The last few weeks have seen the rise of ‘Ukraine fatigue.’ Early expectations were that Russia would win the war quickly. The Western debate was initially whether we should support an insurgency. Then came a burst of enthusiasm that Russia might lose. This is fading now. The conflict seems to be settling into a war of attrition.
Russia is making gains in Donbas but at a high cost. Ukraine is pushing back elsewhere, and Western arms shipments will likely help it blunt concentrated Russian power in the east. That said, a Ukrainian counteroffensive to take back much of what Russia now controls in Ukraine would be extraordinarily difficult. A long slog seems likely over the summer, with the initiative slowly passing to Ukraine as sanctions crimp Russia’s ability to replace losses and as Western weapons level the playing field.
Why Push Ukraine to End the War?
As Ukraine’s effort to expel the Russians has slowed, Western pundits began to panic and demand that it push Ukraine to make concessions to end the war. Most notoriously, Henry Kissinger said this. That seemed to give cover to Western European leaders to start hedging on support for Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, Ukraine sharply rejected this.
It was right to do so. The core of the argument that we should arm-twist Ukraine into surrendering turns on the highly contestable notion, articulated most clearly by Kissinger, that Russia is a great power, entitling it to unique deference and special privileges. As French President Emmanuel Macron put it, “Russia must not be humiliated.” This is both empirically and strategically debatable.
Empirically, it is increasingly hard to argue that Russia is a great power; indeed, Ukraine is breaking Russia’s claim to that status as we speak. This is a point I have belabored in the pages before (here, here, here). The only solid claims Russia has to great power status now are its nuclear weapons and sheer geographic size. Russia’s economy is middling now – smaller than South Korea’s, for example – and will decline sharply because of the wartime sanctions placed on it. It may even fall out of the G-20 in a year or two. Its population too is of middling size and stagnant. It has third world levels of corruption, and that corruption has bled into its military undercutting logistics, training, morale, and so on, in turn inhibiting its ability to support a large military in the field. Its brain drain undercuts innovation, as does its closed, repressive political system.
Strategically, the argument to force Ukraine to give in is also weak. Much of it turns on overwrought assessments that NATO and Russia will (somehow) slide into a war or a nuclear exchange. Both of these prospects are highly unlikely. Putin is a risk-taker, but not a nihilist, and if he was genuinely concerned a huge, NATO-Russia war was imminent, he would not be allowing his army to be ground down, day after day, in Ukraine. Biden too has shown caution. Proxy wars are common, and neither the Vietnam nor Afghanistan (of the 1980s) wars escalated into a superpower conflict.
Further, it is in the West’s strategic interest to see Putin’s ability to wreak havoc in international relations reduced. This does not mean we should overthrow him, sanction Ukrainian attacks on Russia, or give Kyiv a blank check. But it is simply bizarre to insist that the burden of restoring stability in Europe – Kissinger’s goal – be placed on Ukraine when it is Putin who started the war. Ukraine is now very obviously blocking Putin’s ability to stir up trouble further west. That is very much in the West’s interest.
No one can seriously believe that if Ukraine concedes to Putin today, that he will not come back to destabilize the region once again when Russia re-strengthens. Putin has been on a revisionist course, seeking to overturn the post-Cold War settlement, for over fifteen years. If he wins in Ukraine, he will go back to his same old tricks of trying to divide the West and foment frozen conflicts. There is nothing in Putin’s history as Russian leader to suggest he values the stability Macron, Kissinger, and others so desperately want.
Putin need not be ‘humiliated,’ but he should learn that there is a limit to how long the West will let him make trouble before it draws a line. Ukraine, where Putin has permitted death squads to operate in occupied territory, is pretty obviously that line.
At Least Give Ukraine a Chance to Win
International relations theory notes that conflicts frequently turn toward negotiation when the combatants reach a ‘mutually hurting stalemate.’ This conflict is not there. Russia still believes it can win, at least in the east.
So, Russia is not interested in Kissingerian stability. It wants to win. Ukraine is defending the West against Putin’s ability to continue to stir up trouble. That is in our interest. And they are the victim – of quite savage bombardments of civilians and organized executions. The least we can do is give them the chance to win, and then facilitate a settlement when both sides reach that mutually hurting stalemate.
Robert E. Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea and a 1945 Contributing Editor. Follow his work on his website or on Twitter.
June 9, 2022 at 6:57 pm
A peace treaty that froze the situation in place might indeed see Russia reorganize and try to attack Ukraine again.
On the other hand, it’s possible that a peace treaty and pause of several months to a few years would also give time for Ukraine to rearm and aquire systems that it needs but has not had time to train on (e.g., Patriot or an equivalent), for opposition to Putin to grow, and for Putin’s own likely health problems to result in him relinquishing power or dying in office.
