What if Ukraine Wins the War?

A More Assertive Stance Against Russia Is Needed

12 October 2022

How the Ukrainian conflict will end depends on a united Western strategy. The failures of appeasement must not be repeated, and only after a clear Russian loss will peace be possible.

We are facing a huge test in the Russian war against Ukraine. Kyiv is winning on the battlefield. The bombing of the Kerch Bridge in Crimea, and the subsequent retaliatory missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, represent a new round of escalation. People always expected escalations, but hardly anyone expected Ukrainian victories on the battlefield.  Not only are the Russians surprised, but so too, are many of Ukraine’s supporters in the West.

After the Dust Has Settled  

As a result, there has been a remarkable lack of discussion of what the end state in Ukraine should look like. Are all of Ukraine’s Western supporters ready for the white-knuckle ride as Ukraine’s forces edge closer to Russia’s borders or try to retake Crimea?  Are they psychologically prepared for a complete victory that humbles Russia’s imperial ambitions?

The short answer is most are not. The Biden administration appears to be committed to a Ukrainian victory, having been responsible for giving the lion’s share of its weapons. But there are troubling signs. President Biden appears flustered by Vladimir Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling. He said recently, “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. I’m trying to figure out: what is Putin’s off-ramp? Where does he find a way out?”

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Off-ramp?  Many people could interpret that word to mean some sort of settlement that at the very least implies territorial concessions from Ukraine since similar phrasing has been used by Russian appeasers.  At the very least, this statement muddles the claim to support a complete Ukrainian victory.

The president is likely being pressured by his more dovish staff to counsel his fears, but as anyone who has been following American politics will know, he is not politically alone in worrying about Russia’s sabre-rattling.  The American Right and some strong voices in the GOP are either siding with Russia or at least calling for a settlement to lower the nuclear temperature. It is not just Tucker Carlson and the usual suspects on the fringes, but lately, Elon Musk appears to have thrown his lot in those calling for an “off-ramp” for Putin.

Changing Perspectives

In Europe, the equivocation of Germany and France continues. Chancellor Scholz refuses to supply more heavy weapons to Ukraine, and former Chancellor Angela Merkel last Friday once again emphasised that peace is possible only with Russia’s participation. A meeting of European leaders in Prague showed solidarity with Ukraine, but President Emmanuel Macron remarked on the sidelines that the war “must end at the negotiating table…due to the size and geography of Russia”.  Despite the progress they have made in supporting Ukraine, Germany and France have not come to terms with the implications of a complete Ukrainian victory — that is, that peace must be made against Russia, not with it.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, sensing the dangers of Putin’s nuclear escalation, asked NATO to consider stronger preventive actions against Russia. It is clear that he fears the West’s succumbing to Putin’s nuclear threats. He knows better than anyone that Russia’s nuclear weapons are intended to provide a military sanctuary for Russian territory from military attacks.  In fact, one of the points of Putin’s annexation of the Eastern territories was to underscore this claim and to create uncertainty in the minds of Ukraine’s Western supporters about where to draw the line on attacking Russian territory.

All of which is to say, Ukraine’s Western supporters have not yet adapted to the prospect of a full Ukrainian victory. They are still stuck in the past and in some cases are still holding back because they cannot imagine a settlement without Russia’s full consent. They have not yet accepted that Ukraine’s likely victory would fundamentally change the strategic landscape in Europe. It would signal at least the beginning of the end of Russia’s bid to impose an imperialistic peace on Europe.

Whether they wish to admit it or not, their old “normal” world is already dead. It is not only the profound changes in Europe’s energy policies that have been forced on Europe. It is also an inescapably grim reality of Russia’s imperialistic ambitions. No matter what happens — even if there is a frozen conflict of some kind — Russia will be a pariah for decades. Its murdering, raping, deporting of children and other barbarisms in Ukraine will not be soon forgotten.  Moreover, unless a friendly regime miraculously emerges, Russia will remain an existential threat to Europe for a long time to come.

A Sustainable Outcome  

In fact, a complete defeat of Russia’s imperialist ambitions is the only way for the Russians themselves to learn the limits of their ambitions. The best way to spur a change inside Russia is to make it crystal clear that Russian imperialism is a failure. Military failures in 1905, 1917 and even 1979 spurred calls for regime change inside Russia. Expelling Russian forces from Ukraine, including Crimea, would send mental shock waves through the Russian mindset and system. Such a blow is necessary if there is ever to be a reckoning by Russia itself about how the demons of its past are wrecking its future.

A Russian defeat would also create a new strategic reality inside Europe. Germany and France would be forced to drop the strategy of seeking equidistance between America and Russia.  Hard military deterrence, not airy Macronian concepts, would be placed at the heart of European security. America’s leadership would be front and centre, and Eastern Europe – more so than the European Union – would be the new strategic axis of NATO. And Ukraine would be fully integrated into NATO as a full member of the alliance.

This war is far from over. But hoping and planning for a complete Ukrainian victory is the best path to permanent peace. Anything less, especially an “off-ramp” that preserves Russia’s pretensions of imperialism, would not only prolong the war, but it would also greatly raise the risks of a European-wide war down the road.



Featured Photo is a collage made by the Visegrad Insight team using a photo by Jay Rembert on Unsplash and a photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash.

Kim Holmes

Vice Chairman, Center for International Private Enterprise, NEH Nat. Co., former Ass. Sec. of State for IO Affairs

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