The fundamental question of the future course of this war is, paradoxically, not about Ukraine but rather about Russia. It is about the West’s attitude towards post-war Russia. Because Western fears, linked to the future of post-war Russia, determine and control the decisions that the West takes today in relation to support for Ukraine.
The support of the West for Ukraine is apparent. It is also evident that Ukraine has won several strategic victories thanks to that support. But the future course of the war can either be a sequential and more rapid continuation of Ukraine’s victories or a ‘frozen trench war’, frustrating for Ukraine, perhaps frustrating for Russia too, but comfortable for the West because it does not require any clear strategic answers to the question: what does the West want and what does it seek?
Theoretically, the answer is that the West wants Ukraine to win and that it is up to Ukraine to decide what it wants, but it remains unclear whether the West wants Russia to lose in a crushing way.
The words about the outcome of the war being for Ukraine to decide sound like the position of a bystander; such words do not reflect any strategic interest of the West: do they want a crushing victory for Ukraine or just the preservation of the ‘status quo’?
I believe that at this stage of the war, the crucial question is whether the West has a strategy for the outcome it wants in Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression. And this question is not so much about the scale of the Ukrainian military victory but rather about the impact of that victory on Russia’s future after a lost war. Does the West want Russia to undergo a fundamental transformation into a normal state after the war, or does the West not believe in such a transformation and fear that Russia’s future after the war may be even worse than its present with Putin?
Such fears are the root cause of the West’s current indecision in supporting Ukraine.
Ukraine can achieve a resounding victory if the West gives Ukraine as many weapons as it needs to win, not just as it currently receives (see General Zaluzhny’s interview in the Economist). Ten months of war have clearly demonstrated that Russia’s military power is no match for Western military technology combined with the courage and motivation of Ukrainian soldiers. This is the equation for Ukraine’s victory. The most important variable in determining when Ukraine will be able to achieve victory is the level of Western military support.
Why doesn’t the West increase the quantity and quality of arms supplies? There are only three possible reasons: a) they themselves have no more weapons in their warehouses and are unable to produce more; b) they are afraid of the “escalation” when a strong and significantly increased Western support for Ukraine with Leopard tanks, or ATACMS long-range missiles triggers an insane nuclear response from Putin; c) the West itself has no strategy for victory against Russia and does not know whether it really wants a total Ukrainian victory.
I will not examine the technical problems of whether the West can produce more weapons. They certainly can if they want to. The question is whether they really want to and how much they want to.
The talk about fears of escalation is also becoming less and less credible. Such discussions were understandable in March and April when the West only supplied Ukraine with light weapons such as the Stinger or Javelin. However, when the Americans started supplying medium-range HIMARS, which have significantly contributed to the recent Ukrainian victories, this did not provoke any super-mad Russian reaction, apart from the so-called ‘mobilisation’ and the shelling of civilian energy installations. Therefore, the explanation that the supply of Leopard tanks, Abrams tanks or ATACMS to Ukraine will be the cause of some new madness of the Kremlin is merely an attempt to escape from the main question – what is the West’s strategy in this war and what is the West’s strategic objective in this war.
There is still no answer to this question, and therefore there is no supply of Abrams or ATACMSs.
The fundamental problem is that the West does not have a strategy for what kind of impact on Russia’s future the West expects and wants from the outcome of the war. The West knows what scenario it fears – the total collapse of Russia (after the lost war and after Putin), with bloody internal Russian chaos and nuclear and chemical weapons out of control. The West is not convinced that Russia will be able to transform itself (with the help of the West) into a more normal, European-type state after the defeat in the war (in the same way that Nazi Germany transformed itself into present Germany). Or the West thinks that such a transformation will only take place if Russia not only loses the war but is also exhausted by a long and Russia-destroying war before that.
This does not mean that someone in the West wants very much to keep Putin after this war; this just means that they are not yet prepared to loudly request ‘unconditional surrender’, just as the Allies said to Hitler at the beginning of the war. That is why the West is still repeating that the terms of peace will be determined by Ukraine (which is better than nothing), but it is not telling itself what it, as the West, wants.
When the West still does not know what kind of future of Russia wants and seeks as the outcome of this war, the West’s support for Ukraine remains at a level that allows Ukraine not to lose but also allows Russia to avoid being totally crushed. So far.
Such Western indecision is inexcusable. Not least because it costs tens and hundreds of Ukrainian lives every day. But also because the West does not dare to take a decisive initiative and leadership on the question of Russia’s future.
This is the most important issue in this war. Not only how to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty in this war, but also how to destroy the threat factor of ‘imperial Russia’ forever are the fundamental questions of this war. This war opens up the unique possibility of solving this second fundamental issue, which is eliminating the threat of ‘imperial Russia’. This requires, first of all, a crushing military victory for Ukraine. However, this requires much greater Western military support for Ukraine. And that starts with the West believing that it has a strategy to help a war-torn Russia transform itself into a normal, European-style state.
Paradoxically, such a crushing of the current ‘Putin’s Russia’ in the war it launched against Ukraine would be primarily to Russia’s own benefit, because this is the only way in which Russia can turn towards a radical transformation after the defeat in the war. In this way, Russia could return to the civilised world, modernise itself and learn to build an everyday life in Russia itself through gradual evolution rather than punishing itself with the tragedies of imperial nostalgia, civilisational backwardness and internal revolutions or colonial wars.
