Ukraine needs to reframe the fight

After more than two years of exhaustive warfare and enormous losses, an increasing number of Ukrainians believes that their country should look for a diplomatic way to end the war with Russia. However, not instead of the military way, but in addition to it. Ukrainian political analyst Mykola Riabchuk explains the importance of this distinction, the indispensability of Western security guarantees, and the need for Ukraine to reframe the fight.

 Zaporozhye 08 05 2024Crater left after the Russian attack on Zaporizhzhia on May 8, 2024. (Photo: Local authorities)

By Mykola Riabchuk

When the American Congress finally approved the much-awaited and long-delayed aid package for Kyiv, many Ukrainians sighed with relief, though probably prematurely. However important this package is, money alone cannot alter the course of the war. Weeks if not months are needed to obtain the required weapon, to deliver it to the frontlines, and to teach the newly mobilized soldiers how to use it. Given the many challenges at each stage, radical changes in the next few months are very unlikely. Ukrainians are still in retreat, while Russians mount the pressure, trying to use the window of opportunity to their best.

A lack of munition is Ukraine’s biggest problem: the thousand or two thousand shells they can afford daily is only a small faction (one fifth or even one tenth, reportedly) of what their adversaries fire on them in the same time span. Likewise, a few dozen old-style Soviet aircrafts are a poor match to hundreds of modernized Russian MIGs and SUs. And shady drones that Ukrainians employ to target military objects on Russian territory can hardly compete with ballistic missiles that Russia uses against all kinds of Ukrainian objects all over the country. The struggle largely resembles the fight between a light-weight boxer with a heavy-weighter, where the former has one hand tied behind his back.

As an autocracy, Russia has advantages not only vis-à-vis Ukraine, but also compared to Western democracies

A war of attrition is more advantageous for a populous and resourceful country. ‘While the fat one loses weight,’ a popular Ukrainian proverb says, ‘the thin one dies.’ As an autocracy, Russia has more advantages not only vis-à-vis Ukraine, but also compared to Western democracies, who are concerned with their electorates, immersed in parliamentary debates, and struggling with complex legal rules and procedures. Nothing of this is a problem in Putin’s perfect dictatorship: the opposition is fully suppressed, public opinion manipulated, and the entire economy is thoroughly geared up for a protracted war.

The limits of Ukraine’s commitment

The only advantage Ukrainians have in this uphill battle is their commitment – their civic morale and patriotic mobilization. But this has its limits. At least 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the fighting, as Volodymyr Zelensky averred several months ago. Many experts believe that the figure is far higher, likely more than double. Usually, the number of people wounded three times exceeds the number of those who have been killed, so the figure for Ukraine might be between a hundred and two hundred thousand.

Many of those who perished were the bravest people who volunteered on the first days of the war, the most dedicated and self-sacrificing members of the armed forces. The days when volunteers were turned down at the conscription centers because their numbers exceeded the centers’ capacity to equip them, are already gone. The appetite for the fight has declined notably, and draft-dodging became a widespread phenomenon. The governments’ failure to timely address the problem, to properly pass the much-needed laws, and to effectively communicate the issue through mass-media, only contributed to the general bewilderment and distress.

Ukrainians still donate huge sums of money to various military causes, and actively engage in civic initiatives to prop up the war efforts. An overwhelming majority still supports the idea of fighting until all of Ukraine’s territory and inhabitants are liberated, and angrily rejects any allusion to possible concessions to the aggressor. But less and less of them are willing to voluntarily put their own lives at risk for those decent and broadly coveted goals. One may call this stance cynical or just human, but in any case it is understandable - to feel some fatigue in the third year of this exhaustive war that brought incredible loss and suffering, especially given the lack of prospects for its termination in the foreseeable future.

Less and less Ukrainians are willing to voluntarily put their own lives at risk

Mismanagement of rotation and recuperation of troops, as well as residual corruption in various fields and at different levels – despite all the government’s and watchdogs’ efforts to curb and uproot it – also contributes to the popular cynicism and ambiguity. Ukraine is certainly not as corrupt today as it used to be. The war has highly increased the public demand for justice and fairness, making the issue very sensitive and the reaction to it extremely fierce.

Ukrainians undoubtedly benefit from independent mass media, but freedom of speech also requires particular communication skills from the authorities, that are not always at the war-time level they are supposed to be. As a result, popular trust in state institutions fell down to nearly pre-war levels. However, there are a few important exceptions: the Ukrainian armed forces, security apparatus and emergency services still enjoy overwhelming support of the population (over 90% in opinion surveys), and positive attitudes toward the president, independent mass media and, remarkably, local authorities still prevail.

The diplomatic way in addition to the military one

The war fatigue, though conspicuous and probably unavoidable after two years of daily deaths and dreadful destruction, does not yet translate into despair and defeatism. 89% of respondents in a nationwide survey are confident that Ukraine will ultimately win the war (down from 95% in 2022), 73% contend they are ready to endure the war for as long as it takes (up from 71% in 2022), and 66% define Ukraine’s victory as full liberation of all the territories illegally occupied by Russia (down from 71% in 2022). What has notably changed within the past two years is Ukrainians’ attitude toward the so-called diplomatic solution. Back in May 2022, 59% of respondents agreed that ‘in addition to the military, Ukraine should also look for a diplomatic way to end the war with Russia in order to minimize human casualties,’ while 35% believed that ‘Ukraine can defeat Russia only by military means, regardless of the number of victims.’ Today, the latter view is supported by 23% of respondents only, while as many as 72% consider the diplomatic way as desirable – though not instead of the military way but in addition to it.

