Ukraine’s war aims are designed to guarantee a lasting peace, not a reprieve before another Russian attack.


Nov 28, 2023

The Bulwark


BEFORE VLADIMIR PUTIN LAUNCHED his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many analysts, including in the U.S. intelligence community, predicted that the war would be over in a matter of days, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky toppled. Some even argued that there was no point in providing Ukraine with military assistance, since it wouldn’t make a difference. Those misjudgments were wide of the mark, and to the degree they influenced the Biden administration’s willingness to provide Ukraine with the weapons its needed to defend itself, they were also dangerous.

As it turned out, Ukrainians fought heroically and successfully, regaining more than half of their territory under Russian occupation, and dealing Russian forces tremendous setbacks and staggering loss of life. Ukraine, despite having no real navy of its own, has driven Russia’s ships out of the Crimean port of Sevastopol, delivering a major and humiliating defeat to Russia in the Black Sea. According to Ukrainian naval officials, 15 Russian warships have been destroyed and 12 damaged since the start of the full-scale invasion.

The recent arrival of American long-range ATACMS missiles, (the variant with a maximum range of 100 miles, rather than the 190-mile variant), has enabled Ukraine to deliver serious blows to Russian military bases and airfields and placed Russian control of Crimea at risk. Ukraine has been able to break the Russian blockade of its Black Sea ports by restoring passage along the coast, with help from Romania and Bulgaria. And Ukraine’s forces recently gained multiple bridgeheads on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River in the Kherson region. Roughly 18 percent of Ukrainian territory remains under Russian control. It should be no surprise that Russian forces have hunkered down and that this territory has become the scene of difficult fighting. The 2023 counteroffensive has not liberated huge swaths of land, like the campaigns in Kherson and Kharkiv in late 2022, as many wished. But just because Ukraine’s territorial gains have been small does not mean they are insignificant.

Despite horrific loss of life, including from Russian war crimes, and terrible damage to its infrastructure, Ukraine has performed above and beyond expectations. Ukrainians in surveys show determination in driving all Russian occupying forces from their land and reject by huge majorities (some 80 percent) any effort to negotiate with Moscow or make territorial concessions.

DESPITE UKRAINIANS’ OBVIOUS SKILL and tenacity, many in the United states appear to be overcome with defeatism—even though no American service members are in the fight. From the GOP debate stage to the pages of journals and newspapers, some Americans seem ready to give up, suffering from Ukraine fatigue or a sense that we should focus on the Middle East or East Asia instead.

Vivek Ramaswamy, during the third Republican presidential debate in which he called Zelensky (Ukraine’s Jewish president) a “Nazi,” voiced glee at Ukraine’s seeming lack of progress in its counteroffensive: “I’m actually enjoying watching the Ukraine hawks quietly, delicately tiptoe back from their position as this thing has unwound into a disaster.”

Congressman Andy Harris, co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus and a past supporter of Ukraine, said in August that Ukraine’s counter-offensive had “failed,” adding, “I’m not sure it’s winnable anymore.”

Both Ramaswamy and Harris are operating with false premises, bad information, or both. And it’s not hard to see why.

Headlines in “news” stories, such as the New York Times’s “‘I Am Dreaming It Will Stop’: A Deadlocked War Tests Ukrainian Morale,” don’t stand up to the facts presented in the article. Support for a negotiated settlement with Russia increased to 14 percent from 10 percent, the Times reported, “though the vast majority of Ukrainians still staunchly reject trading territory for peace,” it claimed. This is the difference between relative and absolute changes: The percentage of Ukrainians who didn’t support a negotiated settlement is still at 86 percent.

And then there are the arm-chair pundits, many of whom have wanted to sell out Ukraine even before last February. In Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan repeated their previous calls for Ukraine to make concessions and strike a deal with Russia to end the war. They, along with Thomas Graham, have engaged in “secret” talks with Russian officials without Ukrainians involved for months, even well before Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

In their latest misfire, Haass and Kupchan fail to understand that an aggressive Kremlin has its sights set on not just Ukraine but other countries in the region. If not stopped in Ukraine, Moldova or NATO member states might be next.

IN AN ESSAY IN THE WASHINGTON POST two days after the Haass-Kupchan piece appeared, President Biden demonstrated a superior understanding of the stakes in Ukraine:

“Both Putin and Hamas are fighting to wipe a neighboring democracy off the map. And both Putin and Hamas hope to collapse broader regional stability and integration and take advantage of the ensuing disorder. America cannot, and will not, let that happen. For our own national security interests—and for the good of the entire world.”

We know from two world wars in the past century that when aggression in Europe goes unanswered, the crisis does not burn itself out. It draws America in directly. That’s why our commitment to Ukraine today is an investment in our own security. It prevents a broader conflict tomorrow.

The only way to prevent that broader conflict is to provide Ukraine with everything it needs to win. “Win”—as distinct from ‘not lose’—means driving every Russian occupying and invading force from Ukrainian territory, forcing Russia to pay compensation for the damage it has done, and holding Putin and others responsible for the atrocities they have committed. Doing that will prevent Putin’s war from widening and will deter other would-be Putins.

Haass and Kupchan acknowledge that their own proposal is unlikely to work. Putin is “much more likely” to “spurn a cease-fire proposal,” they acknowledge. If so, why bother to press Ukraine to chase this fool’s errand? Doing so would damage Ukrainian morale, signal to Putin our lack of commitment to Ukraine, and signal to our enemies everywhere that we cannot be trusted. It would give Putin the impression that he can wait out the West.

