Why Putin Has Already Lost Ukraine
If President Joe Biden continues to show leadership, then Russian president Vladimir Putin can be deterred.
An escalation of Russia’s military presence around Ukraine has united Ukrainians and strengthened a feeling of national solidarity. A flash mob circulating on social media that featured Ukrainians posting images of the country’s flag offered a vivid expression of the growing fervor for defending it. Russian president Vladimir Putin can cross the border and inflict major pain, but he won’t be able to subjugate it. Quite the contrary. 45 percent of Ukrainians are ready to fight with arms to defend the country, according to the latest polls in February. These numbers are unprecedented and exceed those in 2014-15 when Russia started the war against Ukraine by gobbling up Crimea.
Ukrainians have rejected the “Russian idea”—the revisionist concept that Putin tries to impose on his neighbors. You are Russians, not Ukrainians, Putin told us in an essay in July 2021 that many in the West wrote off as irrelevant and risible. Putin’s revisionism rejects Ukrainian identity and nationhood. The message is simple: Ukraine will remain a vassal state of Russia—forever. That Putin cannot find a way of building relations with Ukraine other than by threatening it with weapons is emblematic of the failure of the “Russian idea.”
At the same time, the world is discovering Ukraine and its national identity. Never before in Ukraine’s history has the West fought so unanimously for Ukraine. The country’s return to world history and claim to a rightful place in Europe is one of the biggest fears of Russian czars, Soviet dictators, and the current Russian leadership, because it forces them to do the unthinkable, which is to reform their own country.
Washington has warned that Putin may strike Ukraine again and demonstrated leadership by unifying Ukraine’s Western partners behind a series of punitive actions if Russia invades again. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy believes that the West’s loud warnings are excessive. Not so. Putin wants to rewrite the rules of the European security architecture, tear NATO apart, destroy Ukraine’s westernizing drive, and humiliate the United States. The West’s timely and large-scale reaction has made Putin lose the courage to use military force against Ukraine again. No scenarios, however, can be excluded. Putin is wily and his calculus is not ours.
The main conclusions are clear.
Putin and the “Russian idea” have lost in today’s Ukraine. But the Kremlin has no intention of pulling back. On the contrary, they will seek revenge.
The Kremlin may consider ridiculous plans to install a pro-Russian puppet in Ukraine. But these plans will fail. Putin and his narrow circle do not understand modern Ukraine. We want to be independent, and we want to be part of Europe, not a pawn of Putin.
Putin understands that strategic military maneuvers are his most powerful weapon. This resource is not inexhaustible, but it is efficient. Yet any direct military operation will limit the Kremlin’s options and its ability to put further pressure on the West, so we should expect multifaceted responses from Putin. The Russian president will likely use a combination of cuts to power and heat plus more cyberattacks to destabilize the country before resorting to military action. Putin wants to render Ukraine so weak that it has no choice but to capitulate at the negotiating table.
The Kremlin will also look for ways to glean the maximum possible dividends from its dialogue with the West concerning strategic stability and arms control. If an invasion is averted, Putin will demand a seat at the negotiating table with the leaders of the world’s major powers to extract as much as possible. Annexing Belarus, even in an undeclared fashion, is yet another consequence of the present crisis.
We should expect ongoing Russian hybrid war efforts aimed at Ukraine and the West with the goal of anchoring Ukraine in a “gray zone” without any chance of joining NATO or the EU and without the necessary economic development. Under these circumstances, Russian propaganda will gladly stir up anti-Western hysteria, trying to convince Ukrainians that the conflict is Washington’s handiwork and that Ukraine’s betrayal is the result of it.
The good news is that Putin can be deterred if the West acts now and President Joe Biden continues to show leadership.
Biden should promote a broad European dialogue with our Atlantic partners emphasizing common values and security, with the goal of mobilizing Western public opinion and building immunity to the Kremlin’s new ideological attacks. Under no circumstances should we deviate from the idea of Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the EU. We have to choose in the same way that Konrad Adenauer’s West Germany once chose. Ukrainians want peace. Under no circumstances, should the West force the poisoned chalice of the Minsk Agreements on us. Putin has already lost Ukraine, but our future hangs in the balance. Will the West stand up for us?
Danylo Lubkivsky is the director of the Kyiv Security Forum and a former deputy minister of foreign affairs. He tweets @DLubkivsky