Ukraine is once again a bloodland. Ukrainian officials concede that its military is losing up to two hundred soldiers a day on the front lines. Hundreds more are injured, taking close to a thousand fighters out of battle daily. To this must be added an unknown level of civilian deaths and injuries.
The revelations are part of an increasingly strident appeal by the Ukrainian government for more weapon systems – particularly long-range artillery – and ammunition from western countries. “The faster we get such weaponry, the faster we can liberate our lands,” president Zelenskiy told the visiting leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania recently.
This desperate cry for more firepower comes as some US officials go public over concerns about Ukraine’s war strategy. Despite being Ukraine’s largest weapons supplier, US intelligence officials say they lack a clear picture of how Ukraine is fighting. The US recently pledged an additional $1 billion in security assistance but there are worries in Washington about whether Ukraine has the capacity to use these weapon systems effectively. President Biden recalled that president Zelenskiy “didn’t want to hear” early US warnings that Russia planned to invade his country.
Not wanting to hear unwelcome realities is also an affliction of some international supporters of Ukraine. Everyone wants Ukraine to win. Few specify in detail what that really means, and how many Ukrainians they are willing to sacrifice for their idea of victory. Casting the Ukrainian struggle in heroic terms, they have favoured what is desirable over what is probable, what is ideal over what is realistic. With so many losing their lives, that is reprehensible.
Any victory for Ukraine in its war against Russian invasion will be relative, not absolute. It can be understood along a six-point spectrum from winning small to winning big. On the small end, Ukraine has already achieved important wins.
First, it successfully repelled the brazen attempt at regime change that Russia’s leadership initially attempted. An assassination squad was itself assassinated. Second, it inflicted and continues to inflict significant losses on Russia. Russia’s image as a competent military power is in tatters. That is due to courageous Ukrainian resistance.
Third, the Ukrainian military has won by taking back territory seized by Russia at the outset of the war. Russian forces were compelled to withdraw from Kyiv and its surrounding region. Subsequently, Ukrainian forces have recorded gains north and northeast of Kharkiv. The Ukrainian military has also made small territorial gains in the south. In all instances, Ukraine is winning by not losing. This resonates with the Ukrainian national anthem: “Ukraine’s freedom has not yet perished, nor has her glory.”
Things are more complex when one considers territory and the “winning big” end of the spectrum. Here there are possible territorial victories for Ukraine: reclaiming all the territory seized by Russia since its invasion on February 24th; reclaiming this and all the Donbas; and, finally, achieving all these gains and thereafter reclaiming Crimea. This last scenario is Ukraine’s dream win, achieving what officials call the complete “de-occupation” of their country. Figures such as British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss have backed this maximalist vision: “We will keep going, further and faster, to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine.”
Rhetoric like this feels satisfyingly Churchillian. But it is also deeply unserious, a retreat from the messy complexities of the real world to slogans and poses (a recurring pattern unfortunately). Some 20 per cent of Ukraine, we are told, is currently occupied by the Russian military. The territories seized by Russia since February 24th meet the commonsense definition of occupation – rule by a military over a population hostile to their presence. But the case of separatist controlled Donbas is complex: many there want to join Russia. What is certain is that Crimea does not meet this definition. The majority there now see themselves as Russians living in Russia. A Ukrainian military attempt to seize it in the name of liberation, in other words, would be an act against the wishes of the majority living there. Ukraine invading Crimea would be what Russia has just done. And, in all likelihood, their troops would be met by similar resistance.
Many do not want to hear this. They do not want to know about the tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives that would be lost, or about the consequences if Russia were about to lose Crimea and Russia’s historic Black Sea naval base. Don’t worry about provoking Vladimir Putin, the leading US hawk Max Boot recently declared, while advocating for extensive new weapon systems and foreign fighters for Ukraine. Ukraine, he added, “has millions of volunteers willing to risk death to defend their homeland.”
Ukraine deserves better from us: it deserves realism. Ukrainians largely oppose territorial concessions to Russia. But one sober finding from our recent research is that women, those closest to front lines and those most vulnerable are more inclined to prioritise an immediate ceasefire over liberating territory.
Tackling the immediate food-insecurity crisis can help revitalise diplomacy. Getting a ceasefire is imperative, then creative solutions to insecurity and territorial claims. The West should help Ukraine end, not fuel, this awful war.
Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.