By Mariia Zolkina
Feb 6, 2023
Atlantic Council, Ukraine Alert
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine will pass the one-year mark in the coming weeks with no end in sight to what is already the largest European conflict since World War II. Vladimir Putin initially envisaged a small, victorious war that would extinguish Ukrainian independence and force the country back into the Kremlin orbit. Instead, his armies have suffered a series of disastrous defeats that have shattered Russia’s reputation as a military superpower.
Despite the difficulties encountered in Ukraine, Putin has little choice but to continue with his invasion. The Russian dictator knows that unless he is able to rescue the situation, his regime may not survive. However, following the setbacks of the past year, many commentators now question Russia’s ability to achieve its military objectives.
With Putin’s army dangerously depleted by months of punishing losses in both men and armor, it is unclear whether Russia is currently capable of large-scale offensive operations. While major new advances cannot be ruled out, the Kremlin appears to be pinning significant hopes on weakening Ukraine’s will to resist while undermining international support for the country. The end goal is a compromise peace that would allow Russia to secure its current territorial gains in Ukraine while providing vital breathing space to rebuild Putin’s battered military.
For now, there is little indication that this strategy will work. While calls for a negotiated peace continue to surface sporadically in the international media, there appears to be a growing consensus among Western leaders that Russia must be defeated in order to secure a sustainable peace. This deepening commitment to a Ukrainian victory was evident in the first weeks of 2023, with news of expanded military aid for Kyiv including modern tanks and a list of other items that had previously been ruled out by Ukraine’s Western partners as excessively provocative.
Nor is there any indication that Ukraine is ready to admit defeat. On the contrary, as the first anniversary of the invasion approaches, it is increasingly clear that Russia has failed to break the morale of the Ukrainian population. Neither the shock of the initial invasion nor the brutality of Russia’s advancing army has succeeded in forcing Ukraine into submission. More recently, the Ukrainian public has withstood a nationwide Russian bombing campaign against residential and infrastructure targets designed to deprive people of access to essential amenities including heating, light, and water during the freezing winter months.
Moscow’s terror tactics appear to have backfired, strengthening Ukraine’s resolve while serving to convince the Ukrainian population that they will never be safe unless Russia is decisively defeated. Crucially, Ukrainians now view military victory over Russia as an entirely realistic
outcome. Thanks to a string of battlefield successes in the second half of 2022, Ukrainians overwhelmingly believe in their country’s ultimate victory.
A comprehensive nationwide survey conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Razumkov Center in mid-December 2022 illustrates this faith in Ukrainian victory while also highlighting nationwide opposition to any compromises with the Kremlin. The poll found that 93 percent of respondents expect Ukraine to win the war, while just three percent expressed doubts. This reflects the growing sense of confidence generated by the successful September 2022 Kharkiv counter-offensive and the November liberation of Kherson, the only regional capital occupied by Russia. By the end of 2022, Ukrainian forces had liberated around 50 percent of the land seized by Russia since the start of the full-scale invasion ten months earlier.
The survey also offered important insights into Ukrainian perceptions of victory. Perhaps the most significant finding was that Ukrainians are not ready to accept a return to the status quo on the eve of the full-scale invasion, when Russia already occupied Crimea and parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine. Instead, a commanding majority of Ukrainians are convinced that only the full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity within the country’s internationally recognized borders can bring peace.
There is very little appetite for the kind of territorial concessions and land-for-peace deals periodically proposed by international commentators. Just eight percent of surveyed Ukrainians said they would be prepared to accept the ongoing Russian occupation of Crimea in order to end the war.
It is worth emphasizing that opposition to any kind of negotiated peace with Putin’s Russia is broadly consistent across Ukraine. For much of the post-Soviet period until the onset of Russian aggression in 2014, Ukraine experienced pronounced regional splits on issues of national memory and the country’s future geopolitical trajectory. However, support for any kind of economic or political integration with Russia has dramatically declined since 2014. Putin’s full-scale invasion in 2022 has had an even more dramatic unifying impact on Ukraine and has brought the country together in opposition to Russia.
Over the past year, regions of southern and eastern Ukraine where pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politicians still enjoyed some support after 2014 have found themselves on the frontlines of the Russian invasion and have suffered disproportionately. Putin’s advancing army has reduced dozens of largely Russian-speaking towns and cities to rubble throughout the south and east of the country, killing thousands of civilians and subjecting millions more to forced deportation. Understandably, this has led to a fundamental reappraisal of attitudes toward Russia.
Opinions on Ukraine’s future security stance have also been transformed by the war. In the not-so-distant past, the issue of possible Ukrainian NATO membership was one of the most divisive on the country’s domestic political agenda. After Russia’s full-scale invasion, that is no longer the case. Majorities in every single region of Ukraine now firmly support the idea of joining NATO. If NATO membership is not possible in the short-term, the next best option is viewed as
security alliances with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Central European countries such as Poland, as well as strengthening Ukraine’s own defense capacity.
Ukrainians in all parts of the country now resoundingly reject the once popular notion of geopolitical neutrality, with only 8.5 percent still in favor. This drastic change in mood is not difficult to fathom. Ukrainians have simply lost faith in Russia’s reliability as a neighbor and recognize that even a decisive victory in the current war will not end the existential threat coming from the Kremlin.
Anyone seeking to promote a negotiated peace must reckon with Ukrainian public opinion. After all, Ukraine is a robust democracy with a strong record of grassroots mobilization including two separate post-Soviet revolutions. Any attempt to impose a Kremlin-friendly compromise on the country would likely meet with strong resistance, even if accompanied by threats to end Western military aid.
Ukrainians will not let entire regions of their country be used as bargaining chips to appease Moscow’s imperial ambitions; nor will they condemn millions of their compatriots to the genocidal horrors of permanent Russian occupation. Instead, there is agreement across Ukraine that the whole country, including Crimea, must be liberated in order to achieve a meaningful peace.
Most Ukrainians view the Russian invasion as an old-fashioned imperial war of colonial conquest designed to wipe Ukraine off the map of Europe and force Ukrainians to abandon their national identity. They recognize the futility of negotiating with a leader who compares himself to Russian Czar Peter the Great and openly denies Ukraine’s right to exist. Instead, they will fight on for as long as it takes.
The international community appears to have reached a similar conclusion but continues to hesitate over sending Ukraine the weapons it needs in order to secure victory. With each successive delay, the war is prolonged and the price of defeating Putin rises higher.
Mariia Zolkina is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and head of regional security and conflict studies at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kyiv.