During the early months of the war in Ukraine, it looked as if the Russian offensive might collapse under the weight of its own incompetence. The planned assault on the capital, Kyiv, had to be abandoned after the advancing Russian forces ran out of fuel and food before eventually being compelled to retreat, although not before they had committed terrible atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. The attempted encirclement of Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, similarly failed, with the Ukrainian military forcing the attackers back across the border to regroup.
The unexpectedly stiff Ukrainian resistance and the unexpectedly swift response from the West, along with these spectacular early failures, began to fuel serious discussions among Western analysts as to whether Ukraine could actually win the war. Some suggested that perhaps Kyiv should go even further and try to reclaim Russian-occupied Crimea. But with the conflict now entering its fourth month, that initial optimism has faded as the momentum shifts back towards the Russian side. International observers are moving from considering how far Ukraine should push to how much territory the country might have to concede to achieve a ceasefire.
But such suggestions fundamentally misunderstand President Vladimir Putin’s objectives and undermine the perception of Western unity that will be critical to persuading him to end this war. The only way to stop the fighting is to convince Mr Putin that he cannot afford to go on, and that means redoubling Western support for Ukraine. This includes providing more weapons and ammunition for the forces that are still valiantly fighting on the front line.
Mr Putin appears to have adjusted his immediate objectives from the quick takeover of the entire country he initially sought to a slow, grinding offensive that aims to consolidate Russian gains in the east, cut off Ukraine’s access to the coast, and bring the country to its knees by destroying its economy and exhausting its will to fight. While the Russian economy is contracting, the Ukrainian economy is shrinking far faster (its GDP is projected to fall by 45 per cent this year).
The south-eastern port city of Mariupol finally fell to Russian forces on 16 May, giving Russia its long-sought land bridge to Crimea. The Russian army is also close to taking control of Severodonetsk, one of the last Ukrainian-held cities in the Luhansk region, where President Volodomyr Zelensky has acknowledged that as many as a hundred Ukrainian soldiers may be dying every day.
Confronted with this attack, Kyiv does not need the unsolicited advice it has received in recent weeks from figures such as Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, who urged Ukraine to concede territory to Russia to end the war. This will not halt Mr Putin’s march westwards or end the threat that he poses to neighbouring democracies; it will only empower him and enable him to celebrate an initial victory before attacking what is left of Ukraine in the years to come.
Instead, Western officials must focus their efforts on getting effective weapons as rapidly as possible into the hands of the highly motivated Ukrainian forces who are fighting and dying every day to slow the Russian advance. Ukraine’s government has been clear about what it needs. Western leaders must listen to these pleas, not the advice of Mr Kissinger.
It is encouraging that European Union leaders have agreed to block most Russian oil imports by the end of the year, but it is all too predictable that Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, carved out an exemption for himself. Mr Putin undoubtedly factored the cost of international sanctions into his invasion plan, but he may well have assumed that Europe’s dependency on Russian oil and gas, and domestic political pressures, would cause European leaders’ resolve to weaken.
As with his early flawed assumptions about the depth of Ukrainian resistance, it will be up to the West to prove Mr Putin wrong and to convince him that the only way out of the crisis he has created is to halt his offensive and begin negotiating seriously for peace.
[See also: The second coming of Nato]
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special