By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
Stalemate, stalled, sputtering — these are the words that increasingly find their way into commentaries about the Ukrainian counteroffensive. They are misleading.
The other set of popular words are sports similes. Like poor boxers, Ukraine is said to have failed to deliver a knockout punch. Like football linemen, the Russians have dug in and are putting up a tough defense. These, too, are misleading.
Taken together, both sets of words reveal a mindset that views the war and Ukraine’s efforts to win it as a game, less so for the Ukrainians and Russians who are dying and rotting in trenches, and more so for Western analysts and commentators who worry less about the death and destruction that Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed and more about their reputations. Did they predict the final score correctly? Will their standing suffer if they do not?
Harvard University’s Stephen M. Walt captures this mindset perfectly: “If it [the war] ends with Ukraine in ruins, Russia in possession of a big chunk of Ukrainian territory, and Putin still in power, the people who kept clamoring to continue the war and predicting a Ukrainian triumph are going to look pretty silly.”
As one of those people who keeps clamoring to continue the war and predicting a Ukrainian triumph, I can assure Walt that silliness is the very last thing I will worry about if Ukraine loses. Instead, I will bemoan the genocide of the Ukrainian nation, the destruction of Ukrainian statehood, the triumph of Russian fascism and the certainty that Russian expansionism won’t stop at Ukraine’s borders.
I can also assure Walt that no one in this camp will feel silly; that, instead, everyone will feel that an enormous tragedy has taken place, one that could’ve been prevented had the West taken Ukraine and its security seriously not one year ago, but three decades ago.
Because the war and counteroffensive are subliminally treated as a game, we expect the former to end quickly (after all, who can sit through more than three hours of baseball?) and the latter to result in a massive breakthrough pretty much immediately. Anything short of a few touchdown passes and interceptions must mean that the offensive is going badly and the game will end in a tie.
We forget, to continue with the football metaphor, that, thanks to Western reluctance to supply Ukraine with air power, Ukraine is forced to forego long passes and must instead focus on its running game, while playing against a defense that has no regard for its own safety.
In fact, there is no stalemate, and the Ukrainian counteroffensive neither has stalled nor is sputtering. Ukraine is making incremental progress on several fronts; killing hundreds of Russian
soldiers daily while clearing densely packed minefields (five mines per square meter); knocking out bridges, railroads, fuel depots, ammunition dumps, and control and command centers — in short, degrading Russia’s ability to fight the war. Ukraine is thereby “un-leveling” the playing field and forcing Russia’s “team” to play without helmets, shoulder pads and shoes.
When applied to war, the language of sports is, of course, offensive. It demeans the victims by transforming them into points and suggests that both sides are equally responsible for the war. But the language of sports is also revealing, suggesting that the people who use it don’t fully empathize with the victims of war and the suffering they experience. As one analyst correctly said, “there are not many moral wars being fought in the world, but this happens to be one, and for that reason alone, it is a cause worth supporting regardless of the cynical bylines being peddled with increasing fervor.”
There’s a photograph making the rounds on Facebook of a severely wounded Ukrainian soldier lying in a bed, and both legs have been severed just below the hips. One can imagine that there must be hundreds more like him on both sides of the front. Analysts speak of kilometers won or lost, of soldiers killed or wounded, of infrastructure destroyed or rebuilt. That’s important, of course, but such a clinical approach to human tragedy seems inadequate, wrong and vaguely obscene.
Naturally, analysts must analyze and commentators must comment. But they should never forget that what strikes them as a sporting event, in which rival theories are fighting it out over which will appear sillier, is actually hell on Earth.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires”