The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I was just in Kyiv under fire. I saw why Ukraine can win.

An explosion of a missile is seen in the sky over Kyiv, Ukraine, during a Russian missile strike, on Thursday. (Reuters)
8 min

KYIV, Ukraine — From afar, the war in Ukraine can look like a bloody stalemate with no winners and no choice but a negotiated solution. The Ukrainians’ confidence that they can expel the Russian invaders from all of their soil, even Crimea (occupied by the Russians since 2014), can seem delusional. The same Washington eminences who expected last year that Kyiv would fall within 72 hours now warn that Ukrainians might have to settle for a “frozen” conflict that will leave Moscow’s war criminals in control of one-fifth of their land.

But after spending last week in Kyiv with a delegation from the Renew Democracy Initiative (a pro-democracy group founded by former chess champion Garry Kasparov), I concluded that the Ukrainians’ determination to prevail against heavy odds was not only laudable but also eminently sensible. Ukrainians have taken the worst that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has dished out, and they have not only survived but also thrived.

Kyiv does not feel like a city under siege. It is a bustling, vibrant metropolis with traffic jams and crowded bars and restaurants. Mayor Vitali Klitschko told us that its population, which had been 3.8 million before the war, is now back to 3.6 million — albeit including 300,000 refugees from war-torn parts of Ukraine. The northern suburbs of Kyiv, which the Russian army reached in March 2022, remain full of burned-out buildings, but war damage is hard to find inside the city limits. The eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut — site of the largest land battle in Europe since World War II — is only about 360 miles away, but it feels far more distant.

The main reminders of the ongoing conflict are the frequent Russian air attacks that are announced in actor Mark Hamill’s voice on the Air Alert app that is on everyone’s cellphones. (When the all-clear sounds, Hamill tells Ukrainians, “May the Force be with you.”) Indeed, the very first night after our arrival on May 16 by train from Warsaw, we witnessed one of the biggest air attacks on Kyiv to date. According to Ukrainian officials, the Russians launched six hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, nine Kalibr cruise missiles, three Iskander ballistic missiles and numerous Shahed attack drones.

The Russians had bragged that the Kinzhals were so fast as to be unstoppable. Yet they were stopped cold by Ukraine’s newly acquired Patriot missile defense system — part of a dense network of old Soviet and new Western air defenses, including the American-Norwegian NASAMs and the German IRIS-T, that now safeguard its territory. Remarkably enough, no one was killed in the early morning barrage that might have been designed to take out a Patriot battery. There was only minimal damage from falling debris. (One Patriot component was lightly damaged but quickly repaired.)

From my vantage point in a hotel room in the center of Kyiv, the whole attack was no big deal — just a matter of losing a little sleep and hearing some loud thumps as the Patriots intercepted the Kinzhals. This was a remarkable tribute to Ukrainian skill in utilizing advanced Western technology.

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Little wonder that Ukrainians don’t talk about what will happen “after the war.” They talk about what will happen “after the victory.” That’s how confident they are. In the past, such talk may have contained a large element of bravado and wishful thinking, but now it is a product of hard-won experience. “Nothing could surprise us that we haven’t already seen,” a high-ranking Ukrainian military official told us. “There are no significant weapons systems, aside from nuclear weapons, that the Russians haven’t used against Ukraine.” (He added that the use of nuclear weapons remains a “low probability,” particularly now that the Ukrainians can reliably intercept Russian missiles.)

In the past six months, the Russian war effort focused on two main lines of operations: trying to destroy electrical and heating infrastructure to render Ukrainian cities unlivable and trying to break through Ukrainian defenses in Bakhmut with human-wave attacks. Neither offensive has worked as planned.

Power remains on and life goes on outside of the front-line areas. Continued Russian attacks on urban areas are only making Ukrainians angrier at the invaders and more determined to resist their onslaught.

As for Bakhmut, while mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military company, now control much of the wrecked town, Ukrainian forces in recent days have advanced on its outskirts. Having suffered staggering casualties over nine months to secure incremental gains, Wagner founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin blamed the Russian Defense Ministry for his own lack of success by complaining that he wasn’t getting enough artillery ammunition.

In a similar search for scapegoats, Putin’s security forces just arrested on charges of treason three of the scientists who helped develop the Kinzhal. The Kremlin appears to be in disarray and mired in the blame game.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian armed forces, while continuing to take heavy casualties of their own, are growing stronger with the delivery of new Western weapons systems. The Patriots have gotten a lot of attention, but it’s also significant that the British have delivered Storm Shadow cruise missiles to give Ukraine a new long-range strike capacity.

Another breakthrough is the Biden administration’s decision not to block European nations from providing Ukraine with F-16s that are much more capable than its existing MiG-29s. Having F-16s would allow the Ukrainians to strike at Russian positions from longer ranges and to defend their airspace even as ammunition dwindles for their old Soviet air defenses. And, in a few months, the United States is due to deliver M1 Abrams tanks.

The Abrams and F-16s won’t arrive in time for the looming counteroffensive, but Ukrainian troops will have the benefit of Leopard tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and other Western armored vehicles. The Ukrainians will not have an easy time of it — Russia has 350,000 ground forces in and around Ukraine, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told us — and the Ukrainians are trying to dampen expectations. But the Russians are forced to defend a 600-mile front. They cannot be strong everywhere. The Ukrainians just have to find a weak spot and punch through it.

Even if the Ukrainian army makes substantial progress, it seems doubtful that the war can be won this year. That would require either a change of leadership in the Kremlin or a total collapse of Russian forces — and neither is likely. But the Ukrainians have a good opportunity to regain the initiative, which they lost after the success of the Kharkiv and Kherson counteroffensives last year. That could give them a fighting chance to regain control of their pre-2014 borders next year, a retired U.S. Army officer who advises the Ukrainian military told me.

Yes, that would require liberating Crimea, but Reznikov told us his forces aren’t planning to invade the fortified peninsula. His goal is to get troops close enough to interdict Russian supply lines and force the Russians to retreat just as they did from Kherson last fall.

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Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.


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The Ukrainians might not be able to pull it off, but they deserve a chance to try. As former defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk told us, “Victory is the only option.” After Putin seized Crimea and fomented an insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Ukrainians tried negotiating an end to the war in the Minsk process. The only result was to convince the tyrant in the Kremlin that he could expand his offensive with impunity.

The best-informed Ukrainian officials are not fooling themselves that they can win the war this year; one senior military official told us that if the war were a soccer match, then we’d be only at the end of the first half. But those we talked to, from the most senior generals to the most junior soldiers, expressed a quiet confidence that a successful counteroffensive can set the stage for a final victory at some point in the not-too-distant future.

“We do not consider this as the last and final battle,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said about the looming counteroffensive. “If we can achieve the full expulsion of the Russian forces from our territory, then we will have fought the final battle. If not, there will be another battle and another.”

The role of the United States and its allies should be to give the Ukrainians every possible piece of equipment — including lots of F-16s and longer-range missiles — to enable their battlefield success rather than to undercut them by pushing for premature negotiations that might prolong, rather than end, the conflict. The Ukrainians have already far outperformed expectations, and there is no reason they cannot continue to do so — as long as the West continues to give them the unstinting support they need, expect and deserve.