What helped me believe in victory again — opinion

We want nothing more than peace, and the path to it for most of us is through victory. But not every kind of peace and not every kind of victory is mutually agreed upon.

According to retired U.S. Army officer Daniel L. Davis, few people in Washington believe in Ukraine’s military victory and the possibility of returning to the borders of 1991. The guidance is as follows: Kyiv should go on the defensive, exhaust Russian momentum, force Moscow to negotiate, and sit down at the table from a position of strength.

This new guidance comes from an acknowledgment that most experts have underestimated [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin. After the defeat of the Russian blitzkrieg and the introduction of sanctions against Russia, there was hope that the Kremlin regime wouldn’t last long and would quickly collapse. Two years have passed since the beginning of the war, and Russia’s collapse isn’t even in sight. On the contrary: Putin has strengthened his power, put the economy on a wartime footing, and is able to continue fighting for a very long time.

Under such circumstances, not only the West, but also Ukraine has opinions about whether it’s worthwhile trying to reclaim Donbas and Crimea, or whether it’s better to agree to some intermediate formula. These talks are still private, but they’re starting to enter the public space.

Their logic is persuasive. Ukraine must decide what’s more important — the borders of 1991 or European integration? If it’s European integration, Kyiv can postpone the issue of the occupied territories, go for a truce, build up strength and resources, and later, from a stronger position, look to reassert its territorial integrity.

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At the negotiating table

But apart from its arguments, this line of thinking shows weakness when faced with harsh reality: who said that Putin is ready to sit down at the negotiating table? Putin is obsessed with Ukraine. This obsession isn’t new for him, at least since the beginning of the 2000s, and maybe even earlier (journalists found a 1991 interview, where he accuses the Bolsheviks of destroying “our motherland,” dividing it into separate republics, “which previously didn’t exist on the map”). Putin won’t stop until he erases Ukraine from the political map. And then he’ll take on the West, but, unlike Ukraine, not to destroy it, but to knock it down a peg.

Putin’s logic is thuggish: the West and Ukraine have publicly “smacked him down,” and the thug won’t stop until he takes revenge, because it’s a matter of honor. Add metaphysics to this — Putin is sure that he’s carrying out a great mission: to save the world of traditional values from the liberal threat — and you’ll have a complete picture of his will to negotiate.

There’s another big gap in the logic of negotiations with Putin: to force him to sit down at the negotiating table, the West and Ukraine must coordinate a certain concert of actions, but there’s no such coordination either in the West or in Ukraine. There’s a big gap between systemic politicians and non-systemic populist opposition in the West. If the former are beginning to understand that Putin is real threat, the latter is already “weary” of the war, ready to settle for any outcome.

Undoubtedly, the West is waking up, the war in Ukraine has become an alarm clock in that sense. But it does so slowly, lounging and stretching in bed. At the same time, many Western politicians and experts are increasingly convinced that aiding Ukraine will cost the West much less than a direct confrontation with Russia, if, God forbid, Ukraine falls.

The good news is that according to the latest polls, the opposition from far-right and far-left parties has no chance of winning the European Parliament elections this summer, and even this opposition is divided over Ukraine. Therefore, the aid will continue.

The bad news is that no one in the West has a strategy for what to do with Russia. And as smart people say, tactics without a strategy are a very long way to victory. The general trend in the history of wars is that democracies in confrontations with authoritarian regimes have a better chance of winning because their soldiers are more motivated and fight better. But this advantage ceases to apply when the war becomes protracted: the longer the war drags on, the higher the autocrats’ chances.

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Is there a winning formula?

As for Ukraine, the main problem is the weakening, even fading of solidarity between the government and the public. This solidarity was formed in the first months of the war but cracked after the failed counteroffensive of 2023 and the dismissal of former Ukrainian Army’s Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi. According to a recent poll by the SOCIS sociological service, the number of Ukrainians who consider the Ukrainian president’s activities to be ineffective (48 %) exceeds the number of those who think the opposite (41 %). And although the majority opposes elections during the war, if the elections did take place, Zaluzhnyi would have won twice as many votes as [incumbent Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy (67.5% vs. 32.5%, respectively).

Another metric is also important in this context: the number of those who support finding a compromise to end the war involving the leaders of other countries (36%) exceeds the number of those who believe that hostilities should continue until all occupied territories are liberated (31%). In other words, it will be increasingly difficult for our president to “sell” his peace formula (a return to the borders of 1991) both in Ukraine and abroad. He has the same problem as Western politicians: how to convince his citizens that the chosen line is correct?

