Beware of Western Hubris Over Ukraine

Beware of Western Hubris Over Ukraine

Unrealistic hopes should not guide Western aims or distract from more immediate and already challenging tasks.

Growing revelations of Russian atrocities against civilians in occupied parts of Ukraine have strengthened voices in the West calling for regime change in Moscow and iron-clad support for Kyiv’s full victory. It was little more than a month ago that President Joe Biden declared that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” Although the Biden administration tried to rectify his statement, his words echoed the voices of many policymakers and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet it is premature to predict a full Russian defeat in Ukraine or Putin’s fall from power. Western sanctions do not seem to have had the devastating economic and financial consequences that many hoped for, and maintaining Western unity is already proving difficult. Furthermore, expanding the West’s aims beyond what can be achieved by Ukraine risks denying Ukrainian agency. In short, the West’s reaction to Russia’s crossing of a Rubicon is understandable, but it must still avoid hubris.

It was indeed hubris that pushed Putin and his circle to attack Ukraine in the first place. It is now widely believed that Russia’s struggles in the first phase of its invasion resulted from a misconception of an inherently weak and unstable Ukraine that could easily be subjugated. Instead, Ukrainian forces showed firm resistance, and a broad coalition of states swiftly enacted far-reaching sanctions.

Many states, some more than others, have also delivered weapons to Ukraine. These weapons, building on training, equipment, and intelligence provided for months and years, have made a significant difference on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the Russian military has seriously struggled with morale, logistics, and cooperation between units. Russian forces are increasingly resorting to more indiscriminate firepower, in addition to committing war crimes.

Ukraine has won the international propaganda war. The Ukrainian slogan of “Slava Ukrainy” (“Glory to Ukraine”) stands in stark contrast to Russia’s “Z” campaign, which has gotten an almost criminal connotation in the West and beyond. As a result, Western policy analysis is almost entirely in Ukraine’s favor.

The Russian leadership will try to prevent the perception of military defeat and humiliation at almost all costs. Russia reframed the aim of the campaign as the “liberation of  Donbas” and initiated a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine at the end of April. Meanwhile, Ukraine is showing incredible resolve and has conducted successful, but only limited, counteroffensives. Some Western states are now providing tanks and artillery to Ukraine, but they are still refraining from providing warplanes and, reportedly, anti-ship missiles due to fears of an escalation into a NATO-Russia war. This emphasizes that while Ukrainian forces may remain firm, a resounding Russian military defeat—such as Russia being pushed back to its pre-war positions or even out of the Donbas and Crimea altogether—is unlikely.

A failure to recognize these probabilities risks an overreach by Western states. By raising its goals beyond Ukraine’s, the West risks taking agency away from Kyiv and the Ukrainian people. Ukraine may prevail in this war, but that can take many shapes, and it is still likely to include (de facto) compromise on the status of the Donbas and Crimea, if not wider parts of southern Ukraine. As such, Western leaders should not expand their implicit agenda beyond what Ukraine is willing and able to sustain.

Western leaders may also be overly confident about their ability to remain firm and united on sanctions. Already, there are deep disagreements within the European Union over the feasibility and desirability of an embargo on Russian oil and gas. If Russian forces commit further atrocities or use chemical weapons, there will be significant pressure from Ukraine and the Western public to tighten sanctions. But if ceasefires are declared or Russian forces partially retreat to pre-war positions, pressure will emerge to lift certain sanctions. Unity seems to be a test of time.

Furthermore, potential Western complacency also risks painting over the limited effect of sanctions to begin with. Sanctions against Russia are far-reaching and painful, financially constraining the country’s political and economic elite. The Russian people are feeling the sanctions through rising prices of everyday goods, Western companies retreating from the market, and travel restrictions.

However, polls indicate that most Russians continue to support Putin and his military campaign in Ukraine. Cracks in the Russian elite are hardly observable beyond a few personnel changes among senior leadership positions in the security and intelligence forces that were seemingly related to the poor war performance. Moreover, Putin’s inner circle largely consists of old confidants in the security services and an economic elite whose access to state contracts and rents fully depends on loyalty to him. Turning against Putin requires courage, collective action, and an actual alternative to his rule—none of which seem likely. Moreover, interference in these processes only feeds into the Kremlin’s narratives of an inherently hostile and subversive West.

These factors—the unlikelihood of a total Ukrainian military victory, Putin falling from power, and sanctions remaining durable—leave the conclusion that Western policymakers are well-advised to focus their efforts on the most urgent tasks at hand. They most prioritize ending the war in Ukraine through a combination of negotiations and economic pressure, helping Ukraine defend its territory, deterring further Russian aggression, and preventing a NATO-Russia war. This is no easy list of goals; it requires allies to stay united, bear the costs of sanctions, and continue supporting their Ukrainian partners.

Of course, the West can maintain hope that Ukraine will decisively push back the aggressor, that Russia will change its expansionist policy or even its leadership, and that justice will prevail amid Russia’s war of aggression and war crimes. However, none of these can be plausibly expected in the current circumstances, and they may depend primarily on dynamics within Russia. Accordingly, such hopes should not guide Western aims or distract from more immediate and already challenging tasks.

Benno Zogg is a Senior Researcher and Head of the Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zürich, Head of the Peace & Security Programme at the think tank Foraus, and a member of the Steering Committee of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks. His research focuses on post-Soviet security and Russia-West relations.

Image: Reuters.