The least worst option in Ukraine
Make no mistake: No one can win the war in Ukraine. First, defining “wining” and “losing” is complicated. Unless Russia were to use nuclear weapons, and that may not be sufficient, it lacks the forces to defeat the Ukrainian military and occupy all of Ukraine against what would be a massive, long-term insurrection. And Ukraine lacks the military power to retake Crimea and all the Donbas under Russian control.
Thus, winning and losing in Ukraine is not relevant. The Korean War, which still has not ended with a peace treaty, underscores this point. The boundary of the 38th parallel was restored after both sides took large losses and both Koreas were devastated by the conflict. Yet, none of the belligerents could declare victory or admit defeat.
Second, Ukraine has been largely destroyed as a functioning state by the unprovoked and illegal Russian invasion. Many Ukrainian cities and much of its infrastructure have been turned into rubble. Rebuilding and reconstruction will take decades and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Even if Russia were able to overrun Ukraine, it could never afford the expense of repairing the destruction it imposed.
Third, Russia has been isolated. It has provoked NATO to add two new members and increase its defense spending and capability directed against Russia. The sanctions have harmed Russian citizens and its economy, not the elites. And the huge losses it has taken cannot be ignored by the families and friends of those soldiers killed or wounded in battle.
Fourth, Russia’s refusal to return captured Ukrainian territory and Ukraine’s demands to the contrary make any successful negotiations infeasible. That means, at best, a ceasefire, armistice, stalemate or suspension of fighting are the only plausible outcomes. And none of these eliminates further escalation by either party.
Current Ukrainian, U.S., NATO and Russian strategies appear to be two sides of the same coin. Ukraine is attempting to extend the fight until winter, build up forces and military capabilities, and resume the offensive next year, expecting losses will ultimately force Russia to negotiate an end to the fighting. Russia is maintaining its offensive in the expectation that Ukraine and the West ultimately will capitulate, leaving Russia in control of the land it now occupies and waiting for a much later date to finish its conquest of the rest of the country with an attack to gain control of Kyiv.
What can change or alter this deadlock? While Washington is allocating close to $50 billion to support Ukraine, and the bulk of that money will go to replenishing the U.S. weapons stripped from its forces sent to Ukraine, it has restricted range and capabilities so as not to strike Russia and provoke escalation. Some have called this, along with statements reassuring Moscow that no U.S. troops would be sent to Ukraine, self-deterrence. Why, many ask, should Russia be allowed to strike targets in Ukraine and Ukraine prevented from attacking Russia? That makes little sense.
Washington could reverse those restrictions. It could also send anti-ship missiles with longer ranges than the Harpoon systems en route to be used against Russia’s Black Sea surface warships. It could also supply weapons to take down the Kerch Bridge linking both sides of the Sea of Azov and greatly restricting Russia’s supply lines with the aim of forcing Russia to negotiate.
Russia could follow a parallel strategy. Taking Severdonetsk quickly and then proposing negotiations is one. But negotiations are complicated, if not made impossible, by other factors. Russia will want all sanctions lifted. Ukraine will need security guarantees to prevent another Russian invasion. And Ukraine needs many billions to reconstruct the country. At this point, it does not appear that any of these issues can be resolved.
The outlook for Ukraine is grim without a major change in strategy. Worse, despite Russia’s outrageous conduct and disregard for international norms, Russian oil and gas are vital to Europeans and their economies. Moscow earns about $1 billion a day from energy exports. Ending dependence on Russian energy will take years, if indeed that is a viable prospect. What can Ukraine and its allies do in the interim?
The imperfect option is to broaden and increase the flow of weapons to Ukraine while ending any self-deterring restraints to impose as many casualties on Russia’s military and destroy as much of its capability as possible. Killing one’s way to end a war is not a strategy. But it is, sadly, the least worst course that can be achieved.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.