For too long, the global democratic coalition supporting Kyiv has focused on what it should not do in the invasion of Ukraine. Its main aims include not letting Ukraine lose and not letting Russian President Vladimir Putin win—but also not allowing the war to escalate to a point where Russia attacks a NATO country or conducts a nuclear strike. These, however, are less goals than vague intentions, and they reflect the West’s deep confusion about how the conflict should end. More than seven months into the war, the United States and Europe still lack a positive vision for Ukraine’s future.
The West clearly believes that Kyiv’s fight is just, and it wants Ukraine to succeed. But it is not sure yet whether Ukraine is strong enough to retake all its territory. Many Western leaders still believe that the Russian military is too large to be defeated. This thinking has led the members of the pro-Ukrainian coalition to define only their interim strategic military goals. They have not plotted out the political consequences that would come from a complete Russian military collapse.
It is time to start: Ukraine can win big. The country has proved again and again that it is capable of routing Russia. It first did so by preventing Russia from seizing Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and the Black Sea coastline. It succeeded again by halting Russia’s concentrated offensive in the Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region comprising Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces, part of which Russia has occupied since 2014. Most recently, Ukraine retook Kharkiv Province in less than a week, broke through Russia’s defensive lines in the south, and began liberating parts of the east.
The West must join Kyiv in aiming for an unequivocal Ukrainian victory. It should recognize that Ukraine’s military is not just more motivated than Russia’s but also better led and better trained. To win, Ukraine doesn’t need a miracle; it just needs the West to increase its supply of sophisticated weaponry. Ukrainian forces can then move deeper and faster into enemy lines and overrun more of Russia’s disorganized troops. Putin may respond by calling up additional soldiers, but poorly motivated forces can only delay a well-equipped Ukraine’s eventual triumph. Putin will then be out of conventional tools to forestall losing.
Outside analysts worry that before facing defeat, Putin would try to inflict massive civilian casualties on Ukraine, seeking to coerce the Ukrainian government into making concessions or even into surrendering. He might do so, Western analysts fear, by continuously targeting densely populated areas in Ukrainian cities with long-range missiles—as he has done this week—or through carpet-bombing raids. But Putin lacks the resources to truly level Ukrainian cities. Russia’s remaining inventory of conventional missiles and bombs is large enough to cause substantial damage, but it is not big enough to destroy swaths of Ukraine. And Ukraine has already proved that it will fight on even when Russia reduces cities to rubble. Putin destroyed Mariupol, ruined large parts of Kharkiv, and launched thousands of strikes on other cities and regions. The damage just made Ukrainians more committed to victory and closed off chances for negotiated settlements.
Many Westerners also fear that Putin might act on his threats to use nuclear weapons. But the West can intimidate Putin in ways that will deter him from seriously contemplating such an attack, and a nuclear strike might turn all global powers, not just the United States and Europe, against him. It is ultimately unlikely that Putin will go nuclear. But if he does, the West must make sure that his plan backfires. [Continue reading…]