The new year is likely to be pretty good for Ukraine.
The war with Russia will continue, at least for a while, but it will be Ukraine’s to lose.
In important ways, Kyiv has already won. After 10 months of savage fighting, Ukraine has not only withstood Russia’s assault, but it has also managed to push the Russians back from sizable portions of territory they had occupied in late February and early March.
What looks like a stalemate is a smashing Ukrainian victory, one comparable to Mexico withstanding a full-scale American invasion.
The Importance of Legitimacy
Ukraine is highly unlikely to lose in 2023, if only because Russia lacks the resources to win.
Western sanctions will hit the Russian economy especially hard in 2023. The quality of Russia’s armed forces is almost certain to remain low, while the death rate — currently about 500 per day — is almost certain to remain shockingly high. Russia’s best tanks and soldiers have been neutralized, and its stocks of missiles are running out. In contrast, Ukraine’s military resources are likely to be replenished, expanded, and improved by its Western allies. Russia’s inability to take the Donbas city of Bakhmut after months of fighting is indicative of the current balance of forces.
The legitimacy and strength of the two contending leaders — Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky — also favors Ukraine.
Putin’s fascist regime is clearly in serious trouble. The intelligence service, the FSB, is at loggerheads with the Ministry of Defense and General Staff. The private armies headed by Yevgeni Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov threaten the integrity of the armed forces and the stability of the state. Oligarchs and political opponents are dying with alarming regularity in singular “accidents.” Finally, Putin’s appeal to elites and to the masses is steadily, if slowly, eroding, and this will continue as long as the numbers of battlefield deaths remain high.
In contrast, Zelensky is wildly popular. The vast bulk of the Ukrainian population supports him, the Ukrainian armed forces, and Ukraine’s war effort and goals, all while remaining committed to democracy.
There are two dark spots on this otherwise positive picture. Russia’s genocidal bombardments have killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and destroyed critical infrastructure, thereby causing the economy to shrink by as much as 50%. Both countries are thus caught in a race against time. Ukraine faces even more civilian death and destruction in 2023, while Russia faces continued losses and defeat on the battlefield. Much will be decided by morale.
Ukrainians have no choice but to continue to fight. As history has shown, bombardments only steel a suffering population’s resolve. Russians, on the other hand, have to justify just why they’re destroying a neighboring country and sacrificing over 100,000 of their countrymen for the increasingly bizarre reasons given by Putin and his entourage. The battle of competing morale is also Ukraine’s to lose.
The lesson for the West is obvious. Bet on the winner and speed up the Russian defeat by supplying Ukraine with all the hardware it needs to win as completely and quickly as possible.
Only then will fewer Ukrainians and Russians needlessly die in Putin’s mad war, and only then will democracy and international law be able to triumph over fascism and imperialism.
Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”