Roger W Oakes
June 9, 2022 at 8:29 pm
The historically Russian control of Crimea is the major bargaining chip I see available to end the war. IF Ukraine agrees to recognize the control and possession of Crimea, then gets some or most of the eastern Ukraine territory back and under its control then the ability to let Russian leaning families to leave Ukraine and Ukrainian families to leave the Russian held areas, this is doable and winnable for both sides. A strong and real UN border guard force would be advisable as well. Kyiv had already granted a lot of autonomy to Crimea as well so this is not as big a loss to Ukraine as Kyiv thinks it is. We could invest major bucks into both Ukraine and do for it what Trump had promised to do for North Korea economically if they would surrender their nuclear program. Well Ukraine surrendered their nukes in the breakup fo the Soviet Union and it has come back to bite them since Putin is living in the past and is bitterly dreaming of restoring the Soviet prestige to Russia. Russia is and can be a good partner for USA but Putin must go sooner rather than later. I have been to both Russia and Ukraine and have friends to this day in each country. They are the ones suffering from Putin’s Hitler-like Russian PRIDE. Trump is the perfect man to know how to enrich him without using violence to do so. Both countries have great resources and people too. Unlike many conflicts this one is very much worth stopping and actively reversing if we had the committment and support to do so!!
June 9, 2022 at 10:05 pm
Very well written article, concise and to the point.
I agree with the comments on the tactics that Putin has used, frozen conflicts etc. It is probably best the conflict carry on to a point where Russian losses hopefully affect Putin’s hold on power. The russians have started to bring old obsolete T62 tanks into ukraine because most of the T72 tanks have been destroyed. A simple rpg, can destroy a T62. This smacks of desperation and there are already pushback from civilians in respect of damage to recruitment offices .
June 10, 2022 at 7:07 am
Destroyed American 155-mm howitzer M777А2 near Lisichansk – telegram RVvoenkor
June 10, 2022 at 9:48 am
I agree. Give Ukraine a chance. The longer this goes on, the harder it becomes for Russia. Nobody really wins a war, it just becomes a matter of who loses more. Russia is losing the best of it’s military. Ukraine is losing a lot too, both militarily and some territory lost. I would like to see us give Ukraine a strong hand in this struggle. As long as Putin or his ideologues remain in power, Russia will be a threat to Ukraine and all of Eastern Europe.
June 10, 2022 at 1:20 pm
Ukraine needs more than a chance.
It needs heavy weapons, it needs AA systems to protect the industrial infrastructure, and it needs acquiescence of the weapon suppliers that Ukraine strikes Russian territory. Strikes and holds. Only then we can talk about people swaps, territory swaps, and treaties.
June 10, 2022 at 11:06 pm
Making permanent territorial cessions for what will certainly be a temporary “peace” is a bad deal. Ukraine is quite right to reject it.
On the other hand, what really matters is not whether people in the Western alliance are feeling “fatigued”, but what is the sustainable production capacity of our armaments industries. This isn’t WWII, where a massive amount of idle industry could be reactivated, and the entire economy re-engineered for war production. We just barely have the domestic industry left to produce what we project we will need over a long schedule. We really don’t have that much capacity that could be quickly increased. Somebody is going to have to level with the Ukrainians and explain that there is so much that we can provide, and no more. If that isn’t enough to support the massive counter-attack necessary to retake the lost territory, then they just may need to reconcile themselves to a frozen conflict for the time being.
June 11, 2022 at 11:59 am
The west has lots of capacity to produce more munitions. (Far more than Russia.) Stefan, these two videos thoroughly debunk your argument:
The Price of War – Can Russia afford a long conflict?
Ukraine vs Russia – Who wins a war of hardware attrition?
Give Support Now
June 11, 2022 at 6:27 am
Unlike some I do not see any negotiations out of this situation. Actions by Russian troops clearly aim to genocide or to disappearence of Ukrainians to Siberia. It seems like they are now arranging epidemics in the Mariupol area. Another alternative to Russia is seemingly to destroy most of the Ukraine infra and block its commercial routes. How could you negotiate with Russia after all this? How could you forget what they have done so far? Also: Would you trust any agreement with Putin, Lavrov or their buddies?
Ask your politicians for stronger efforts to support Ukraine! Ukraine needs more long range weapons and, if needed, trained fighters to use them. Politicians must act now, as there are critical moments in the war. In addition, some delays in support seem intentional. All delays cost lives for the Ukrainian side.
Russia seems to be counting that as a dictator-controlled country it can handle a war that stretches over a year, while people in the west are more likely to complain. Stronger actions, now, will save Ukrainian lives and infra.