It’s all over bar the shouting for Zelensky and his followers, so what will be the reaction in Kiev and beyond?
Toward the end of World War II (in Europe), Germans often shared a dark joke, reflecting their well-deserved dread at the prospect of defeat: “Enjoy the war, the peace will be terrible.” Of course, despite the worst efforts of the Ukrainian far right to damage both the politics and the image of their country, no objective observer would equate Ukraine with Nazi Germany.
Nevertheless, that old German piece of gallows humor points to a question that is now pertinent for Ukraine. Even the militantly anti-Russian Economist is spotting “war fatigue” in both the US and the EU. The Western funding on which Kiev depends is in danger of drying up; and current promises of more cash are not reliable.
When and how will the war end?
Bloomberg reports a “sense of gloom” in Ukraine and the Wall Street Journal admits that “Moscow holds the advantage on the military, political and economic fronts.” The prominent American military commentator Michael Kofman, often treading a fine line between professional analysis and pro-Western bias, is close to facing reality. Still insisting that “it’s inaccurate to suggest that Russia is winning the war,” he acknowledges that “if the right choices are not made next year on Ukraine’s approach and Western resourcing, then Ukraine’s prospects for success look dim.” He also suggests that Kiev should shift to the defensive. Frankly, it has already, and it had no choice.
Yet a defensive strategy cannot achieve Ukraine’s official war aims, because they include retaking territory from Russia. For Ukraine, Kofman’s “right choices” imply giving up on that. Former war monger and Zelensky adviser – and now foe – Aleksey Arestovich, for one, has correctly spotted that fact. Such an outcome is called “losing.” Redefining it as a form of “success” – a shifting of goalposts popular in the West now – comes across as a clumsy attempt to rationalize and sell a defeat.
Regarding “right choices” for the West, despite desperate clarion calls by the Cold War re-enactor and Ukraine proxy war booster Tim Snyder and the US grand strategy maitre penseur Walter Russell Mead, the West may continue some funding of Ukraine, but it is unlikely to once again up the ante. Why would it, when all its previous strategies – economic, military, diplomatic, and by information war – have failed at great cost? What is happening instead is an American attempt to shift more of the burden of the proxy war onto the EU.
If Donald Trump wins the US elections in less than a year, then that trend is certain to accelerate, as even British state broadcaster BBC has long recognized. Western observers who think that this is a reason for Russia to be in no hurry to make peace before November 2024 are probably right.
But what if the West and Ukraine suddenly come up with a whole new suite of brilliant, game-changing strategies? After the “miracle weapons” have crashed, perhaps we’ll see “miracle ideas”? We won’t. Because if Western elites could have them, they would have utilized them already.
Concerning Ukraine, Maryana Bezuglaya, a member of parliament, has just caused a stir by accusing the military of failing to produce any genuine plan for 2024. Clearly, this attack is part of a power struggle – and blame game – between President Vladimir Zelensky and commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny. But Bezuglaya is not lying, just exploiting facts.
Regarding the West, after initial Russian blunders, it has not only been out-fought but also been out-thought by Moscow. Keeping alive the persistently unsophisticated Western tradition of stereotyping Russia at great cost, NATO think-tankers like Constanze Stelzenmüller at the Brookings Institution may go on underestimating Moscow as “not that strategic and not that intelligent” but merely very “determined.” On that assumption, Westerners – including think tankers – stymied by what they insist on imagining as not-so-smart Moscow, must conclude they are even less bright.
But if nothing succeeds like success, the opposite is also true – nothing fails like failure: Ukraine’s and the West’s setbacks are a self-reinforcing trend already. Hence, the pertinent question now is: when the current war ends, most likely with a Ukrainian (and Western) defeat, what will come after it? It’s a question that is both timely and difficult to answer.
For one thing, there are still all too many, in Ukraine and the West, who believe – or pretend to believe? – that the war should and can continue, perhaps for years. German chancellor Olaf Scholz, for instance, has just claimed that the EU must go on supporting Ukraine because it is essential for the bloc that Russia must not win. Such intransigent positions – or rhetoric – betray an unrealistic assessment of Ukrainian, Western, and Russian capacities. They also imply sacrificing more Ukrainian lives in the EU’s interests.
Scholz, for one, is speaking from an almost touchingly perfect position of weakness. His personal approval ratings have just hit a record low; the coalition government he is trying to lead is not doing much better. No wonder: the International Monetary Fund is now expecting Germany to end up as the world’s worst-performing major economy this year, while the government’s unconstitutional financial trickery has triggered a severe budget crisis that will cause painful cuts in public spending.
Scholz may, of course, be lying. There also are unconfirmed reports – or leaks? – that Berlin plans to join Washington in forcing Ukraine to come to terms.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba may still boldly deny feeling any pressure from his country’s Western sponsors.
In reality, multiple signals point in another direction: Western leaders are at least considering the option of cutting their losses by making Ukraine give up territory.
Conversely, Western stay-the-course talk on the war in Ukraine has an ever-hollower ring to it. It is ironic that only a few months ago – but before the predictable failure of Ukraine’s summer offensive turned into an undeniable fact – Foreign Policy surmised that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine policy was falling prey to the sunk cost fallacy. By now it is clear that it is the West that is experiencing a feckless gambler’s reluctance to give up before incurring even greater losses. Cynicism, the will to squeeze the last bit of blood from Ukraine, and an obstinate refusal to acknowledge past errors are certain to also play a role.
Yet it should be noted that even some observers who are not suffering from such Western biases are pessimistic about a quick end to the war. That’s because they believe that ultimately Washington will keep fueling its proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, whoever is or seems to be in charge in the White House. For Ukraine and Ukrainians, such a strategy would still mean defeat, but after even more losses and suffering.
