It’s been more than a month since Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, having failed to take Kyiv, launched an offensive in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine to salvage some glimmer of victory from his unprovoked war of aggression.
Overall, the Pentagon assesses Russian progress as “uneven” and “incremental.” To achieve such small gains, the Russians have suffered heavy losses, with the British government estimating last week that the invaders had lost a third of the 190,000-strong force that initially attacked Ukraine. One particularly spectacular Russian setback occurred during an attempted crossing of the Siverskyi Donets River in Donbas. Ukrainian artillery zeroed in on the Russian troops, leading to the loss of an estimated 485 soldiers and 80 pieces of equipment.
Even Putin is implicitly conceding that things have not been going according to plan by reportedly firing the general in command of the 1st Guards Tank Army, after its failure to capture Kharkiv, and the admiral in charge of the Black Sea fleet after its flagship, the Moskva, was sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. The Kremlin is so strapped for manpower that is lifting age restrictions for new recruits. How long before they send a brigade of babushkas into Ukraine?
The Russian offensive appears to be petering out, and a major Ukrainian counteroffensive is still to come. Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army Europe, predicts that the Russian army will collapse by the end of the summer and that Ukraine will reclaim all of the territory it has lost since the invasion began on Feb. 24. While that scenario may be over-optimistic, it is more likely than any kind of Russian victory.
But instead of celebrating the Ukrainians’ progress, many in the West are reacting with trepidation. French President Emmanuel Macron is warning that Russia must not be humiliated. Italy is circulating its own four-point peace plan. The New York Times editorial board is tut-tutting that “a decisive military victory for Ukraine … is not a realistic goal” and advising President Volodymyr Zelensky to give up land for peace.
This is faux-realism. Given that the world widely expected Kyiv to fall within three days of a Russian invasion, it is the height of hubris to say what Ukraine can or cannot achieve on the battlefield. Given the horrors that Russia has inflicted on the areas it has conquered — which include rape, murder and deportation — it is the height of inhumanity to insist that Ukraine turn over any of its people to indefinite Russian occupation. And given that Russia has shown no sign of stopping the war or entering into serious negotiations, it is the height of wishful thinking to imagine that Ukrainian concessions now would bring the war to an end. More likely, Putin would view any preemptive concessions as a sign of faltering resolve and simply redouble his determination to outlast his enemies.
It is time to stop worrying about sparing Putin’s feelings. That is the mind-set that led to the invasion of Ukraine in the first place. Russia transgressed before — the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the seizure of Crimea in 2014, the bombing of Syria beginning in 2015, the attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the poisoning of dissidents in the West — and the West never really cracked down because of the assumption that we had to do business with Moscow. Enough mollycoddling. Russia must suffer such a devastating defeat that it will be many decades before another Russian leader thinks of attacking a peaceful neighbor.
What is everyone afraid of anyway? There is no conventional escalation that Putin can now undertake as a practical matter; his air force is being held back not by Russian restraint but by Ukrainian air defenses. The concern — let’s be honest — is that, if Putin is humiliated, he will go nuclear. But the chances of Putin nuking a NATO country and initiating World War III are infinitesimally small. If Putin uses a nuclear weapon it would be against Ukraine. The Ukrainians are willing to run that small risk to defend their country — and the entire civilized world — from an evil war of aggression.
We who sit safely and watch the war from the sidelines have no right to tell the Ukrainians what their war aims should be. We have a moral and strategic obligation to simply support them. The Ukrainians need more weapons from the West, including HIMARS rocket artillery and F-16 fighter planes. They don’t need lectures from second-guessers who claim to know better than they do what is in their own self-interest.