The West is gloomy about Ukraine’s prospects. But in vain

A friend of mine from Israel once remarked that optimists and pessimists die the same way, but optimists live better. In the spirit of this statement, let’s look at the situation in Ukraine.

This summer, the West looks at the prospects grimly. Partly because the Ukrainian counter-offensive is moving more slowly than many expected, even though Ukraine is pursuing a well-thought-out “patience” strategy; and the Vilnius NATO summit sparked controversy despite the alliance’s pro-Ukrainian commitments.

The discontent is understandable, but it is wrong. Conflict always puts people to the test of strength. It looks like a tunnel; there is a feeling of fatigue and disappointment; trust drops and everyone starts blaming each other. This war-weariness may affect Ukraine and its allies, but it is much more evident in Russia. Ukraine is not winning this war yet, but Russia is losing – and its leaders and people know it.

Vladimir Putin paid dearly for his invasion. Public anger in Russia sparked what Putin called an “armed rebellion” by renegade warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin. However, Putin is clearly afraid of punishing Prigozhin and his militias. Putin’s army is holding defensive positions in Ukraine, hiding behind minefields. But the control system of the Russian army is falling apart. Putin seems incapable of even admitting it, let alone fixing it.

According to a spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, Russia is preparing a new major offensive east of Kharkiv. This could thwart Ukraine’s plans in the south, but given Russia’s previous actions, it is unlikely to change the balance of the war.

Given the failure of Russian weapons, there is a clear danger that Putin may turn to nuclear weapons. But it would be even more risky for Russia than for the West. Any display of Russian nuclear weapons on the battlefield would trigger a devastating US military response and possibly lead to the loss of China as a Putin ally.

Meanwhile, for the United States and its NATO allies, these 18 months of war became a strategic success at a relatively low cost (not counting, of course, the costs of the Ukrainians). NATO became much stronger after Sweden and Finland joined. Germany became independent of Russian energy sources and in many respects regained a sense of dignity. Disputes within NATO make headlines, but overall this summer has been a triumphant one for the alliance.

Reports from the front lines in Ukraine provide irrefutable evidence that the offensive against entrenched Russian forces was bloody and exhausting. But Ukraine is still slowly moving south and most of it east. Kiev failed to achieve its goal of dividing Russian-occupied territory along the coast and exposing Russian forces in Crimea. But operations such as Monday’s strike on the Kerch Bridge show that Russia’s position is weak.

Ukrainian commanders say that two more things are needed for success. Given the stakes in this war, it would be a mistake not to supply them. First, they are long-range missiles that can hit Russian command and logistics centers deep in the rear. The Ukrainian strategy is to destroy the Russian command and logistics network, and we must give them more tools – provided the missiles do not hit targets in Russia (or, for now, occupied Crimea).

The second requirement of Ukraine is to improve air defense and protection against attacks by Russian aircraft. F-16s won’t help this year, but NATO has other equipment in its arsenal that Ukraine could use, possibly including helicopters and attack aircraft.

President Biden has always said that this war must ultimately be resolved through negotiation, and as Ukraine enters the battlefield, his administration should work to explore diplomatic options. Russia’s weakness is that some of Moscow’s friends, such as Turkey and China, seem to be increasingly interested in a negotiated settlement.

As the West helps Ukraine move forward, it must also begin to explore the conditions under which a just settlement of this war is possible. Ukraine will need security guarantees, but a radically weakened Russia will also need guarantees. It is necessary to involve the United Nations, possibly peacekeeping forces that can stabilize the borders after Russia withdraws from the occupied territory.

On the other side of this war lies a better future for each side of the conflict, including a possible post-Putin Russia. The essence of the tunnel is that if you keep moving in it, darkness will eventually give way to light.


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