enjoying these things for themselves.
The West has done that many times before to people in central and eastern Europe. Let’s not do it again.
This article was first published on The Guardian on 10 May 2023.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.