As the war in Ukraine wages on, Dr Mart Kuldkepp argues that Russia has no real path to a genuine victory, but that the West must give its unwavering, unconditional support to Ukraine.
On 25 February 2022, I wrote on this blog that Russia’s war against Ukraine, which it had massively escalated just the day before, cannot but end badly for Russia. Looking back at the year that has passed since then, I stand by this judgement. But more can be said about what we have seen in the meantime: Russian brutality, Ukrainian heroic resistance, and Western indecisiveness. There have been plenty of reasons both for optimism and pessimism.
Overall, however, there remains no doubt that Russia is going to lose. It has no conceivable path to a genuine victory; one that would leave it somehow better off than it was before 24 February 2022. That this would be the case was clear even before the ongoing invasion. Russia’s war aims are delusional and unachievable, and its actions are to the detriment of Russia’s own true national interests (freedom, stability, and prosperity). Even the criminal regime ruling the country, which naturally has only its own interests in mind, has, by all indications, shot itself in the foot.
Conversely, it is just as certain that Ukraine is going to win. Its whole civil society has stood up against the aggressor, the Ukrainian armed forces have proven to be impressively capable and adaptable, and its resolve to fight the war to the victorious end is as strong as ever. It could not be otherwise, because for Ukrainians, it is an existential war. By its words and actions, Russia has made clear what its preferred scenario would be: not just destruction of the independent Ukrainian state, but a genocidal destruction of the Ukrainian national identity. In reality, Russia does not have the capacity to fully achieve this aim, but as we have seen, it is willing to both take and cause enormous casualties trying to make it happen.
The position of the West has been more ambiguous. It is undeniable that Western sanctions and military assistance have been extremely important. Russia’s attempted quick regime change operation early in the invasion was crushed with ex-Soviet artillery and modern anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), many of them provided by the West. Beyond that, a crucial turning point in the following annexationist Battle of Donbas was the arrival to the battlefield of Western long-range guided multiple rocket launcher systems (GMLRS), especially the famous HIMARS. By precision and range, they denied Russia strategic advantage on the ground and enabled Ukraine to retake huge swathes of previously occupied territory.
In the terrorist phase of the war that followed, characterised as it was by stalemate on the frontlines and continuous Russian cruise missile and drone strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure, Western-provided air defence capabilities helped to significantly reduce the destructiveness of Russia’s attacks. Most recently, the decision to provide NATO-standard infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and main battle tanks (MBTs), should make it possible for Ukraine to undertake further large-scale offensive operations in the spring. By now, even fighter jets and cruise missiles are on the table, and the importance of symbolic gestures, such as Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv on 20 February, should not be underestimated.
However, Ukraine has had to beg for these weapons. In many parts of the West, we have seen a persistent failure to sufficiently acknowledge and appreciate that Ukraine is not just fighting for itself, but also for the security of the whole of Europe. The wishful thinking that Russian aggression would be limited to Ukraine alone this time around is not credible and flies in the face of historical evidence. Ukraine is fighting for the entire rules-based international order, based on the principles enshrined in the UN Charter, which Russia has completely and wilfully broken. Should its fascist regime even temporarily prevail in Ukraine, the emboldening of not just Russia, but of other revisionist authoritarian regimes, would impose immeasurable costs on Western societies.
“In many parts of the West, we have seen a persistent failure to sufficiently acknowledge and appreciate that Ukraine is not just fighting for itself, but also for the security of the whole of Europe.”
Instead of facing this reality, the West has for the longest time self-deterred, paralysed by fear of escalation and various ‘red lines’ as suggested by Russian propaganda. Only new massacres of Ukrainian civilians – and Russia has reliably provided those – have pushed the West’s self-imposed boundaries further and motivated it to act under massive public pressure. Predictably, the ‘red lines’ have evaporated as soon as they were crossed. How many lives could have been saved by more foresight and less cowardice will remain for historians to figure out.
Whilst capable of learning, the West has certainly been a slow learner. By now, there are encouraging signs that it has finally gathered the resolve to do what needs to be done: to send an unequivocal message that Ukraine has the West’s unconditional and unwavering support. There is no other known way of influencing Russia’s strategic calculus, which operates under the idea that the West is inherently weak and lacks determination, that its interest in ‘the Ukraine war’ will inevitably wane, and that Russia can therefore afford to outlast it, as it already did in 2014 and onwards. This time, the West must prove Russia wrong. But in the meantime, Ukrainians must continue fighting for all of us.
Dr Mart Kuldkepp is an Associate Professor at UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society.
Image credits: pPhoto by Tina Hartung on Unsplash.
Notes: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL