If you wonder why NATO is happy to send certain weapons to Ukraine, but blanches at the thought of others, the reason can be summed up this easily: Can the weapon be used offensively. Thus, missile systems are okay, but fighter jets and tanks are not. If the distinction seems kinda bullshitty, it’s because it is, but it allows NATO to sell itself as a defensive alliance that poses no threat to Russia itself, even now, as it racks up war crimes in Ukraine. 

The NATO rationale has logic, though. With his invasion flagging, Vladimir Putin would love to pit the war as one against NATO, green lighting a general mobilization with the full support of his people. Beating up on kindred Ukrainians just doesn’t have the same motivating punch. Thus, it seems cruel to force Ukraine to shoulder the full brunt of its defense, but it has managed well thus far, making great use of the armaments flooding into the country from Europe and North America. 

We’ve written extensively why Russia can’t win. You can dig through my archive if you really want to revisit the topic. But in short, Russia is spread thin, with insufficient forces in any of its axes to notch decisive gains, while losing troops and equipment at unsustainable rates. Meanwhile, the economic situation will only worsen on the home front. Sugar fights will soon be the least of Moscow’s concerns. 

So it’s clear Russia is in a bind. However, Ukraine isn’t in a much better place. Yes, it has heroically held its ground and systematically degraded Russia on the conventional battlefield, when everyone expected Eastern Ukraine to fall quickly to Russian forces. Everyone planned for an insurgency that has proven unnecessary thus far. However, Russia has notched significant territorial gains in the Donbas region, and in the south out of Crimea. If Ukraine’s end goal is territorial integrity, including the return of all Russian- and separatist-occupied territories, it is in no position to demand them of Russia. Indeed, a best-case scenario peace treat today would necessarily require Ukraine to concede those lands. It has refused to do so, which is laudable, but what leverage does it have to force the issue? Russia has already dropped its demand for regime change, and its “denazification” demands have been whittled down to changing a few street names (not joking). 

It is likely a compromise would involve Kyiv making token concessions by banning certain groups or changing the names of streets named after Ukrainian partisans who fought alongside Nazi Germany against the USSR in the second world war, said two people briefed on the talks.

peace.jpg
Russia might agree to peace in exchange for that chunk of land.

Russia is adjusting to the reality that it cannot win the decisive victory it wanted, and might be happy to walk away with its “land bridge” from Donbas to Crimea, along with those vague promises too “denazify” be removing some street signs. If Putin isn’t there already, at some point soon he will be. In fact, this is exactly how the Winter War against Finland ended in 1939-40—with Finland haf the upper hand in the war, but surrendering a chunk of land near St Petersburg to make the invaders go away. All the high-minded idealism and moral high ground ain’t worth much if thousands of your civilians are dying. Stalin got away with highway robbery.

At this moment, Ukraine refuses to surrender any territory. But what can Ukraine give Russia in return, in order for Putin to save face and be able to claim some sort of victory? No NATO membership? Sure, Russia would love that (and will get it), but not at the price of all the hard-won territory. Too many Russians have died for that land, and it’s certainly not enough to justify losing their precious McDonalds and Pepsi. 

Indeed, there’s really no scenario in which Russia gives up that land willingly. Thus, if Ukraine really wants it, it must take it away by force. Crimea, in particular, is of the highest geopolitical importance—the Russian naval base at Sevastopol is home to its Black Sea Fleet, giving it a dominant perch from which to exert power in Eastern Europe, Turkey, and into Central Asia. The Black Sea is the only ocean access for Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Georgia. 

So we’re back to the Ukrainian army, currently fending off Russia, but with defensive weapons. All those javelins and NLAWs and Stingers aren’t as useful in offensive actions, where the enemy is dug in and protected from direct attacks. Ukraine has little air power, and massing truly offensive weapons—tanks protected by mechanized infantry—makes them susceptible to Russian aircraft, suicide drones, and artillery. You can’t hit-and-run your way to recapturing the Donbas region. It’s one thing to leverage a civilian insurgency inside occupied cities like Kherson to overthrow its occupiers, but none of that exists in Crimea or the eastern separatist regions. Indeed, one of the biggest Ukrainian equipment graveyards we’ve seen has been on the outskirts of Mariupol, where Ukrainian armor waged a losing battle to hold off invading armor. 

Looking through Ukraine’s arsenal, there is plenty to bleed Russia dry, but little to dislodge them from the pre-war boundaries, where the populace is less likely to welcome a return to Ukrainian control. There is no Air Force, and Ukraine won’t indiscriminately level cities to force surrender. (And that strategy hasn’t even worked well for Russia, despite its massive advantages.) Ukraine’s armor is old, and best used in defensive entrenchments. It won’t fare well exposed to Russian missiles, air power, and artillery.

And so we’re stuck. There is no realistic scenario in which Ukraine manages to reunify the country by force. It just doesn’t have the offensive combat capability to do so. So the most likely scenario is a return to the pre-war borders, Ukrainian “neutrality” of some sort (it’ll still get its security guarantees though other treaties that aren’t NATO), and a war criminal mass murderer sitting in the Kremlin, with zero accountability for his crimes. 

Perhaps the only consolation will be that Ukraine can’t negotiate away Russia’s brutal economic sanctions. And while the broader sanctions regime will crumble as countries like Italy demand to sell Gucci to Russian oligarchs, the United States doesn’t have to follow along, crippling Russia’s economy indefinitely. Europe will continue moving away from Russian fossil fuels, putting Russia’s economy in China’s hands, which China will exploit to its advantage. And hopefully the Putin-loving right in Europe and the United States (ahem, Donald Trump and friends) will be dealt a setback in their efforts to implement Russia-style repression and tyranny at home. 

In case you’re wondering what offensive weapons might look like, it would be a shit-ton more drones (including suicide ones, given how cheap they are), modern armor, precision-guided artillery, ground-attack aircraft, ballistic cruise missiles, long-range surface-to-air missiles, electronic warfare capabilities (to jam enemy radar and counter-drone measures), and a great deal of training to learn how to combine all these elements into a cohesive fighting force, and manage the supply lines to support it. (Let’s never forget logistics!)

And even if all that was possible, Ukraine would have to decide whether it was worth thousands more dead, billions more in infrastructure damage, and continued economic damage and food insecurity (both domestically and globally), all for pieces of land that aren’t required for its own successful statehood. Heck, pull a West Germany—build such a successful economy, that Donbas would want reunification. Aligning with the Russian wasteland won’t bring prosperity to the region. If the past eight years are any indication, quite the opposite will continue to happen. 

Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 12:43:48 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

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Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 12:57:17 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

This really is a must-read story:

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Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 1:10:53 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

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Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 1:59:16 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

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Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 2:04:40 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

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Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 2:23:02 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

Cry me a river, war criminal: 

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Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 2:27:36 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

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Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 2:54:21 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

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Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 4:19:50 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

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Monday, Mar 21, 2022 · 4:46:31 PM +00:00 · Barbara Morrill

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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