On the other hand, given the dire state of Ukraine’s manpower and other resources, a sudden change in the situation on the ground cannot be ruled out. The war could enter a new phase marked by (initially) local breakdowns of Ukrainian forces and such significant Russian breakthroughs that Kiev would have to accept defeat in one form or another, whether under the Zelensky regime or a successor.
The fear of some Western officials that Ukraine could “unravel” as early as this winter is not baseless. In that scenario, fighting would be over comparatively soon, i.e. at the latest at some point next year, even if it might take much longer (compare the Korean case) to replace a formal state of war with peace in the full sense of the term. As John Mearsheimer has warned, a genuine or inherently stable peace may well be impossible, but a de facto cessation of hostilities – call it a frozen conflict, if you wish – can precede it. It may not be pretty, but it would make a big difference, nonetheless.
All of the above entails a paradox. We cannot yet tell if the end of the war is close, but it is not too early to think about the post-war period. The unknowns of the current situation also complicate the question of what exact shape that post-war era will take.
The fate of Ukraine’s military and NATO ambitions
Let’s assume the following: first, while a formal state of war may continue, the more important question is what it will take to end the actual fighting. Kiev would lose territory and, in general, would have to make additional concessions to Russia. The one that is easiest to predict is Ukraine reverting to neutrality and, in particular, giving up on its NATO ambitions (and, of course, its current de facto integration in the alliance). The second outcome that Russia is bound to pursue is capping Kiev’s military potential. The third result that Moscow will not let go off is to either completely neutralize (probably impossible) or strongly diminish the influence of Ukraine’s far right.
Thus, post-war Ukraine will be smaller, neutral, militarily weak, and its official politics and institutions (especially those with arms, such as the police and army) will have to let go of far-right personnel and influence, at least on the surface. No more ‘Black Suns’ on display, except maybe at private parties. If these conditions are not met, fighting may still temporarily cease, but not for long.
Regarding NATO (that is, the US), the fundamental question here is whether Russia will even seek a grand settlement again, a principal reset, but this time from a position of increased strength or, instead, leverage its advantage to achieve the more limited aim of pursuing its security interest by shaping “only” the settlement in and about Ukraine.
Russia may or may not want – or be able to – also make NATO explicitly give up on Ukraine and, more broadly, its misconceived strategy of expansion. Moreover, Moscow may or may not try to insist once more on a fundamental revision of Europe’s security architecture and its relationship with the US and NATO, as in its prewar proposals of late 2021.
What is certain is that once Moscow has created facts on the ground in Ukraine and Kiev has to revert to neutrality (in word and deed), NATO’s posturing will lose much of its relevance. There are unofficial signals that the bloc may be considering admitting only a part of Ukraine (neither Kiev nor its Western backers will recognize Crimea or other Moscow-controlled territories as Russian and will probably refer to them as ‘occupied’). If such a Plan B is serious, despite the fact that it would break NATO tradition and be foolish, Ukraine is rejecting it. And again, any signs of its implementation would be likely to restart the fighting quickly. It is true that some smart observers have speculated that Moscow may be willing to live with a reduced Ukraine being part of NATO. But on this, they are likely to be wrong.
Whatever approach Russia chooses, the key point is that it now has the initiative. That, dear NATO, is what happens when you lose a war: The agenda won’t be the West’s to set.
The future of Kiev’s EU membership bid
What about the EU? After all, one key cause of the current war and preceding crisis was a regime change in Kiev in 2014, which was triggered by a conflict over Ukraine entering into a special association with the bloc. At this point, the EU shows no intention to change this course. Indeed, it seems to be about to open a formal process leading to full membership. There is resistance from some member states, however. Open pushback is coming from Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban is threatening to block this policy as well as more money for Kiev. Where Orban is sticking out his neck, he may not be alone in having misgivings about integrating a large, poor, very corrupt, devastated, and revolution-prone new member state with a security issue from hell.
In any case, let’s assume that, for now, the EU elite gets its way – for instance by releasing more frozen funds for Hungary – and Ukraine enters into official membership talks. As has long been pointed out, starting accession talks is not the same as getting membership. At least years, possibly decades, can separate one point from the other, and the process can also get stuck in the mud. Moreover, as the recent electoral successes of Slovakia’s Robert Fico and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders have once again demonstrated, the ground is also shifting inside the EU. Add the AfD’s surge in Germany, and the EU’s own ability to stick to the plan is very much in doubt.
Post-war Ukraine will probably not be a full member of the European Union. Either for a long time or maybe forever.
Will Zelensky’s regime survive?
What about Ukraine at home? It is hard to imagine the political survival of the current President Vladimir Zelensky in a post-defeat Ukraine. Even now, internal Ukrainian government polling quoted by The Economist shows a drastic decline in his approval ratings. What is worse, while Zelensky is down to 32%, commander-in-chief Zaluzhny still scores 70%, and the especially sinister head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Kirill Budanov, who proudly runs assassination programs, has a solid 45%.
And, of course, The Economist publishing such figures is yet another sign that Zelensky is also losing Western support. The initially intense personality cult Zelensky enjoyed in the West as an almost miraculous leader may have fooled him into a false sense of security and irreplaceability. In reality, it now makes him the perfect scapegoat. As we know from classical tragedy, with great elevation, comes the potential for a deep fall.
What would come after the Zelensky regime? This is where it’s time to stash away the crystal ball because things become simply too opaque. One thing that true friends of Ukraine should hope for is that whatever is next will actually still be some form of coherent and minimally effective government. Those with ill-conceived fantasies of a “South Korean miracle” in what will be left of Ukraine, may want to refocus on more elementary, Hobbesian issues: In a country full of disappointed citizens and veterans and awash in arms, with a far right second to none in the world, things could turn very ugly indeed.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.