Further still, the Ukrainian government has more pressing problems. These are systemic changes that are vital to strengthen Ukraine’s stability, including the development of the military industrial base, strengthening the energy sector, ensuring macroeconomic stability, conducting mobilization while taking into account the labor shortage. Experts call trust in the government and unity of goals a key condition for the success of these measures. However, this trust and unity are broken.

How can we win the war under such strain? Is there even a real winning formula?

I’m not one of those experts who give advice and in no way take responsibility for it. I prefer to listen to people who are closer to the front as their experience exceeds my ambitions and my knowledge. That’s why, I would like to share with you one conversation that helped me believe in victory again. It appeals to one of the greatest Ukrainian victories up to now — the complete neutralization of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. This victory is usually associated with the government and military leadership. In fact, a grassroots private initiative played a key role.

The idea that drones can be seaborne became obvious early in the war. The first model was a simple fishing boat equipped with a camera and a communication module, followed by more complex designs. At first, they had a very limited range and were slow, which allowed them to be used only against stationary targets. Those that could chase ships at speed, and now systematically sink them, appeared later. Drone manufacturers are now working on a more complex formula that could give a significant advantage to Ukrainian troops at the front, and the details, of course, cannot be disclosed.

This program wasn’t envisaged by a state strategy, but the state supported it. This form of interaction between the state and citizenry is what the Russian side doesn’t have. When it comes to drones, it catches up with the Ukrainian one mainly after intercepting our models and reverse-engineering them. Russia is better at scaling production, but everything appears several months later because of bureaucratic inertia. This time difference allows us to maintain an advantage.

Read also: "No lasting peace without return of Crimea to Ukraine" - Macron

Man-made miracle

A creative civil society is an addition that doesn’t and cannot exist in Russia (it’s difficult to be creative under coercion). But it exists in Ukraine. Of course, no civil society, even the best, can replace the state. However, it’s the backbone that holds the country together in times of crisis.

I’m no longer a young man. I’ve experienced several moments in my life when everything seemed lost. We were scared of nuclear war when we were children. I remember discussing with a fellow student in the early 1980s whether we would survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, because it wouldn’t collapse peacefully. Before the referendum in December 1991, we were afraid that most of Ukrainians would vote to preserve the union with Russia and Ukraine would lose its chance for independence. In 1993, we were afraid of an imminent civil war between the Ukrainian-speaking West and the Russian-speaking East. In 1994, when Leonid Kuchma won the presidential elections in Ukraine, it seemed the country would follow the path of Belarus. In 1996, the constitutional crisis dragged on for a very long time. In 2001, anti-government protests failed, and Ukraine turned into an imitation of Putin’s Russia in the later years of Kuchma’s tenure. The same happened after [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych won the 2010 elections. Euromaidan [protests in 2013-2014] had low chances of success — just as the defense of Kyiv seemingly had in early 2022. And each time, the situation with the West was about the same: expressions of concern, at best.

But each time the threat was somehow overcome. You can call it a miracle. But the best miracles are engineered. Theologians say: if you want something from God, you have to work hard for it. In my village, women gather every day at 6 p.m. for a rosary prayer for the lives of their relatives and Ukraine’s victory. It’s not just a prayer for them, but also work as they must overcome fatigue or bad weather, doing it every single day.

Even more is done by our soldiers at the front, who fight without patriotic pathos, but as if they were going to work. Keeping them in mind, it would be unacceptable for us, who live in greater safety and comfort, to despair. To fall into depression under such circumstances means to surrender to the enemy’s way of thinking.

Historians don’t know how to write mathematical formulas, so they resort to the language of metaphors to explain complex narratives. The editor-in-chief of [NV’s sister publication] Ukrainska Pravda, Sevgil Musaieva, once noted a bee is the best symbol of Ukraine. As a historian, I can confirm this is a metaphor good for the ongoing war. A bear won’t defeat a swarm of bees. This is what the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations shows us.

No one knows how and when this war will end, with what losses and in what borders Ukraine will come out of it. We can speculate about the outlines of peace now as much as we want, but it makes no sense, because wars are unpredictable.

I understand only one thing: peace will come when Russia is unable or unwilling to continue fighting Ukraine. Bringing it to this state will be difficult, but possible. And this is exactly what Ukrainian victory and Ukrainian peace will emerge from.

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