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If Ukraine wins, then what?

Even if we won the war, the fight with Russia wouldn't be over.

In recent days, many people in the West who are watching the war in Ukraine have started to worry that Russia is starting to win. Massive artillery fire is giving Russia small gains in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, and Russia is sending in more troops. The Ukrainian troops are worn out and tired. Russia is trying to create a "done deal" and make the world fit its imperial goals by "passportizing" Ukrainians who live in Russian-occupied areas and giving them Russian passports quickly and by imposing Russian administrative structures on Ukrainian land. The Kremlin probably wants to stay in control of eastern and southern Ukraine for a long time and will eventually move on to Odessa, a major port city in southern Ukraine that is a hub for trade with the rest of the world.

When you look at the big picture, though, things don't look so good for Moscow. The list of military accomplishments by Ukraine is long and growing. Ukrainian forces won the battle of Kyiv, kept the invading armies from getting to Odessa for now by defending the city of Mykolaiv in the south, and won the battle of Kharkiv, which is right next to the Russian border. Russia's recent gains pale in comparison. And unlike the Kremlin, the government in Kyiv has a clear strategic goal, which is supported by high morale and more and more help from outside the country.

This could be the start of a good cycle for Ukraine. If Ukrainian forces take more land this summer, the power of Kyiv will continue to grow. The truth is that Ukraine could still win, even though all wars have setbacks. However, the size and scope of its victory would probably be small.

The most likely way for Ukraine to win would be to "win small." Ukraine could push Russia off the west side of the Dnieper River, build defensive lines around the parts of Ukraine that Russia controls in the east and south, and make sure it can get to the Black Sea. Over time, Ukrainian forces could move forward and break up the land bridge that Russia has built to Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014. Crimea is in the southeast of Ukraine. Basically, Ukraine could get things back to the way they were before Russia attacked in February.

This would not be the kind of victory that would change the world, as some people in the West hope. But a smaller, less powerful state that beats back an imperial power would send shockwaves through the region and the rest of the world by showing that it is possible to fight back against strong aggressors.

There is, of course, a "win big" scenario in which Ukraine wins the war and gets everything it wants. That would mean that Ukraine would get back full control of Crimea and the parts of the Donbas that Russia had taken over in the years before its full invasion in February. This seems much less likely than a victory over a smaller area. Attacking is harder than defending, and the area in question is large and well-defended. At the very least, Russia would fight hard to keep hold of Crimea. The area is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is a sign of Russia's return to being a great power after the Soviet Union broke up. President Vladimir Putin of Russia is not likely to give up Crimea without a huge fight.

No matter how big a Ukrainian victory is, there will always be a vague "day after." Russia will not agree to its own defeat or to a negotiated outcome that doesn't involve force. Any win for the Ukrainians will only make Russia even less willing to give in. As soon as Russia is able to rebuild its military, it will use a story of humiliation to get people in Russia behind a new effort to control Ukraine. Putin will not give up Ukraine, even if he loses the war. He also won't just watch as it becomes fully part of the West. So, for Ukraine to win, the West would have to be even more committed to helping Ukraine, not less.


To win small and get things back to how they were before the invasion, Ukraine would have to turn its wins in the north into wins in the east and south. In Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces forced Russian forces to retreat strategically. It would be harder to get the same result in places like Kherson and Mariupol, which are on land that Russia controls and where it is likely to become more stable. But Ukraine has a lot of people ready to fight, its army is well organized and led, and there is no question about whether or not Ukraine wants to fight. The way Russia invaded Ukraine has given the country all the will to fight it will ever need. The war effort has been made even stronger by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's strong leadership.

Ukraine is also getting help from some of the best armies in the world, especially the US military. Kyiv has access to very good information about how the Russian military plans and where its forces are. Russia has lost and destroyed a lot of equipment and had a lot of people die because of what the Ukrainian military has done. If Ukraine can combine its firepower and manpower this summer, it could launch a counteroffensive in the Donbas and break through Russia's land bridge to Crimea.

Russia, on the other hand, has already used up a lot of its military resources, including a lot of its equipment and ammunition (although it still has resources in reserve that it could put into theater). Soldiers are the best examples of how tired the Russian military is. Many units have been hurt in ways that make them useless. Morale may be higher than many people who aren't Russian think; it's hard to tell. But for obvious reasons, the morale of the Russians is lower than that of the Ukrainians. Russia has chosen to fight a war. Corruption and the fact that the Russian military is run from the top down have hurt its troops. Russia hasn't had an easy time in this war.

Still, Russia has started to mobilize slowly, calling up reservists and specialists while avoiding mass conscription. The war will change because of what is done. Putin still has the option to call for a mass mobilization, officially declare war, and use all of Russia's military power. But it takes time to get ready, train, and move things. The key to Ukraine's strategy should be to set facts on the ground and make it too expensive for Russia to change these facts. For that to happen, the Ukrainians would have to launch a big attack in the next two to three months.


With a combination of military setbacks and harsh sanctions, Moscow might be forced to change its goals, and a real end to the fighting might become possible. But Putin is probably not going to agree to a deal that is more comprehensive. Russia is already treating the places it has taken over as its own territory, not as bargaining chips for a future deal. And Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two experts in Russian intelligence, say that Kremlin hardliners want more war, not less.