And this would be good for Ukraine, too, because it is the only way to avoid having an ‘imperial Russia’ which, after a few years of recovering from a lost war, is again planning how to return to Ukraine with new aggression.
And this would be good for the European Union and the West as a whole because it is the only way to finally resolve the main European security problem on the European continent, i.e., the issue of ‘imperial aggressive Russia’. Only a democratic Russia will no longer threaten European security because democracies do not make wars with each other. Today, the choice for the West is an existential one: either the West invests in the opportunity that is opening up to resolve this ‘Russian threat finally’, or future generations in Europe will have to continue to live under such a threat.
What is needed for the West to finally find the courage and the intellectual strength to have the kind of ‘Russia strategy’ that is needed today and that would be based not on the fear of Putin’s madness, not based on the fear of an escalation of the war, not based on the fear of the chaos in Russia that has collapsed after a lost battle, but focused on supporting the transformation of Russia that has been defeated? And a strategy implementation that would begin with the kind of military support guarantee Ukraine’s immediate and crushing victory?
I see only one answer to this question: First, the problem of the West’s strategic leadership deficit must be resolved. The West has changed fundamentally since the beginning of the war: the false illusions about Putin have disappeared; the West has been able to mobilise so much support for Ukraine that Ukraine has achieved several strategic military victories: in the Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson regions; Ukraine has been granted EU candidate status; and the European Union has been very successful in ridding itself of its energy dependence. However, all this was achieved only in response to Russia’s aggressive actions and the shock they caused. One could welcome that the possibility for this response had emerged. However, there is still no sign that the West has dared to answer the fundamental strategic question of whether the West will seek a transformation of Russia that starts with a crushing military victory in Ukraine and finally will have a strategy of their own, and will pursue it, rather than merely reacting to Russia’s actions.
Where can such leadership come from? I doubt that a collective European Union (which should be congratulated for what it has managed to do so far and not expected to do anything qualitatively and strategically new) could take on this role. As Kadri Liik of the ECFR writes of the European Union since the war: “No single EU member state is guiding Russia policy; a ‘leaderless unity’ has emerged” (https://ecfr.eu/…/the-old-is-dying-and-the-new-cannot…/).
Only the United States can realistically take such leadership in the West. And Ukraine can. The US and Ukraine need to agree on larger issues, not only HIMARS or ATACMS. They also need to agree on the transformation of Russia (after Russia has been crushed) and a strategy for implementing such a transformation. Because only when Washington believes in the reality of such a strategy will the ATACMS and much more HIMARS become available for such a victory.
What role could the European Union and Lithuania play in the matter of the Russian strategy, which is the most important contemporary challenge to the West? The European Union must first address the paradox of its “strategic autonomy” – if the European Union wants to participate in the post-war Russian fate, it must invest in the war as much as the Americans (in weapons) or the Ukrainians (in lives) do. The fact that the EU as a whole has so far supplied 5 times fewer weapons to Ukraine than the US only shows that the EU is deliberately avoiding involvement in the crucial issue of the future of post-war Russia. Or it is afraid to engage in it, because it is still afraid of upsetting Putin. That is why Mr Macron talks again and again about some kind of ‘security guarantees’ for Russia. And like a small child who has had his mouth burnt at least a few times by hot soup, he is still blowing into a plate of soup that has already cooled down. Even though it is clear that the greatest threat to Russia’s future is posed by current Russia itself and its authoritarian Putin regime. If one wants to provide ‘security guarantees’ for future Russia, there is only one way to do it: to see to the transformation of post-war Russia into a democracy. That requires stopping being afraid, including of the current Putin and of what will happen to Russia when Putin loses this war crushingly. Europe must finally free itself from its ‘autonomy of fear’.
It would be important for Lithuania to realise that we can help Ukraine not only with what we have been supplying them bilaterally: first, weapons or generators; second, not only with new sanctions packages against Russia, which are biting less and less, but also by mobilising global public support for the leadership of the United States in resolutely tackling the transformation of post-war Russia, and investing in Ukraine’s resounding and immediate victory now. We need to talk in Washington not only about how to increase the number of American rotational forces in Lithuania but also about what strategy to pursue concerning post-war Russia because the answer to this question is essential for Ukraine to be able to achieve victory in the near future.
Is the West and the United States capable of such strategic leadership?
Let us remember the leadership of the West and the United States in the 1980s in bringing about the collapse of the Evil Empire: it started with John Paul II becoming the Pope, followed by the dramatic fall in oil prices, then Reagan’s threat that the US was beginning to invest in Star Wars technology, then Stinger missiles for the Afghan mujahideen, all of this leading to Gorbachev being forced to declare ‘perestroika’. All this was not an accidental action by the West; it rather was the consistent implementation of a multi-step Western strategy to defeat the Evil Empire. The same is needed now.
It is not for nothing that Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington, which had just taken place, has been compared by many to Churchill’s famous visit to the United States in 1941. The example of Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s leadership is much needed in the West today.
Putin in the Kremlin must finally hear a clear strategic message from the West – ‘unconditional surrender’. Only Mr Biden and Mr Zelenskyy can tell him that. Let us hope that the Europeans will not oppose such a leadership of the US and Ukraine.