How Losing the War Could Drive Ukraine Out of Control

How Losing the War Could Drive Ukraine Out of Control

Failure to retake lost territory or join major Western institutions could send the nation into a dark future.

Even though their country is engulfed in a major war, Ukrainians are full of optimism. They have the utmost confidence in their government, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sporting a 91 percent approval rating in a poll taken in early 2023. Gallup polls show that around 70 percent of Ukrainians believe that they will join both NATO and the European Union within the decade, and other polls taken during the war reveal that Ukrainians hold the near-unanimous belief that they will ultimately triumph over Russia.

But this optimism conceals the potential—or even the likelihood—of a much darker future, one which the country’s Western backers have been unable or unwilling to consider: that an unsuccessful Ukraine could turn violently nationalistic. It is not a fun scenario to consider. However, Western strategic planners cannot and should not ignore the possibility.

In late 1917, the German Empire was riding high. It had knocked the Russian Empire out of the war (and existence) and had, in the ensuing Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, conquered immense tracts of Eastern European soil. Berlin could see a total victory in the distance. A year later, all was lost: the war, the empire, their national pride, and their emperor.

The disaster that followed for the country—economic ruin, a loss of territory—shocked the German population: how could they have lost? For many, solace was found in an answer: Germany did not actually lose. It was instead stabbed in the back by those who wished to destroy Germany. The establishment was utterly discredited as a willing participant or clueless pawn in this conspiracy. When combined with mass poverty and inflation, the feelings of betrayal curdled into rage and support for radical parties, such as the Nazis. Some establishment figures, like Franz von Papen, attempted to use the growing Far Right, putting them—including Adolf Hitler—into government under the mistaken belief they could be controlled. The victorious West, unable to accept what was happening—as doing so would have undermined their entire case for the new order which they had established after World War I—merely stood by as Germany rose once again.

No matter how much the Kremlin shouts about Ukraine being a neo-Nazi state, it is not on the cusp of becoming a Slavic Third Reich. However, the pieces are falling into place for a nationalistic Ukrainian government to come to power.

Start with Ukraine’s internal situation. Winning over 70 percent of the vote against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in the 2019 election, Zelenskyy came into office riding high. Likewise, when the full-scale invasion began, Zelenskyy’s approval shot back up to around 90 percent, where it has stayed.

But between 2019 and February 2022, Zelenskyy’s popularity had dwindled. Polls taken in late 2021 had Zelenskyy and Poroshenko effectively tied in a rematch, with the former’s approval ratings dropping below 50 percent. And while his approval now is high, much of that is due to Ukraine’s overwhelming belief that he will lead them to victory. Zelenskyy has not been coy about this, repeatedly stating his goal of recapturing Ukraine’s territories lost to Russia, including the now heavily militarized and integrated Crimea.

But even successful war leaders are frequently rejected by their populations after the fighting stops. Both Winston Churchill and George H.W. Bush were unceremoniously kicked out of power shortly after garnering military victories—and Zelenskyy has plenty of domestic enemies waiting to replace him.

One of these is the man he beat in 2019, Petro Poroshenko. Having come to power after the Maidan Uprising, Poroshenko—an oligarch—was clearly furious to have lost to a comedian and refused to go quietly away, winning a parliamentary seat after losing the presidency. Since the outbreak of the full-scale war, Poroshenko has stayed in the spotlight, such as in his interview with CNN from Kyiv while armed and dressed in military fatigues shortly after Russia’s attack. When Zelenskyy had a surprise trip to Brussels in early October 2023, Poroshenko made sure to be there as well.

But he also made sure to be elsewhere. During one of his frequent visits to the frontlines, Poroshenko sported a military jacket with a Velcro patch of the Ukrainian flag on the right arm in a video posted on his X account. But under the Ukrainian flag was another patch: the Black Sun, a neo-Nazi symbol adopted by the Ukrainian Azov Battalion. Poroshenko, who owns television channels, is a master of media and imagery; had he not wanted the video to be posted or the patch included, he would have featured it. In later pictures, the patch has been removed, indicating that he wore it specifically for the video he posted.

Why? Poroshenko is no neo-Nazi. But he is clearly winking at the neo-Nazi forces which do exist in Ukraine. While the Kremlin’s constant claims of a “neo-Nazi” regime in Kyiv are silly—Zelenskyy is Jewish, and polls show Ukraine to be one of the least anti-Semitic countries in Eastern Europe—the country does genuinely have an issue with Far Right extremists. The Azov Battalion, with its neo-Nazi symbolism, is the most well-known, but other forces operate under the West’s radar. The Far Right Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC)—which Ukraine claims is comprised solely of Russians who wish to rid themselves of Vladimir Putin—is based within Ukraine and has carried out occasional cross-border attacks into Russia. While Ukraine’s military has stayed mum as to their relationship with the RVC, the group has claimed they are “part of Ukraine’s armed forces.” This should concern Western leaders, as the RVC has stated their goal is to rebuild the world order based on ethnic lines. They are also led by Denis Kapustin, a neo-Nazi considered so dangerous that he was banned from entering the European Union’s Schengen Area.

It should concern anyone that Ukraine has chosen to associate with someone like Kapustin or at least tolerate him. Although one sometimes needs to make unfortunate alliances in war, the fact that Ukraine’s government felt no one better would fit shows that the Far Right is not an insignificant force. And unless Kapustin is killed in the war, he will emerge from it with increased prestige, power, influence, and legend.

Will this make him or his ilk a future president? Of course not. But, with millions of Westernized Ukrainians having fled the country—and with many not wanting to return home—it is not impossible to imagine that the Far Right could surge and that leaders like Poroshenko could include them in their bid to regain power.

Externally, there are also warning signs. As mentioned above, Ukrainians believe they will be in NATO and the EU in short order. But there is no objective evidence for that. It is certain that Hungary and other countries, such as Slovakia, will block Ukraine’s entrance to either bloc. Hungary’s issues with Ukraine long preceded the war and concerned the rights of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. There is also no certainty that major players like France even want Ukraine, which will need massive economic assistance, to join.

Added to this is the unlikelihood that, barring a complete Russian collapse, Ukraine will regain its lost territories. Russia has more or less managed to weather Western sanctions, and if it has not collapsed by now, sanctions probably will not be the death blow. Ukraine’s vaunted counter-offensive failed to make significant progress; even if a few more kilometers of villages were liberated, it would still not bring Ukraine close to retaking all the lost land.

The potentially dark path forward is not hard to see. A population that has been promised absolute victory by their leadership and full support by allies, only to see both fail to appear. A rising Far Right garnered respect through military success and politicians eager for power, who were willing to work with them, thinking they could be controlled.

What comes after that is uncertain but would not be good. If, in the years to come, the liberal international order does collapse as some predict, there may be nothing stopping either country from taking back what they believe to be theirs.

The West may not wish to see these events as likely possibilities, but they can simply look to history. These things have happened before—and they can very well happen again.

Anthony J. Constantini is writing his Ph.D. on populism and early American democracy at the University of Vienna in Austria. Previously, he received an M.A. in International Relations from St. Petersburg State University. In 2016, he was the War Room Director for the NRSC. He tweets at @Jay_Conz.