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).


Did you like thike this article? If yes, you can support the inde­pen­dent editorial work and jour­nalism of LibMod via a simple donation tool.

Donate via PayPal

We are recog­nized as a non-profit orga­ni­za­tion, accord­ingly donations are tax deductible. For a donation receipt (necessary for an amount over 200 EUR), please send your address data to

Related topics

Newsletter bestellen

Stay tuned with our regular newsletter about all our relevant subjects.

Mit unseren Daten­schutzbes­tim­mungen
erklären Sie sich einverstanden.