Ukrainian Success Will Not Be Catastrophic
We’re the strong ones in this conflict, and we deter more effectively when we act with confidence on that knowledge.
“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature,” Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his landmark treatise On War. “This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.” The leaders of Ukraine and Russia have set simple, and wholly incompatible, goals in their current war: Volodymyr Zelensky has made clear that Ukraine is fighting for its freedom, and Vladimir Putin has made clear that Russia is fighting to destroy Ukrainian independence.
Right now, the Ukrainians seem most likely to get what they want. And the United States shouldn’t fear the consequences of their victory.
Zelensky has been indefatigable in communicating his aims, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the government has worked to connect the war to its human toll on Ukrainians. He grieves at the Bucha massacre, frets about the collapse of the Ukrainian economy, celebrates Ukrainian civil society, and somberly honors the military.
When lionized for Ukraine’s putting up an unexpectedly stiff resistance to Russian aggression, Zelensky implored the international community to understand that all Ukraine wants is peace. “I don’t want them destroyed—I want them all to remain.” More than 200 days after Russia invaded, he sounded equally focused on the survival of his people when he spoke to a group I was with in Kyiv this week: “The people are the only treasure we have.”
He has succeeded in bolstering Ukrainians’ hopes: 97 percent believe that Ukraine will definitely or likely win the war, and 40 percent favor no concessions of any kind to end the war. Ukrainians believe they are fighting for the fundamental values of a free society: human dignity, political liberty, national security. Those beliefs have electrified the society, which is engaged in impressive civic activism in support of the defense effort—something that will be studied by Western countries as mastery of 21st-century warfare.
Clausewitz also wrote that “the moral elements are among the most important in war. They constitute the spirit that permeates war as a whole.” Ukraine’s war has those moral elements, and they are generating societal resilience and garnering international support; Russia’s war does not, and that will doom it. Russia likely cannot recover from its strategic mistakes or generate the resources to achieve its war aims, especially because its leadership remains obdurate and its military forces are failing to adapt.
Ukrainian staying power is, naturally, changing the Russian approach. Putin initially believed Ukraine was so riddled with corruption and Russian supporters that a “special military operation” could parachute into the capitol and effect a regime change. He sent ground forces streaming in along three axes in the east and south to add insult to injury. Although the Russian military has targeted civilian populations from the start, it has shifted dramatically in that cruel direction as its invasion falters and is driven back. As Russia’s failures on the battlefield mount, it will lose its military effectiveness—which will further shift the Russian way of war from fighting an army to punishing civilians it could not conquer.
Could the Russians escalate more, and more wildly? Yes, absolutely. The possibility of Russia using a nuclear weapon on Kyiv as Russia’s military is forced to retreat is discussed frequently in policy circles in Kyiv. But I heard no variation on the conclusion by Ukrainians that it would change only the cost, not the outcome, of the war. Russia is already purposely inflicting civilian casualties indiscriminately and in large numbers.
As Ukrainians defend their country, you can see what Abraham Lincoln called “the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” You see it in graffiti reading more Europe, less war on the sides of destroyed apartment buildings. You hear it in mayors anxiously describing large-scale evacuations and the challenges of refugee resettlement. It emanates from the sober assessments of their military planners explaining what has been achieved but all that remains to be done. It rests in the mutual respect evident between the military and their civilian leadership, and Ukrainians’ affection for their military.
Some fear a “catastrophic victory” for Ukraine that humiliates Putin, thereby risking escalation against Ukraine or attacks on the U.S. and its NATO allies. But Russia isn’t winning a war against Ukraine, and it can’t win a war against us. We’re the strong ones in this conflict, and we deter more effectively when we act with confidence on that knowledge.
As we begin to think about a postwar Ukraine, we should not let the failures of prewar Ukraine shackle our thinking about who Ukrainians are and what they are capable of. They deserve our continued, increased help to win their war and reconstruct their country within the confines of the West.