So who’s winning the war in eastern Ukraine—Russia or Ukraine? The answer is not as simple as it might seem, because victory means different things for each side.
A Russian victory could take one of two forms: territorial expansion into large parts of southeastern Ukraine or the imposition on Ukraine of disadvantageous peace terms. Or it could take both forms. But neither has happened, and neither is likely to happen.
Anything short of such a victory amounts to a defeat for Russia. Having destroyed the Russian economy, transformed Russia into a rogue state, and alienated Russia’s allies in the “near abroad,” Vladimir Putin loses if he doesn’t win big.
In contrast, Ukraine wins as long as it does not lose big. If Ukraine can contain the aggression, it will demonstrate that it possesses the will and the military capacity to deter the Kremlin, stop Putin and his proxies, and survive as an independent democratic state.
The balance of forces could change. Russia could throw hundreds of thousands of regular troops against Ukraine in order to seize Kyiv or build a land corridor to Crimea. But this would dramatically increase Putin’s risk factor. In that case, Ukrainians would fight to the finish, a partisan war would ensue, the United States would supply weapons to Ukraine, other Eastern European countries might get involved in the fighting, Western sanctions would be ratcheted up, and Russia would be excluded from the SWIFT international banking system. Russian losses—human, financial, and material—would likely be enormous, inviting a palace coup against Putin.
Although Putin is driven by a bizarre vision of reestablishing Holy Russia’s greatness, he is enough of a realpolitik policymaker to understand that attempting to overrun Ukraine would have dire consequences for Russia and himself.
Putin is therefore likely to maintain the military pressure on Ukraine—having the separatists strike here, strike there, withdraw, regroup, make nice, and then repeat the cycle—in the hope of draining Ukraine’s economic, military, and human resources.
But that, too, won’t result in territorial expansion into large parts of southeastern Ukraine or the imposition on Ukraine of disadvantageous peace terms.
Thus far skittish about military aid, the Obama administration is coming under increasing pressure to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons and real-time intelligence. Provided that meaningful economic reforms move forward in Kyiv, chances are good that other Western states and institutions will give Ukraine significant economic assistance, especially now that the IMF has committed itself to a $40 billion aid package. And the more Western money is sunk into Ukraine, the greater the likelihood that Western states will follow with military aid, if only as a guarantee of their financial investment. Meanwhile, Ukrainian elites—prodded by the West and compelled by Putin’s threat to annihilate Ukraine—will embark on (more or less) radical economic reforms.
The Ukrainian armed forces are getting stronger and more effective by the day, inflicting high casualties on the militants and Russians and maintaining their positions. Even the retreat from the Debaltseve salient, mistakenly portrayed in the Western press as a “debacle,” was anything but. (In order to know that, however, you need to be able to read Ukrainian- and Russian-language sources.) According to one of Ukraine’s top military analysts, Yuri Biryukov, Ukraine’s losses were 179 dead and 89 missing and presumed dead in the period from January 18th to February 18th, while Russian and proxy losses amounted to 868 dead—roughly three to four times as many. And small wonder. As Ukraine’s other top military analyst, Yuri Butusov, has repeatedly argued on his Facebook page, there is simply no comparison between the Ukrainian army of today and the ragtag band of soldiers that was Ukraine’s armed forces in March of 2014, when Putin seized the Crimea. More important, Ukraine’s less than competent military command appears to be on the verge of a major change in personnel.
The situation on the front is a military stalemate that is as deleterious to the Donbas enclave’s economic viability as it is beneficial to Ukraine’s ability to survive as an independent political entity. As this blog has argued ad nauseam, a frozen conflict—which may be in the process of emerging, even though everyone denies it—would be the best thing that could possibly happen to Ukraine.
Finally, although Ukrainians are one-fourth as many as Russians, Ukrainians are fighting for their homeland. In both eastern and western Ukraine, they know this is perhaps their last chance to break free of Moscow’s imperial grip. The remarkable thing about Ukraine’s dedicated volunteer battalions is the high number of eastern Ukrainians in them. Western Ukrainians dominated in both the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Maidan Revolution. Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians have demonstrated that, when it comes to defending their own homes, they’re more than willing to step up.
Russia can’t win big. Ukraine can’t lose big. And that means that Russia is losing and Ukraine is winning—and that Russia will lose and Ukraine will win.
The West should know that, in supporting Ukraine, it’s not just doing the right thing. It’s also betting on the winner.