Russia must be defeated in Ukraine

Szene aus dem zer­bombten Kyjiw, Februar 2022; Foto: Shutterstock

Russia’s inva­sion of Ukraine is reach­ing a per­ilous stage. The West needs to step up efforts to make Putin’s war unwinnable. Con­ces­sions will only prolong his regime and increase Moscow’s appetite to expand its borders in other direc­tions, argues John Lough.

Ukraini­ans are fight­ing to save their country. Their history gives them an unerr­ing sense of what is at stake in their strug­gle against Russia. The rev­o­lu­tions of 2004 and 2014 were responses to Moscow’s efforts to keep Ukraine in its embrace. The goal of Russia’s brutal inva­sion is to elim­i­nate Ukraine’s sov­er­eignty, backed by the threat to destroy its economy if it refuses to surrender.

This stark reality is now con­fronting western gov­ern­ments, yet they are strug­gling to com­pre­hend what they see. While Russia has rein­forced its stereo­typ­i­cal image of a country hostile to western values and violent in its behav­iour, Ukraini­ans have unex­pect­edly emerged as a people bravely defend­ing Euro­pean prin­ci­ples in a broader strug­gle between the demo­c­ra­tic world and the forces of authoritarianism.

Russia’s inva­sion has under­lined where Ukraine belongs. For Euro­pean public opinion, Ukraine is no longer a country hov­er­ing on the dark fringes of Europe that blur into Russia. The blood spilt by its people in their des­per­ate battle to assert their basic rights has secured Ukraine’s recog­ni­tion as part of the Euro­pean family of nations.

Tes­ta­ment to this is the out­pour­ing of sym­pa­thy across Europe for the suf­fer­ing of Ukrain­ian civil­ians and the readi­ness to support those who have fled the horrors of war. This reac­tion marks a remark­able break­through in Ukraine’s efforts to join modern Europe. Its aspi­ra­tions stand in sharp con­trast to Russia’s back­ward neo-impe­r­ial project aimed at re-estab­lish­ing itself as a Great Power with deci­sive influ­ence over Euro­pean affairs.

The chal­lenge for Ukraini­ans is to go beyond this initial victory and defeat the Russian aggres­sor. The prize could not be greater. The suc­cess­ful defence of Ukraine’s sov­er­eignty would re-shape the Euro­pean con­ti­nent and dra­mat­i­cally accel­er­ate the country’s inte­gra­tion with the Euro­pean Union and NATO. It would most likely usher in a period of deep inter­nal reforms in Russia itself, as was the case after Russia’s humil­i­a­tion in the Crimean War nearly 170 years ago.

By con­trast, if Ukraine were to stop halfway and bow to Russian demands to give up the right to choose its alliances and rec­og­nize its ter­ri­to­r­ial losses, such con­ces­sions would not only emas­cu­late the country’s sov­er­eignty, they would also prolong the life of the Putin regime and increase its appetite to expand its borders in other directions.

The war is now reach­ing a per­ilous stage for both Kyiv and Moscow, with both sides in a race against time.

On the Ukrain­ian side, civil­ian losses are mount­ing, crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture is under increas­ing attack while mil­lions more people face the prospect of fleeing their homes. As the Russian Army seeks to extend its control of Ukraine’s south, the loss of access to its main ports could have dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences for the economy. It is not clear how long the country can main­tain this level of resistance.

In the case of Russia, Pres­i­dent Putin’s con­fi­dent claims that his mil­i­tary cam­paign is going to plan ring hollow. There are indi­ca­tions that parts of the inva­sion force are expe­ri­enc­ing serious morale prob­lems because of heavy losses of sol­diers and equip­ment, as well as high levels of casualties.

Russian mil­i­tary plan­ners appear to have under­es­ti­mated Ukrain­ian resis­tance that has proved effec­tive at destroy­ing, dis­rupt­ing supply lines and exploit­ing the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of poorly coor­di­nated Russian for­ma­tions. The response of mil­i­tary com­man­ders has been to avoid fight­ing in major urban centres as much as pos­si­ble and to shell cities from a dis­tance. The tempo of the advance has slowed sig­nif­i­cantly, and there are increas­ing signs that the Ukrain­ian side is fight­ing the Rus­sians into a bloody stalemate.

Putin’s nego­ti­a­tion dilemma

Putin’s goal of chang­ing Ukraine’s gov­ern­ment looks impos­si­ble, and the pres­sure is growing for him to move the action from the bat­tle­field to the nego­ti­at­ing table. Yet, he cannot begin to nego­ti­ate without strength­en­ing his posi­tion on the battlefield.

In addi­tion to Russia’s mil­i­tary prob­lems, western sanc­tions have turned out to be stronger than Moscow expected. As days and weeks pass, their effects will be increas­ingly felt across Russia and could start to create popular dis­con­tent. Dis­sat­is­fac­tion within the elites with Putin’s Ukraine policy does not appear to be an issue at present, but might easily become one if, for example, mil­i­tary morale col­lapsed and large numbers of sol­diers refused to fight.

Western com­mit­ment is key

The key factor is whether western coun­tries are com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing Ukraine to defeat Russia. NATO has stuck to the posi­tion that it is not a party to the con­flict for fear of being drawn into a direct mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with Russia. It has under­stand­ably said that it will not estab­lish a no-fly zone over Ukraine but has failed to add that it will instead help Ukraine protect its skies by pro­vid­ing it with the nec­es­sary air defence systems and weaponry.

Many NATO coun­tries are now sup­ply­ing weapons and mil­i­tary equip­ment to Ukraine, but col­lec­tively appear fearful of saying directly that Putin must be defeated. This is despite Russia believ­ing that it is at war not just with Ukraine but its western part­ners, espe­cially the US. In their diplo­macy, NATO has ceded ground to Putin by not respond­ing directly to Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons.

What western coun­tries say and do over the next two weeks will have a crit­i­cal bearing on the outcome of the war. Ukraine needs more support in the form of both weapons deliv­er­ies and sanc­tions against Russia to obtain a deci­sive advan­tage in this war. Ukraini­ans also need to have their morale boosted. They need to hear western cap­i­tals state clearly that they are going to help make Putin’s war unwinnable for Russia.

For the US and its Euro­pean allies, it is not just Ukraine’s sov­er­eignty that is at stake. Russia is con­tin­u­ing to ride roughshod over estab­lished prin­ci­ples for man­ag­ing Euro­pean secu­rity, based on the duty of states to settle dis­putes by peace­ful means. The inad­e­quate response of NATO’s coun­tries to Russia’s annex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014 demon­strated to Putin that they would not stand in the way of a further Russian attack on Ukraine.

Now is the time for western coun­tries to tell Moscow that they will not lift the Dra­con­ian sanc­tions adopted after Feb­ru­ary 24th until Ukraine’s ter­ri­to­r­ial integrity in the borders of 1991 has been fully restored. Return­ing Crimea and occu­pied Donbas to Ukrain­ian sov­er­eignty will be a complex issue that can only take place over many years, but Ukraini­ans need to know that it is on the agenda.

The EU must also find stronger lan­guage to demon­strate to Ukraine that it sees its future in the Euro­pean Union and will take all pos­si­ble steps to accel­er­ate its accession.

Words are also a weapon in war.


John Lough is an asso­ciate fellow of Chatham House’s Russia & Eurasia Pro­gramme and a con­sul­tant with High­gate, a strate­gic advi­sory firm. He has worked in public affairs for many years and was an inter­na­tional affairs manager with the Russian-British oil company TNK-BP from 2003 to 2008. Before that, he spent six years with NATO and was the first Alliance rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Moscow (1995–98).

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