Why the glum faces? Why are policymakers and analysts suddenly persuaded that Ukraine is on the brink of losing its war with Russia and falling victim to its predations?
After all, little has changed on the frontline since the summer, when optimism reigned. But now the talk is all of stalemate, deadlock and stalled offensives.
Why should stalemate suddenly connote defeat? The indisputable fact is that Ukraine, which was expected to fold in a few weeks, is not only alive, but it’s also managed to push Russia from half the territory it seized in the first few weeks of the war. While these gains may fall short of our hopes and expectations, they are not sufficient to produce the palpable despondence spreading throughout the West.
To be sure, the Ukrainians’ much heralded offensive failed to produce a breakthrough. As a result, the Kremlin has adopted a cocky tone and reportedly has developed plans for seizing all of Ukraine by 2026. And yes, the U.S. Congress is dithering about more aid for Ukraine.
But the absence of a breakthrough does not spell disaster, all the more so as Ukraine has for several months effectively pursued the defensive strategy that Western policymakers are only now suggesting it adopt. Russia was even more insufferably arrogant before it invaded in early 2022, so the Kremlin’s mood is ultimately meaningless as a barometer of capacity. And, finally, does anyone seriously believe the U.S. won’t reach some accommodation over borders and Ukraine aid? It may be late and Ukrainians will unnecessarily die, but it will come.
What, then, has tipped the Western mood from optimism to pessimism, even as, objectively, there are few grounds for such a shift? One reason is that our expectations and hopes were unrealistically exalted. We wanted the Russians to be smashed, but we ignored two simple facts: Russia had built extensive defensive networks that would not be easy to breach in any circumstances and the West had failed to provide Ukraine with the weapons needed to do so.
Instead, we assumed that, just as the Ukrainians had fairly easily driven the Russians from Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Kherson provinces, so, too, they would work their magic again along the entire front. Even a non-military expert could have concluded that those kinds of miracles don’t happen. Now the dominant view is that the war may last for two or more years, a prospect that unnerves the West as much as it does Ukraine.
Another reason for the change in mood is what appears to be Donald Trump’s irresistible march toward a second term. It’s bad enough that he may in the process destroy American democracy, but there’s also the possibility that he may set out to destroy NATO, empower Russia and thereby, wittingly or unwittingly, strangle Ukraine. The good news is that none of these alarmist scenarios will happen overnight. Which means that American democracy, like Ukraine, has until mid-2025 to deal with Trump’s challenge. Of course, given his unpredictability, it’s also possible that Trump will arm Ukraine to the teeth and push it to invade Russia.
Meanwhile, as all these mood swings are taking place, Ukraine is actually in the advantageous position of defending its territory and not advancing. Its casualties will decline, while those of Russia will increase. As of today, Ukrainian forces are killing about 1,000 Russians daily. If they can sustain that kill rate — and there is no reason why they cannot, especially if Western aid is forthcoming and Ukraine abjures risky offensive strategies — it would translate into 365,000 Russian deaths annually. That goal may be unrealistic, but 150,000 annually is not, as it roughly corresponds to Ukraine’s kill rate over the last two years.
It was in just this spirit that the Estonian Ministry of Defence recently concluded that “The objective therefore should be to inflict a sustained rate of attrition of at least 50,000 killed and severely wounded Russian troops per six months to consistently degrade the quality of Russian force,” thereby “increasing the risk of domestic strife for the Russian regime.”
The last point about domestic strife is central. Russian President Vladimir Putin is reported to be willing to sacrifice 100,000 soldiers over the next two years. Ukraine can easily accommodate him, but the question is: Can the Russians? Do they really want the number of killed and maimed fathers, sons and brothers to approach a million? Do businesspeople want their work force to be so seriously depleted? Do generals want to see their armed forces reduced by half?
Independent Russian and Western analysts point to rumblings of discontent among mothers and wives of soldiers; to fissures within the elites, with some supporting Putin and others fearing he’s leading the country to disaster; to a weakening economy in which military-related sectors are booming while consumer goods sectors are in decline and the price of eggs is going through the roof.
It’s in this light that Putin’s recent overtures to the West need to be seen. He told a reporter that Russia would never attack a NATO country; at his press conference on Dec. 14 he seemed to suggest he wanted to improve relations with America. It’s important to note that, while seemingly offering olive branches, Putin has only reinforced his genocidal plans for Ukraine. What, then, is going on?
Obviously, Putin wouldn’t mind a deal with the West whereby he retains the territories he’s seized and remains unpunished, while Ukraine agrees to a ceasefire that enables him to lick his wounds, rearm and prepare to launch another attack. Some Western analysts and policymakers would like Ukraine to agree. That’ll never happen, because Ukrainians aren’t in the mood for suicide — and if they have to die, they would prefer to go down fighting.
Putin knows all this, of course, which means that his olive branches aren’t signs of a sudden desire for peace on his part. Rather, they demonstrate his realization that the most he can hope to attain is a few square kilometers here and there, but no more. Meanwhile, he’ll get reelected president in March and there’ll be absolutely no one else to blame for the steadily deteriorating conditions of life in Russia and the massive numbers of Russian dead and walking dead.
Putin, in a word, is in trouble, and he knows it. One had only to view his uneven performance during the marathon press conference to see that he’s lost his way.
Ironically, it’s Putin, and not the West, who should be depressed. If Ukraine can maintain the status quo, it will have won, though more modestly than it would have hoped. If Russia cannot alter the status quo significantly, it will have lost, far more significantly than it could have expected. And the seemingly cocksure Putin doubtless knows that.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”
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