It may come in days, weeks, or months, but Ukraine’s counter-offensive is looming. Speculation about its duration and direction is pointless. The key to success is to catch the Russian occupiers by surprise.
But success is vital for diplomatic as much as military reasons. In the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the conventional wisdom among many supposed experts in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, and elsewhere was that 2022 would be a repeat of 2014: a Russian advance, a Ukrainian retreat, and a brokered diplomatic settlement.
Ukrainians showed that was wrong. Their resistance built a consensus behind sanctions, arms deliveries, financial support, and willingness to bear the costs of the war, chiefly higher energy prices. Opposition to the pro-Ukraine policy in most countries retreated to the political margins. That consensus rests on two beliefs: that the war is winnable and that Ukraine is winning it.
These perceptions could easily shift. If Ukraine’s offensive stalls or produces only modest gains, many in the “old West” — countries like France, Germany, Italy, and Spain — will flinch at the prospect of another year of fighting. They will wonder if the time is ripening for some kind of land-for-peace deal, perhaps brokered by China.
These ideas are delusional. Ukrainians will not stop fighting until Russia stops attacking. Their close friends in Poland, the Baltic states, and elsewhere will keep backing them. Their support for the Ukrainian cause rests not on perceptions of success — the desire to back a winner — but on a bleak perception of real threats. If Russian imperialism is not destroyed in defeat in Ukraine, it is only a question of time before the Kremlin will reload, recover, and return to the offensive. Its target could be Ukraine, again, or some other neighboring country. Fading support for Ukraine from the weak-willed “old West” heralds not peace but more war.
What many in the West fail to realize is that whether they like it or not, we face a decade or more dealing with an aggressive, dangerous Russia. Having missed many opportunities to forestall revanchism over the past 30 years, we are now stuck with it. Wishing it away simply compounds the problem.
A lack of visible success is not the greatest danger. I worry more about the problems we face if Ukraine’s offensive succeeds. Imagine, for example, that the “land bridge” to Crimea is cut, and Russia’s occupation becomes unsustainable. The Kremlin will threaten escalation – either with weapons of mass destruction, or with sabotage and other stunts. Vladimir Putin’s grip on power will look shaky.
That will prompt another bout of delusional thinking, where Ukraine’s victory will be traded for the perception of stability. Don’t risk an outright fascist coming to power in Moscow. Don’t risk Russia breaking up. Don’t risk Armageddon. Tell the Ukrainians to quit while they are ahead. If they do not take this advice, they risk losing their vital military and financial support in the West.
The Kremlin knows how to play this game. I was based in the Baltic states in the early 1990s and watched aghast as supposed reformists in Moscow demanded that the West make concessions to keep “hardliners” out of power. These bogeymen — far-right extremists and military loudmouths — were, in fact, mostly creations of the Kremlin.
Demands in those days centered on giving the bankrupt Yeltsin regime money and political support, and arm-twisting the Baltic states on their language and citizenship policies. The modern version will be about lifting sanctions and refraining from “provocative” moves, such as basing outside forces in post-war Ukraine to provide real security. Ridiculous? I hope so. But don’t bet on it.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.