Defining success in Ukraine

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, expressed the opinion that 2025 could be the time when Ukraine will again launch a counter-offensive against Russian troops. In terms of strategic calculation, that would be a serious mistake

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Ukrainians for Heroes' Day at the cemetery in Lviv, Photo: Reuters
Ukrainians for Heroes' Day at the cemetery in Lviv, Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Three months ago I wrote a column entitled "Will Ukraine survive?" The answer (thankfully) for next year is “yes”, thanks to Ukraine's willingness to fight and sacrifice, as well as the resumption of significant military assistance from the United States of America.

At the same time, Russia has launched a new offensive in the northeast that threatens Kharkiv (Ukraine's second largest city), is preparing for a prolonged war, and has largely reorganized its forces. This raises an important question: having received a new tranche of aid, what goal should Ukraine and its backers in the West pursue? What should constitute success?

Some believe that success should be defined as the return of all the territories Ukraine lost in order to re-establish the 1991 borders. American national security adviser Jake Sullivan expressed the opinion that 2025 could be the time when Ukraine will again launch a counteroffensive against Russian troops.

That would be a serious mistake. Don't get me wrong: re-establishing fair, legal boundaries would be highly desirable, showing that aggression is not acceptable. But foreign policy must be feasible as well as desirable, and Ukraine is simply not in a position to liberate Crimea and its eastern regions by military force.

Consequences of Russian rocket attacks on Kharkiv
Consequences of Russian rocket attacks on Kharkivphoto: Reuters

Mathematics is inevitable. Russia has too many soldiers and a war economy capable of producing large quantities of weapons and ammunition. Despite the sanctions, Russia manages to grow its military-industrial base and has access to weapons and ammunition produced in Iran and North Korea, as well as Chinese products and technologies that contribute to the Kremlin's war effort.

Another factor working against Ukraine's efforts to recapture territories by force is that offensive operations typically require far more manpower, equipment, and ammunition than defensive efforts. This is especially the case when the defense has the opportunity to build fortifications, as Russia has done in most of the Ukrainian territory it occupies.

Foreign policy must be feasible as well as desirable, and Ukraine is simply not in a position to liberate Crimea and its eastern regions by military force

The likely result of a new Ukrainian offensive would be a huge loss of soldiers, which the already undermanned Ukrainian army cannot afford. The limited military equipment and ammunition that Ukraine has access to would quickly be used up, making it difficult to defend the area currently under Ukrainian control. A failed Ukrainian offensive would also give new arguments to those in Western capitals who are skeptical about providing any aid to Ukraine, seeing such aid as wasteful.

What strategy, then, should Ukraine and its supporters pursue? First, Ukraine should emphasize the defensive because such an approach would allow it to conserve its limited resources and frustrate Russia.

Second, Ukraine should be given the means (long-range strike capacity) and freedom to attack Russian forces anywhere in Ukraine, as well as Russian warships in the Black Sea and economic targets inside Russia itself. Russia must feel the costs of the war it started and continues.

Third, backers of Ukraine must commit to providing long-term military assistance. The goal of all of the above is to signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that time is not on Russia's side and that it cannot hope to outlast Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldier on the battlefield near Bakhmut
Ukrainian soldier on the battlefield near Bakhmutphoto: Reuters

Ukraine and its backers should do one more thing: propose an interim cease-fire agreement along existing lines.

Putin is likely to reject such a proposal, but his rejection should make it easier to win debates in the US about providing aid to Ukraine, as it would expose Russia as the party responsible for continuing the war. It could even provide the context in which Washington's military aid would continue even if Donald Trump takes office again in November.

This combination of defensive moves, deep strikes, continued Western military aid, and a diplomatic effort that exposes Russia as the aggressor could eventually convince Putin to accept a temporary ceasefire. Under such an agreement, no country would be required to give up its long-term claims.

Ukraine and its backers should propose an interim ceasefire agreement along existing lines

Ukraine could continue to demand the return of all its territory. Russia may continue to argue that Ukraine has no right to exist as a sovereign state. Both sides could continue to rearm. Sanctions could remain in place. Ukraine could work on closer ties with both the European Union and NATO.

Ukraine would undoubtedly resist elements of this approach. But the US and other supporters of Ukraine should insist on him. Ukraine cannot ask for unconditional support any more than any other strategic partner. A renewed counter-offensive would fail while undermining Ukraine's ability to defend itself. What Ukraine would gain from a temporary ceasefire is the opportunity to start rebuilding the country, as money and investment will not become available as long as the country is an active war zone.

A temporary ceasefire would almost certainly not lead to anything resembling peace, which will likely have to await the arrival of Russian leadership determined to end the country's pariah status. That may not happen in the coming years or decades. Meanwhile, the situation in Ukraine would be much better than if the war continued.

Such arrangements - fractious, less than formal peace - have worked well in other contexts, including on the Korean Peninsula and Cyprus. They are not solutions, but they are preferable to the alternatives. And even if Russia rejects any ceasefire, which could easily happen, Ukraine would be better off with a military and diplomatic strategy that protects the country's core, preserves its independence, and maintains external support. Friends of Ukraine should keep this in mind before defining success in a way that sets the country up for failure.

The author is chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and senior advisor at Centerview Partners

Translation: A. Š.

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