War fatigue does not yet translate into despair and defeatism

This view has recently been articulated by general Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence. He recognized that there are many problems on the battlefield and things are about to get worse. On the one hand, the Russian army is not the hubristic organization it was in 2022, but now operates as a ‘single body, with a clear plan, and under a single command,’ while, on the other hand, Ukraine still desperately needs munition. In many cases, its partners lack capacity to provide this munition any time soon (e.g. so far, the entire EU produces three times less artillery shells than Russia). So, Skibitsky concludes, there is no way for Ukraine to win the war on the battlefield alone, given the current circumstances. ‘Even if Ukraine is able to push back the Russian forces to the borders - an increasingly distant prospect - it wouldn’t end the war. Such wars can only end with treaties [...] Right now, both sides are jockeying for the “most favorable position” ahead of potential talks. But meaningful negotiations can only begin in the second half of 2025 at the earliest  Both sides could eventually run out of weapons. But if nothing changes in other respects, Ukraine will be the one to run out first.’

Skibitsky Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of the military intelligence, argues there's no way for Ukraine to win the war on the battlefield alone. (Photo: X)

Skibitsky’s statement seems to contradict the official position of the Ukrainian government and the president Volodymyr Zelensky in particular, since they vehemently deny any possible peace talks with Russia’s current leadership, headed by the accused war criminal Vladimir Putin. Skibitsky is fully aware of this. He concludes the interview by stating ‘We will keep fighting. We have no choice. We want to live.’ But, returning to the miserable reality, he then adds that ‘the outcome of the war [...] isn’t just down to us.’

‘Such wars can only end with treaties’

Essentially, his position does not differ from the one expressed by the Ukrainian people in the survey quoted above. The statement ‘In addition to the military way, Ukraine should also look for a diplomatic way to end the war with Russia in order to minimize human casualties’ was supported by the majority of respondents in both 2022 and 2024. The emphasis here is on ‘in addition’, and definitely not on ‘instead of’, since the latter is generally understood as the defeat and capitulation of Ukraine that Moscow strives for. But what are the military means (and achievements) that would enable/entail the diplomatic talks ‘in addition’ to the reality on the ground?

Western security guarantees

The Ukrainian political class and society at large might accept a ceasefire and freeze the conflict at the existing frontlines, but only if reliable security guarantees (not the feckless ‘assurances’) are provided and the trusted peacekeeping forces (NATO, UN, or else) are deployed to protect the armistice. Perhaps, Ukrainians renege on their proclaimed intentions to liberate the occupied territories with arms, but not cede those territories (and people) to Russia by any formal agreement. They would rather insist on the peaceful return of these territories to Ukraine by either the current or, more likely, some future Russian government. Ukraine will request its international partners not to normalize relations with Russia until the lands are returned, the reparations are paid, and the war crimes are duly investigated and persecuted. ‘In addition’, Ukrainians may renounce their coveted ascendance to NATO and accept the non-allied status (which they used to have before the Russian invasion in 2014) but, again, reliable security guarantees are needed - not the ‘assurances’ of the kind they received in 1994 in Budapest from the U.S., the U.K. and, ironically, from Russia.

Western partners should be ready to provide security guarantees, though this might be even more difficult than to change the Russian authorities’ mind

To make all of this happen, the Russian authorities should change their mind, or be changed/replaced completely themselves. Both options look unlikely until and unless Ukrainians facilitate it on the battlefield. Additionally, the Western partners should be ready to provide security guarantees (short of a NATO membership but essentially of the same kind), though this might be even more difficult than to change the Russian authorities’ mind. In the recently leaked documents from the Russian-Ukrainian peace talks held in the early months of 2022 (March-April, in Minsk and Istanbul), many tough questions remained unanswered. One of them, perhaps the most crucial one, was about reliable mediators and guarantors of a sustainable armistice. In spite of the widespread rumors about the alleged ‘Western pressure’ that forced Kyiv to renege on negotiations and opt for war, the West was in fact reluctant ‘to be drawn into a negotiation with Russia, particularly one that would have created new commitments for them to ensure Ukraine’s security,’ as Samuel Charap, one of the staunchest supporters of ‘peace talks’, remarkably recognizes.

This means that Ukrainians still have no choice, as general Skibitsky has bitterly put it, but to keep fighting. In order to win, they must reframe the fight: from the struggle between the ‘fat’ and the ‘thin’ into the struggle between the dumb and the smart, the sluggish and the brisk, or powerful dinosaurs versus crafty mammals. As long as a small Soviet army keeps fighting a big Soviet army, the outcome remains predetermined. Ukrainians have already made some important steps to become non-Soviet, but must intensify their efforts to continue moving forward.

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