January 3, 2023

The Hill


The long-predicted Ukrainian counteroffensive on the Zaporizhzhia front, or, rather, on Russia’s land bridge to Crimea, is currently stalled because of winter mud, but the whole Russian position along the Black Sea is hopeless.

It’s basically a strip of steppe along the coast, 150 miles long and 60 miles deep, with no natural obstacles and no road network for prolonged defense. Most of it is already within the reach of HIMARS, and the rest will be soon within the reach of other armaments. Strategically it is just as untenable as Kherson, and the Russian general staff is perfectly aware of that fact.

This is why they are digging trenches at the entrance to the Crimean peninsula. This is also why there is talk about attacking Kyiv from Belarus. With a hopeless position, you have just two options: an armistice or an offensive in some other place in order to divert the enemy’s forces.

The mud is the sole reason Ukraine is not advancing right now; it may well last until spring, but sooner or later the land bridge will be cut in two, leaving Russia with two heavily fortified territories captured from Ukraine: Crimea and Donbas.  It is crucial for the world, Ukraine and Russia what comes next.

Basically, there are two possible outcomes.

First: The U.S. gives Ukraine enough weapons to free Crimea and Donbas. This would be a blow that Putin would hardly survive. Putin’s regime falls, succeeded either by a civilian administration with the likes of Russian prime minister Mishustin, or Moscow mayor Sobyanin, who were careful not to exhibit too much enthusiasm for the war, or — more likely — by a short-lived junta. The first is preferable, but any of Putin’s successors would be keenly aware of the fact that the only option to survive is to sign a peace deal, acknowledge Ukrainian territorial integrity, and try to restore relations with the free world.

The most important point is that the future Russian government would not have to cede control over Crimea or Donbas — a move that could undermine its legitimacy with the Russian electorate, because they would already be gone, lost by Putin and his corrupt regime and inefficient army.

This scenario is a win for everybody. Ukraine gets back its territory and asserts its well-earned place as a Western ally, a new regional power and one of the lawful inheritors of the breakup of imperial Russia.

Russia, like Germany or Japan after World War II, gets a chance to remake its future.

And it is amply demonstrated to other dictators — like China’s Xi Jinping or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan — that the present world order stands; that it is inadvisable to resort to force; and that war creates problems for a dictator rather than solving them.

Ukraine is willing to use these weapons and to take back what is lawfully theirs. It’s a clear bargain — Ukrainian blood, U.S. weapons. Rarely has there been a military investment that involved such high stakes, was so bloodless for the investor, and promised such high returns.

The other option is totally dystopian. The U.S. does not supply enough weapons to take Crimea, and especially Donbas, for Donbas is joined at the hip with mainland Russia. It is much harder to take than an isolated (albeit heavily fortified) peninsula.

Putin, through propaganda and unbridled violence, keeps his stranglehold over Russia. He goes on with the war. For the last two months, he advanced at Bakhmut by several miles, spending thousands of corpses per mile. So,

what’s the problem? He can mobilize wave after wave; he already indicated that he is willing to spend the lives of 300,000 Russians.

Putin can spend 100,000 corpses per year; he can spend 10,000 per year; he can even cut it down to a couple of thousand. He doesn’t need an armistice. What he really needs is a pretext to mobilize the population.

Russia would turn into a giant HAMAS, occupying one ninth of the Earth’s surface, only instead of Qassams, it launches from time to time an X-101, with its range of 3,000 miles. Putin’s brand of Nazism, which is now mostly on TV and superficial, would seep in and become the religion of future Russian generations. The whole region would become mired in national hate, for hate is the feeling that rarely remains unreciprocated.

The U.S. and Europe would gradually tire of supporting Ukraine, for its economy would be unable to function properly under a constant military threat, hemorrhaging brain power and resources. Both Xi and Erdogan would learn that aggression pays, and they would likely embark — in their own time — on the conquest of Taiwan and Syria.

In short, the whole region would turn into the Middle East (or the Balkans before World War I), ready to blow up at any minute in nuclear conflagration, with a rabid and destitute population.

Which of the options should the U.S. choose?

I’d say it’s quite evident.

It is true that Putin is threatening a nuclear strike — but it is Ukraine he is threatening, and Ukraine is willing to take the risk. It’s hard to say how valid Putin’s threats really are, but one thing can be said for sure: In the second scenario, he would become more — not less — dangerous, and the nuclear risk would go up, not down.

It is also true that Putin tries to frighten the U.S. with the chaos that could follow his demise. The answer here is the same: The longer he stays in power, the higher the chances of total chaos after his collapse. All the consequences will be more — not less — severe. It is true that they will come later — for the next president, say — but is that really a responsible way to make a decision?

Ukraine is risking everything — not just to defeat Putin, but to preserve the current world order based on right, not might, and on the hegemony of the U.S. as the supreme arbiter of that right. It’s easy to see which path to take.


Yulia Latynina, a journalist, worked for Echo of Moscow radio station and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper until they were shut down as part of the current war in Ukraine. She is a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s Defender of Freedom award.