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 counteroffensive 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’s 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”. [Continue reading…]