Mainstream commentary around the war in Ukraine comes across as increasingly (and perhaps unduly) fatalistic these days.
The second anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion is fast approaching and to let some experts tell it, hopes of a Russian defeat look more far-fetched all the time.
The much-ballyhooed Ukrainian counteroffensive produced little in the way of tangible results, the Russian economy hasn’t collapsed under the weight of Western sanctions and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s accidental coup did little, if anything, to change the dynamic domestically.
Putin isn’t going anywhere, the story goes, and the best Ukraine can do is hold the line, figuratively and literally. The implication is usually, but not always, that “realism” requires ceding territory to the Kremlin in the hope that indulging Putin’s imperialist fantasies — placating violent revanchism — is the best, and maybe the only, way to preserve a sovereign Ukrainian state.
Such thinking ignores the fact that the West already indulged Putin’s fever dream for Ukraine. He was allowed to annex Crimea and foment bloody separatism in the Donbas.
Indeed, the entire history of Putin’s reign is one long tale of appeasement. For over a decade, he was permitted to carry out extraterritorial executions on British soil while Downing Street looked the other way in the interest of different sorts of expediency ranging from the geostrategic to the economic.
The prospect, no matter how unlikely, that Russia could be “brought in from the cold,” was enough for the world to ignore copious evidence to suggest Putin might’ve murdered 300 of his own people in 1999. Similarly, world leaders, in their zeal to enlist Putin in the war on terror after 9/11, gave short shrift to the possibility that Putin (through the FSB) played a role in staging the Moscow theater hostage crisis which ended with at least 120 Russian civilian deaths.
In 2016 and 2017, Russia interfered brazenly — that is, well beyond what might be considered “acceptable” in a world where everyone meddles in everyone else’s internal affairs — with the democratic process in the US and France, likely meddled in German elections, and may have targeted the Brexit vote, although that’s a point of contention.
Now Putin wants the whole of Ukraine and some war-weary observers seem to think the West should give him at least part of it. Why anyone believes Putin would be satisfied if he were granted, as part of a ceasefire, the territory Russia now occupies in the country, is beyond me. It’s highly likely that after a brief period of relative peace, the Kremlin would conjure an excuse to restart the war or else set its sights on other territory where pro-Russian sentiment predominates.
I’m skeptical of “good” and “evil” labels. I don’t believe normative statements are especially useful in the geopolitical context or in any other context, for that matter. But bad actors do exist, just not in the sense we typically use the term “bad.” Rather, in the sense that some people are unavailingly incorrigible. Putin is an example of such a person.
Putting aside all that (and I don’t recommend anyone put it aside), we seem to forget that most military analysts believed the Russian army would seize Kyiv within days of the initial invasion — a week or two at most. It’s been nearly two years.
Ukraine may be no closer to expelling the invaders, but Russia is no closer to seizing the capital either. Yes, Ukraine received far more financial and military support than Putin probably anticipated, but that came later. The only excuse for not seizing Kyiv at the outset was incompetence. Either that, or the Russian military was a paper tiger all along.
Whatever you want to say about Ukraine’s predicament, it’s hard to argue that a bloody stalemate — an intractable war of attrition — two years on is somehow a victory for an erstwhile superpower.
On Saturday, Putin sent dozens of explosive-laden suicide drones at Kyiv in what was widely described as the largest unmanned kamikaze attack yet. Ukraine shot nearly all of them down, but the fact that Putin is resorting to what Volodymyr Zelensky aptly described as “blatant terror” is a testament to the Kremlin’s abject military failure.
Do note: The timing of the drone attack was cartoonishly nefarious. Saturday was Holodomor rememberance — a day Ukraine pauses to acknowledge the millions killed in a famine brought on by Joseph Stalin’s cruelly idiotic collectivization policies.
Sending exploding drones at Ukrainian civilians on the anniversary of Stalin’s man-made famine speaks not only to Putin’s inhumanity but also to the idea that the Kremlin, still struggling to score defining victories on the battlefield, is once again trying to demoralize the populace. That’s not indicative of any sort of victory.
One article published by the Wall Street Journal this month said “there are no indications that Russia is losing what has become a war of attrition.” But there’s no indication Russia’s winning, either. The very fact that it’s become a war of attrition speaks volumes. On paper, Russia wasn’t supposed to “not lose.” They were supposed to win. Quickly.
As for the notion that everyday Russians support the war and, relatedly, that the absence of revolt among the country’s elite somehow suggests widespread domestic approval for what, at best, is a quagmire, is to forget completely that dissent in Putin’s Russia is a jail sentence on a lenient day. On all the other days, it’s something much worse.
None of the above should be construed as an argument that a grand Ukrainian victory is imminent, likely or even possible. It’s just to say that handing Putin a ceasefire favorable to the Kremlin’s completely illegitimate territorial claims is dangerous. Just as importantly, it’s wholly unjustified by the (for Putin, humiliating) on-the-ground reality, which is that while Russian soldiers die face down in the mud on the front lines, life goes on in free Kyiv — albeit under the irksome whir of Iranian-designed drones and the all-too-familiar wail of air raid sirens.