So, Ukraine and the rest of the West should assume that Russia won't let them win. If the Ukrainians win a small battle, say in the fall of this year, Russia might invade again in 2023. Russia would have to get its forces back together, which would be hard to do because of the sanctions. Putin cares even more about keeping his power than about expanding his empire, since autocrats who lose wars often end up in bad situations. Putin might have to accept for now being pushed back to where he was before the invasion, but he couldn't stand to lose Ukraine for good. He might keep fighting on a small scale, firing missiles, and bombing from the air until reinforcements, who had been mobilized partially or fully, arrived. Putin could also use a cease-fire in a cynical way to buy time for bad-faith talks, like he did before the invasion in February.

Also, if Russia attacked again, Ukraine would probably have to ask for more weapons than ever before. Western powers would find it hard to agree to this because Russia would want to get out of sanctions and use its usual "divide and conquer" strategy against Washington and its allies. A possible solution for the Western powers would be to offer security guarantees to Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine staying neutral. But Russia could test these promises with a new attack, and if sanctions were lifted, it would have to happen slowly. "Don't trust and check" is the best way to deal with Putin's Russia.

Another risk is that Putin could make nuclear threats before or after even a small Ukrainian victory. Putin has broken with the way things were done during the Cold War by using nuclear weapons for political reasons instead of just for reasons of national security. His threatening words have come off as empty talk. Putin could raise the stakes, though. He could order technical preparations for the possible use of nuclear weapons to scare off his enemies. When Putin makes threats like these, the West should send a clear message that he won't get anywhere by using nuclear weapons. If that doesn't work and Putin follows through on his threats, NATO might have to consider a limited conventional response, either against Russian forces in Ukraine or inside Russia. In the meantime, the West needs to build a large coalition to condemn and stop Putin's nuclear brinkmanship by tying sanctions and threats of retaliation to it. China might not join, but it might agree with the idea because it worries about nuclear instability.

Lastly, even if Ukraine wins a small victory, Kyiv and its allies would have to get ready for years of more fighting. Zelensky has hinted at this by saying that after the war, Ukraine will be like Israel in that it will be focused on self-defense all the time. Putin, on the other hand, would keep looking for weaknesses in the West. Much like how he responded to Western sanctions in 2014 by meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, he would probably use a mix of cyberattacks, disinformation, and "active measures," such as operations that hurt political parties and leaders Russia doesn't like, weaken the internal stability of "anti-Russian" countries, and hurt the integrity of the transatlantic alliance and similar alliances. For a long time, the West would have to keep Russia in check. After all, there's not much the West can do to change Russia from the inside, other than hope that Russia's leaders will become less aggressive.


"Winning small" has been hard for Ukraine, so "winning big" by taking back Crimea and all of Donbas might seem like a quick way to a better future. Even though a complete defeat of Russia isn't impossible, a lot of things would have to go right: a lightning victory for Ukraine, one battle building on another, Russian supply lines breaking down, and Ukrainian morale pushing its soldiers forward without stopping. At the same time, the Russian army would have to fall apart as it ran away. As panic spread among the soldiers, strategy would give way to how they felt. No one has ever said this as well as Leo Tolstoy did in War and Peace, which is a book about how war is chaos. Tolstoy wrote about Napoleon's defeat of the Russian army in 1805: "A battle is won by the side that wants to win the most." He wrote, "The French and Russian casualties were about the same, but we knew early in the day that the battle was lost, so it was lost."

But a full-scale military victory by Ukraine over Russia, including the retaking of Crimea, is almost impossible to believe. It would be way too optimistic for either the Ukraine or the West to base their plans on such a result. If they went after it, the war would also change. After spending billions of dollars to make Crimea a symbol of Russia's rebirth, Moscow would see a Ukrainian offensive in Crimea as an attack on Russian territory and would do everything it could to stop it. The idea that a full-scale defeat of Russia would remove the cancer of imperialism from the Russian leadership and body politic is based on a clumsy comparison to Germany's unconditional surrender at the end of World War II. It comes from a desire to not only end this war but also prevent Russia from starting any future wars in Europe. It's a dreamy vision that has nothing to do with reality.

The more realistic and attainable goal for Ukraine is to win small. Aiming for this result is smarter than imagining that Russia will give up. It is also smarter than throwing around vague ideas of a negotiated settlement that could leave Kherson and Mariupol permanently under Russian control, which would reward Putin for his aggression.

Sustainable security for Ukraine must be the goal of both Ukraine and the West. Kyiv's partners have done the right thing by not giving in on Ukraine's independence and sovereignty. But they must also think about what will happen if Ukraine wins. Instead of having unrealistic hopes that Russia will bow down to a Ukrainian victory or just leave the world stage, Ukraine will need to put in a lot of hard work and carefully timed increases in political, financial, and military investment. This is true even if Ukraine wins, or maybe even more so. When U.S. diplomat George Kennan looked into the future in 1947 to try to figure out why the Soviets did what they did, he did not think in terms of years. He was thinking in years. Today's Western leaders must also keep going if they want to win in Ukraine. Tolstoy said, "Time and patience are the strongest warriors of all."


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