Ukraine’s counteroffensive is now officially underway. As the events unfold, people are asking how Russia’s war on Ukraine will end, as if it is a movie with a predetermined finale. What we should instead be asking is “How should the war end and what can we do to get there?” Fortunately, there’s a really simple answer to this two-part question. The war should end with the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity (including Russian withdrawal from Crimea) and the provision of credible security guarantees to Ukraine to deter future attacks by Russia. Getting there requires significant, sustained, and timely military aid to Ukraine and a military defeat of Russia in one form or another.
To understand why a full Ukrainian victory is necessary, let’s start with the alternative “solution”. Russian constantly claims that the West is “fueling the fire” by giving Ukraine weapons. People who believe this narrative argue for reducing or eliminating military aid to Ukraine. They are implicitly or explicitly assuming that without Western support, Ukraine and Russia would negotiate, come to some painful but necessary compromise, and peace will be restored. Other people in the “nothing but negotiations” camp simply assert that fighting is never the answer, and that Ukraine must therefore pursue negotiations with Russia above all else. Because the war is taking place on Ukrainian territory and therefore Russia could end it at any time simply by withdrawing its troops, people in the “fighting is never the answer” camp implicitly put the onus on Ukraine to make whatever concessions are needed to get Russia to cease attacking.
A scenario where Ukraine and Russia both make some compromises and negotiate a lasting peace is unrealistic for two key reasons. First, Ukrainians will not stop fighting for their freedom even if the West withdraws military aid. Russia has committed too many war crimes and showed itself to be too horrible of a neighbor for most Ukrainians to contemplate capitulation. Armed resistance to the Soviets in Western Ukraine went on for at least 10 years after 1945, and so if any land is ceded to Russia, guerrilla warfare will persist. True peace in this scenario is highly unlikely. And who can blame Ukrainians for not wanting to give up? Trying to obtain peace by pressuring Ukraine to concede to Russia is like pressuring a rape victim to marry her rapist and then claiming that the problem has been solved. It is repugnant, immoral, and at best whitewashes the situation without addressing the fundamental offense.
An even more important reason the aforementioned scenario will not materialize in the foreseeable future is because Russia has given no indication that it is willing to give up its maximalist objectives in Ukraine. Apart from ambitions to restore its empire, the Kremlin is fundamentally threatened by the idea of a democratic, pro-Western Ukraine. Having Russia’s war result in it gaining effective control over a country of 40 million people should be horrifying to anyone who has followed Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine and its repressive domestic policies. But without external pushback or a drastic internal change, there is no evidence Russia will settle for less. For example, the only vocal critics in Russia who are not being silenced are ultra-nationalist bloggers and others who are saying that Russia isn’t going far enough, who want Russia to formally declare war, do a full-scale mobilization, and, in some cases, use nuclear weapons. The propaganda that has been poisoning Russian minds for years has taken over since February 2022, and the majority of Russians are now either “true believers” or too afraid to say anything. Russia is militarizing its economy, indicating that it is preparing for a protracted war. There’s no sign of a de-escalation in Russia’s stated objectives in Ukraine, nor has anyone identified a viable way of getting Russia to change its rhetoric that does not involve a Russian military defeat.
There’s thus a huge chasm between what Russia demands for peace—essentially, complete Ukrainian capitulation—and what Ukraine would accept—the withdrawal of all Russian troops from internationally recognized Ukrainian borders. The world should not be indifferent between which of these scenarios materialize. Anything less than full Ukrainian victory would be very dangerous, as it would send a signal to would-be aggressors that they can “win” something if only they persist and are brazen enough. How Russia fares and how much support Ukraine gets matters to China’s calculations of whether to invade Taiwan, for example, a scenario that could easily ignite World War III. Giving Ukraine more weapons will make a nuclear confrontation less (not more!) likely.
Contrary to what some might say, what is prolonging this war is not that the world is giving too many weapons to Ukraine but that it isn’t giving enough of them quickly enough. Russia is surely hoping, for example, that Trump wins the 2024 US election and reverses course on supporting Ukraine. Asking Ukraine to give up its fight to make a deal with Russia will not bring durable and just peace. It will make war in Ukraine and elsewhere more likely.
How can Russian military defeat be realized? The cleanest victory is one where Ukraine pushes Russian troops out of Ukrainian territory by force, and this is the easiest path to victory the world can help ensure. It is conceivable, however, that Russia will give up or be forced to give up even before the last Russian soldier’s foot leaves Ukrainian soil. What kind of Russia will emerge from such a defeat is not clear. But it will surely be a better Russia to live with than a Russia that emerges claiming victory.
While everyone, including the Ukrainian people, would love for the war to be over, how it ends is extremely important. Let us not forget that Russia shamelessly broke and continues to break numerous international agreements it has promised to uphold. Let us not forget that the war in Ukraine is not a civil war, where there is sometimes ambiguity as to who is right. Let us not forget that a Ukrainian victory would ultimately be a victory for ordinary Russians too. The only people who would lose from a Russian defeat are those who are part of the criminal Russian regime and other would-be aggressors.