The greatest blunder President Vladimir Putin may have made so far in Ukraine is giving the West the impression that Russia could lose the war. The early Russian strike on Kyiv stumbled and failed. The Russian behemoth seemed not nearly as formidable as it had been made out to be. The war suddenly appeared as a face-off between a mass of disenchanted Russian incompetents and supercharged, savvy Ukrainian patriots.
Such expectations naturally ratcheted up Ukrainian war aims. President Volodymyr Zelensky was once a member of the peace-deal camp in Ukraine. “Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to go for it”, he declared one month into the conflict. Now he calls for complete victory: the reconquering of every inch of Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea. Polls indicate that Ukrainians will settle for nothing less. As battles rage across Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine’s leaders and some of their Western backers are already dreaming of Nuremberg-style trials of Mr. Putin and his inner circle in Moscow.
The trouble is that Ukraine has only one surefire way of accomplishing this feat in the near term: direct NATO involvement in the war. Only the full, Desert Storm style of deployment of NATO and U.S. troops and weaponry could bring about a comprehensive Ukrainian victory in a short period of time. (Never mind that such a deployment would most likely shorten the odds of one of the grimmer prospects of the war: The more Russia loses, the more it is likely to resort to nuclear weapons.)
Absent NATO involvement, the Ukrainian Army can hold the line and regain ground, as it has done in Kharkiv and Kherson, but complete victory is very nearly impossible. If Russia can hardly advance a few hundred yards a day in Bakhmut at a cost of 50 to 70 men, since the Ukrainians are so well entrenched, would Ukrainians be able to advance any better against equally well-entrenched Russians in the whole area between Russia and the eastern side of the Dnipro delta, including the Azov Sea coastline and the isthmus leading to Crimea? What has been a meat grinder in one direction is likely to be a meat grinder in the other.
Moreover, Russia has nearly switched its state onto a war economy setting, while the United States has yet to meet the war production needs of its foreign partners. The war has already used up 13 years’ worth of Stinger antiaircraft missile production and five years’ worth of Javelin missiles, while the United States has a $19 billion backlog of arms delivery to Taiwan. Western news reports have focused on the Russian men avoiding Mr. Putin’s draft orders, but the Kremlin still has plenty of troops to draw on, even after its call-up of 300,000 soldiers last September.
The debate about sending heavy war materials to Ukraine — which has consumed the German press in particular — is in this sense beside the point. It is not clear when all of the Leopard 1 and 2 and M1 Abrams tanks promised by NATO will be operational. Ukraine has requested 300 to 500 tanks, and NATO has promised only about 200.
That Mr. Zelensky has staked so much of his diplomacy on these armament shipments makes sense: He needs to communicate to the Kremlin that Ukraine is prepared for a long, slogging conflict. But in terms of battle-ready material for the next six months, very little of the promised bounty will be deployable. If Mr. Zelensky wants to complete his self-image as Winston Churchill sooner rather than later, he will want to hasten the day when he can toast NATO’s — which is to say, America’s — entry into the conflict.
The problem for Kyiv is that — public assurances aside — Washington has no interest in directly entering the war. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already voiced his view that total victory for either Russia or Ukraine is unachievable in the near term. President Biden and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, have been adamant about keeping the United States from directly entering the conflict. The American public has shown no appetite for direct involvement, either. The United States may even have an interest in keeping the fighting going as the war reduces Russia’s ability to operate elsewhere in the world, increases the value of American energy exports and serves as a convenient dress rehearsal for the rallying of allies and coordination of economic warfare against Beijing.
Less noticed is that the Kremlin’s war aims may have — out of necessity — been scaled back. Apparently reconciled to its inability to effect regime change in Kyiv and capture much more of Ukraine’s territory, Moscow now seems mostly focused on maintaining its positions in Luhansk and Donetsk and securing a land bridge to Crimea. These are territories that even in the best of circumstances would be difficult for Ukraine to reincorporate.
As it stands today, Ukraine’s economic future appears viable even without the territories currently occupied by Russia. Ukraine has not been turned into a landlocked country and it remains in control of seven of the eight oblasts with the highest G.D.P. per capita. Ukraine would risk jeopardizing this position in a counteroffensive. Paradoxically, continued fighting also serves some Russian interests: It allows Moscow more chances to pummel Ukraine into being a de facto buffer state, making it an ever less attractive candidate for NATO and European Union membership.
The historian Stephen Kotkin recently argued that Ukrainians may be better off defining victory as accession to the European Union rather than a complete recapture of all Ukrainian territory. And yet, except for countries that were neutral during the Cold War, each historical case of E.U. accession has been preceded by membership in NATO, which since the 1990s has acted as a ratings agency in Europe, guaranteeing countries as safe for investment. This fact is hardly lost on the Ukrainian population: Polls (which have mostly excluded Luhansk and Donetsk since 2014) show that interest in the country’s joining NATO appears to have jumped since the start of the conflict.
Only Washington ultimately has the power to decide how much of Ukraine it wants to bring under its umbrella. The actual official reluctance to include Ukraine in NATO has rarely been clearer, while the public embrace of Kyiv has never been more florid. In the meantime, European leaders may soon find themselves in the unenviable position of convincing Ukrainians that access to the common market and a European Marshall Fund is a reasonable exchange for “complete victory”.
Thomas Meaney is a fellow at the Max Planck Society in Göttingen, Germany. He writes about U.S. foreign policy and international affairs in The London Review of Books, The Guardian and elsewhere.