"The West feels gloomy about Ukraine. Here’s why it shouldn’t."
By David Ignatius, The Washington Post (July 18, 2023)
A Ukrainian national flag is seen alongside the NATO emblem in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 11. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)
An Israeli friend remarked the other day that optimists and pessimists die the same way, but optimists live better. In that spirit, let’s take a look at the situation in Ukraine.
A gloomy mood has been gathering this summer about the war. Partly, it’s a matter of perceptions: The Ukrainian counteroffensive has been advancing more slowly than many in the West had hoped, even though Ukraine is maintaining its deliberate strategy of patience; and the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, was contentious, despite a pro-Ukraine commitment by the alliance that continues to deepen.
The discontent is understandable but wrong. The middle of a conflict always tests people’s nerves. It feels like a tunnel; there’s a sense of fatigue and frustration; confidence sags, and combatants start blaming one another. This war-weariness might afflict Ukraine and its allies, but it’s vastly more evident in Russia. Ukraine might not be winning this war yet, but Russia is losing — and its leaders and people know it.
A midsummer accounting shows the severe price President Vladimir Putin has paid for his misadventure in Ukraine. Public anger in Russia spawned what Putin called an “armed mutiny” by renegade warlord Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Yet Putin is apparently afraid to punish Prigozhin and his Wagner Group militia, which has outperformed Russia’s battered regular army.
Putin’s army holds its defensive positions in Ukraine, hiding behind a blanket of mines. But the Russian army’s command and control is disintegrating. It is a mess that Putin seems unable to admit, let alone fix.
Russia is preparing a major new offensive of its own east of Kharkiv, according to a Ukrainian defense official. That could disrupt Ukrainian plans in the south, but, given past Russian performance, it isn’t likely to alter the balance of the war
Considering the failure of Russia’s conventional forces, there’s an obvious danger that Putin might turn to the domain in which Russia remains a superpower: nuclear weapons. But that would be even riskier for Russia than for the West. Any demonstration of Russia’s battlefield nuclear weapons would draw a devastating U.S. conventional military response — and probably cause the loss of China as an ally.
Meanwhile, for the United States and its NATO allies, these 18 months of war have been a strategic windfall, at relatively low cost (other than for the Ukrainians). The West’s most reckless antagonist has been rocked. NATO has grown much stronger with the additions of Sweden and Finland. Germany has weaned itself from dependence on Russian energy and, in many ways, rediscovered its sense of values. NATO squabbles make headlines, but overall, this has been a triumphal summer for the alliance.
The Ukraine battlefield is hard to assess from a distance. Reporting from the front lines offers searing evidence that the offensive has been a bloody slog against entrenched Russian forces. But Ukraine continues to advance slowly in the south and much of the east. Kyiv hasn’t achieved its goal of splitting the swath of Russian-occupied territory along the coast and putting Russian forces in Crimea at risk. But operations such as Monday’s strike on the Kerch Strait Bridge show that Russia’s hold is vulnerable.
How can Ukraine advance further, to a position from which it could bargain for a peace deal from strength? Pentagon officials keep reminding me that for all the angst about the slow pace of the offensive, Ukraine still hasn’t committed the bulk of its mobile forces. It’s watching for weak points in Russian lines where it can punch through.
A measure of the difficult battle ahead came Tuesday from Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I think there’s a lot of fighting left to go, and I’ll stay with what we said before: This is going to be long. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be bloody.”
Ukrainian commanders say they need two more things to succeed. Given the stakes in this war, it’s a mistake not to provide them. The first is longer-range missiles, known as ATACMs, that can strike at Russian command and logistical centers deep in the rear. The Ukrainians’ strategy is to disrupt this Russian command and logistical network, and we should give them more tools — with the proviso that the missiles shouldn’t hit targets in Russia (or, for now, occupied Crimea)
Ukraine’s second requirement is better air defense and protection from Russian air attacks. F-16s won’t be much help this year, but there’s other equipment in the NATO arsenal that Ukraine could use, perhaps including helicopters and ground-attack planes. U.S. commanders will know the right mix of weapons, but Washington’s rule of thumb should be to provide every weapon now that we would wish we had sent if the offensive fails.
President Biden has always said this war should eventually be settled through negotiations, and as Ukraine advances, the administration should be working with partners to explore diplomatic options. It’s a measure of Russia’s weakness that some of Moscow’s friends, such as Turkey and China, seem increasingly interested in a negotiated settlement.
As the West helps Ukraine push forward, it should also begin to explore the terms under which a just settlement of this war might be possible. Ukraine will need security guarantees, but a radically weakened Russia will want assurances, too. The United Nations must be involved, perhaps with peacekeeping forces that can stabilize borders after Russia withdraws from occupied territory.
On the other side of this war is a better future for every party to the conflict, including an eventual post-Putin Russia. The thing about tunnels is that if you keep moving though them, darkness eventually gives way to light.