Moreover, under the Haass-Kupchan proposal, millions of Ukrainians would be condemned to life under Russian occupation, complete with oppression and war crimes. Yet somehow they write that “what began as a war of necessity for Ukraine—a fight for its very survival—has morphed into a war of choice, a fight to recapture Crimea and much of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.” Tell that to the Ukrainians living in those regions, or those in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson under Russian occupation now. If the Ukrainians reach a point where they decide they have had enough, that will be their call to make. Haass and Kupchan would have the United States force that decision on Ukraine—even though they acknowledge that Putin wants more.

Even in the unlikely event that Putin were to agree to a ceasefire, he would use the interlude to rebuild his military and launch yet another invasion of Ukraine. He’s looking for a rest stop, not an off ramp.

Had the United States provided the weapons Ukraine has been asking for sooner, the war would look a lot different from how it does now. According to what a top Ukrainian official told us, since the launch of the counteroffensive in June, Ukraine has regained 483 square kilometers of territory. Top Ukrainian officials believe regaining control over all occupied Ukrainian territory is possible with the right level of Western support.

Ukraine has achieved great victories without any air support; the F-16s the United States promised won’t arrive in Ukraine until next year, and even then, not in large numbers. Only recently has Ukraine acquired the long-range missiles it has needed from day one, and only in limited supplies and with reduced range. Ammunition supplies on the Ukrainian side are running low, and supporters of Ukraine have done a poor job of ramping up their domestic production. The longer we take to deliver what Ukraine needs, the longer it will take Ukraine to reach victory. With the arrival of these new weapons, together with new electronic warfare technology and advanced drones and air defense, the Ukrainians tell us they can achieve a real breakthrough. Indeed, had we provided Ukraine in adequate numbers weapons like the 190-mile range ATACMs, F-16’s, and electronic warfare equipment this year’s land offensive would likely have achieved more than modest success.

And yet Haass and Kupchan assume Russia will prevail no matter what. Not only does this run counter to the facts on the ground and to major draft dodging in Russia during last year’s“partial mobilization,” but it is a disservice to the brave men and women of Ukraine, who have not only held back Russian forces but have gone on the offensive. Despite all the suffering on the Ukrainian side—indeed, paradoxically, maybe because of it—Ukraine has morale on its side.

Russian forces, by comparison, are deeply demoralized, as evidenced by reports of defections and executions of those who try to flee the fighting. Major breakthroughs by the Ukrainians could lead to mass defections among the Russian forces, leaving Putin without the troops to carry out his orders. Some one million Russians fled Russia when the war started and after Putin announced a mobilization last September. Russia has become a junior partner to China and relies on Iran and North Korea for materiel. Putin is limited in where he can travel abroad—nowhere where the host nation recognizes the International Criminal Court, which has indicted the Russian leader for war crimes. It’s doubtful he could be entirely sure of his security if he were to take an impromptu stroll through central Moscow. And over the weekend, the wives of Russian soldiers published an extraordinary appeal on Telegram calling for their husbands’ return home.

Surveys of Americans show a drop in support for assistance to Ukraine, though the level of support remains significant. In one poll, 58 percent support additional economic and military aid; in another, 65 percent of respondents said that supporting Ukraine was in America’s national interest. This decline is fed in part by the reckless commentary of Ramaswamy, Haass, Kupchan, and others that Ukraine cannot possibly win and the fighting needs to end, and by their naïve assumption that Putin’s aggressive designs do not go beyond Ukraine’s western border. Nobody wants the war to end sooner than Ukrainians, as they are the ones fighting, suffering, and dying. But they want the war to end in victory and to ensure that Russia doesn’t pose a threat again.

INSTEAD OF PUSHING CONCESSIONS on the Ukrainians that only encourage Putin, as Haass and Kupchan have done repeatedly, and instead of parroting Kremlin propaganda, as Ramaswamy does, the United States and its allies should state in clear terms that our policy is to help Ukraine win this war and defeat Russia. To that end, Congress should move expeditiously in passing a major assistance package for Ukraine that will get the country what it needs for the next year. We should ramp up the deliveries of weapons and technology that Ukraine needs. We should tighten the sanctions regime on Russia and impose secondary sanctions. The European Union should extend membership to Ukraine on an expedited basis.

We also should prepare to invite Ukraine to join NATO at next summer’s summit in Washington. No country is more deserving of membership, and no country has more experience fighting Russia—or fighting modern war in general—than Ukraine. Haass and Kupchan urge instead that Ukraine be offered weak Article 4 protection, well short of the guarantees under Article 5 in the NATO charter. In short, this would give Ukraine the right to complain, but no assurance that anyone would listen. Such a proposal is just a recipe for more future wars.

Since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine’s military has become a formidable force, as Jonathan Tepperman notes in the Catalyst. “While Ukraine’s military may not yet fully meet NATO standards, it’s come so far that many Western experts now believe that, given enough time and supplies, it can ultimately beat the Russians.”

Zelensky has been compared by some to Winston Churchill. Ramaswamy, Haass, Kupchan, and the other American defeatists echo Viscount Halifax, an ally of former UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain of appeasement fame, who was bent on negotiating a peaceful surrender with Germany. As Churchill is often quoted as saying to Halifax during a cabinet meeting, “You cannot reason with a tiger while your head is in its mouth.” Ramaswamy, Haass, and Kupchan are no doubt all grateful that Halifax lost that argument. Going forward, our money is on Ukraine’s Churchill and the Ukrainian people.