Eliot Cohen is right that westerners are reluctant to jinx the Ukrainians by projecting victory but it’s not because “we have become accustomed over the past 20 years to think of our side as being stymied, ineffective, or incompetent,” as he says. It’s true after Afghanistan and Iraq that Americans have come to treat stalemate as the best-case scenario in war, but disappointment over a stalemate isn’t why people are being cautious about Ukraine. No one expected the Ukrainians to impose their will on a larger, supposedly superior Russian force, after all. Because they’re fighting defensively, on their own land, stymieing the Russians in a war of attrition was the most the world could have hoped for. They’ve achieved that, against all odds. Even Mariupol, battered and starved, has yet to fall. No one but no one thinks they’ve been “ineffective or incompetent.”
The reason it’s difficult to believe that Ukraine is “winning” is that this war will almost certainly end with Zelensky making concessions to Putin, including territorial concessions. Ukraine “wins” only if Putin gets nothing, or at least nothing more than vaporous rhetorical promises. For instance, Ukraine might pledge not to join NATO. And so what if they do? They weren’t going to join NATO anyway. If their consolation prize for being excluded from NATO are NATO-esque security guarantees from western powers that prevent Russia from ever trying this again, they’ll have improved their position from before the war.
The same goes for Russia’s demands for “demilitarization” and “denazification.” If all that means in practice is Ukraine agreeing not to host foreign bases and to formally condemn neo-Nazism, fine. Those concessions are so minor that they’re as embarrassing for Putin as no concessions at all. It’d be like a mugger trying to rob a man, getting his ass kicked, and then the victim shoving a dollar bill in his mouth before leaving him crumpled on the street. The “concession” in that case is more of a humiliation than a reward for bad behavior.
Putin’s going to want more than rhetorical concessions, though, and he’s probably going to get it. The Russians took Khersov weeks ago and they’re inside Mariupol as I write this. The “land bridge” between Crimea and the Donbas is within reach. Once Putin takes Mariupol and demands that Zelensky concede that territory to him, what does Zelensky say?
How does this end without Russia carving off chunks of Ukraine in the south and possibly the east?
Cohen looks on the bright side, at Russian incompetence:
Add to this the repeated tactical blundering visible on videos even to amateurs: vehicles bunched up on roads, no infantry covering the flanks, no closely coordinated artillery fire, no overhead support from helicopters, and panicky reactions to ambushes. The 1-to-1 ratio of vehicles destroyed to those captured or abandoned bespeaks an army that is unwilling to fight. Russia’s inability to concentrate its forces on one or two axes of attack, or to take a major city, is striking. So, too, are its massive problems in logistics and maintenance, carefully analyzed by technically qualified observers…
If Russia is engaging in cyberwar, that is not particularly evident. Russia’s electronic-warfare units have not shut down Ukrainian communications. Half a dozen generals have gotten themselves killed either by poor signal security or trying desperately to unstick things on the front lines. And then there are the negative indicators on the other side—no Ukrainian capitulations, no notable panics or unit collapses, and precious few local quislings, while the bigger Russophilic fish, such as the politician Viktor Medvedchuk, are wisely staying quiet or out of the country. And reports have emerged of local Ukrainian counterattacks and Russian withdrawals…
Talk of stalemate obscures the dynamic quality of war. The more you succeed, the more likely you are to succeed; the more you fail, the more likely you are to continue to fail. There is no publicly available evidence of the Russians being able to regroup and resupply on a large scale; there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. If the Ukrainians continue to win, we might see more visible collapses of Russian units and perhaps mass surrenders and desertions. Unfortunately, the Russian military will also frantically double down on the one thing it does well—bombarding towns and killing civilians.
There’s also the small matter of that gory, completely unsustainable Russian death toll.
One way to answer the question “Is Ukraine winning?” is to say, “Actually, they’ve already won.” Russia’s original goal of ousting Zelensky and occupying the country is so far out of reach that they stopped listing it as a demand in negotiations weeks ago. And strategically, the war is a rout. Russia will be much weaker militarily and economically after this is over, maybe for decades to come. It’ll be treated as a pariah as long as Putin rules it. If not for its nuclear arsenal, it wouldn’t even be viewed as a major power going forward. Its future is as a Chinese vassal, however hard it may be for them to admit that.
Ukraine is where the Russian civilization was born and where Russia’s status as a great power will die.
Yet even so, the chances of Ukraine breaking up (temporarily) after the war aren’t zero. One British military strategist told NBC, “It is quite possible that once Mariupol falls, that will release Russian forces from the two republics to either push west to Odesa or indeed push north in an effort to threaten the rear of the Ukrainian forces operating in the Donbass, which would pose the Ukrainian high command with a difficult choice about whether it continued to fight there or whether it seeks to withdraw.” I wrote about that a few days ago. There’s a scenario in which Russia’s army is strong enough to finish off Mariupol, then pushes north and tries to consolidate control of the eastern half of Ukraine.
If Putin sued for peace at that point, offering to withdraw if Zelensky partitions the country and concedes the east to Russia, Zelensky would likely say no. The price for that would be more death rained down on Ukrainians by a Russian military that may be too weak on the ground to advance west but remains ruthless enough to keep firing shells and missiles indefinitely from afar. And sometimes from not so far:
Ukrainian officials said on Sunday that an attack by a Russian tank on a home for the elderly in a town called Kreminna in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region had killed 56 people on March 11. The incident was belatedly reported, the authorities said, because fighting had made access impossible.
“They just adjusted the tank, put it in front of the house and started firing,” said Serhiy Haidai, a Ukrainian official overseeing the Luhansk Regional State Administration.
If, in a month, Russia controls most of southern and eastern Ukraine and there’s a mountain of Ukrainian corpses, is that a “win” simply because Ukraine still exists in some form as a sovereign nation? Is it a “win” because there’d still be enough of a Ukrainian identity left that, in five or 10 years’ time, an insurgency supplied by the western half of the country might succeed in ousting the Russians from the east?
Here’s Chuck Todd with Liz Cheney in agreement that Putin shouldn’t be “rewarded” with concessions for his war of aggression. Rewarding him would be gravely unjust, but life often is.
Join the conversation as a VIP Member