Can the Ukrainian War be Won?

The answer to the question Can the Ukrainian War be Won? No ­— unless both sides settle for exercising less sway over the future of their country. The Ukraine and Russia war, at its core, is about nationalism. Each is defending their motherland against outside control.

Put simply, the nationalist view of the conflict is clear. Ukrainians are fighting on their home turf and defending the land against Russians invading it. However, as articulated by their leader, V. Putin, the Russians are defending their historic dominance over Ukraine that the Western countries wish to break away. 

Nationalism is more than just adjusting boundaries; it’s about sustaining a culture and often recognizing that it should be the dominant culture of a land. Culture defines a “people” by language, customs, history, and myths. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin applied that belief in his 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” preceding the full-scale invasion of Ukraine the following year. Branko Marcetic, with the self-avowed socialist Jacobin magazine, describes Putin’s essay as presenting a vision of Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” with the Ukrainians being manipulated by unspecified “Western powers” as part of an “anti-Russia project” to make the country a “springboard against Russia.”

Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine is a classic nationalist objective of protecting a motherland from foreign powers occupying its territory while Ukraine is fighting to remain independent. Marcetic recognizes that Moscow’s invasion is self-evidently criminal and appalling. Nevertheless, he believes, as some do on the U.S. left and right political wings, that the West has contributed to the Ukrainian war by encouraging the addition of NATO nations on Russia’s border. That expansion eliminates Russia’s historic dominance over Eastern Europe. Does Putin have a legitimate grievance?

In a news conference in December 2021, Putin said, “You promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly,” However, that promise was vague.  Secretary of State James Baker suggested to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, during an informal meeting, that if the Soviets peacefully withdrew from East Germany, NATO would not expand into the Eastern countries. 

According to the post-Cold War historian Mary Sarotte, President George H.W. Bush rejected the idea. When formal negotiations began later in 1990, a ban on NATO expansion was never offered. And Gorbachev agreed to a treaty that did not limit the future expansion of NATO. 

Putin reinterpreted the treaty as an infringement on his nation when NATO expanded its membership into Eastern Europe. NATO’s expansion has an element of globalism in that its members belong to a larger body attempting to determine the future of a region. Russia saw that attempt after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. NATO added 12 countries that had been subservient to Russia by controlling their fellow communist governments behind what the West referred to as the “Iron Curtain.” 

Another treaty was specifically written dealing with Ukraine. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer writesthat in 1994, the Budapest Memorandum was signed by Russia and the U.S. and the U.K. committing all of them “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” in exchange for Ukraine giving up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. 

The U.S. provided “assurances,” not “guarantees,” to protect Ukraine from Russia. Guarantees would have implied a commitment of American military force. However, the NATO members and the U.S. would not provide it. Consequently, U.S. assistance has been limited to providing military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. 

Putin’s Russia invaded and then illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Russia then waged a simmering war for control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region until it launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. As a result, there are 8 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe. 

According to UNHCR figures, over half (4.8 million) are in the countries bordering Ukraine. Poland alone is hosting nearly 1 million. In comparison, the U.S. has admitted 271,000 Ukrainian refugees. 

A flood of additional Ukrainian refugees is of significant national concern for many European countries should Russia take over Ukraine. The larger liberal democratic governments realized that this influx could destabilize the Eastern European countries with weaker democratic institutions, leading to more strident nationalist governments. These governments would upend Europe’s liberal democracies’ agenda of a larger European Union, with an independent judiciary supporting civil rights for all its citizens.  

That danger has been underway. This month, Robert Fico’s populist SMER party won the most seats in Slovakia’s parliament. It is a pro-Russian party and likely to form a ruling coalition with Slovakia’s most right-wing party. Fico has pledged an immediate end to military support for Ukraine. Until his election, Slovakia had pushed for tough European Union sanctions against Russia and donated much military equipment to Ukraine.

This past September, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán threatened to withdraw support for Ukraine in protest of a 2017 Ukraine law that limits ethnic Hungarians from speaking their language, particularly in schools. Hungary has also blocked a $526 million EU military aid package to Kyiv since May because Ukraine listed Hungary’s largest bank as an indirect financial backer of Russia’s invasion.

Poland, one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, threatened to no longer supply weapons to it because of a diplomatic dispute over Kyiv’s grain exports. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki initially said Poland would focus on defending itself, but his administration has backpedaled from that statement. 

Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland are moving to defend their national concerns before that of Ukraine. However, the latter two governments are finding that their national policies are also being trumped by the EU’s demand that they change. 

This past July, the EU’s European Commission withheld funds from Poland and Hungary as punishment for breaching the binding effect of the EU Court of Justice rulings. Their national sovereignty is being compromised, and thus, they may feel less willing to pursue a more global approach to helping Ukraine. Popular support within all three countries has diminished since the start of the war for arming Ukraine. 

Other European countries are witnessing less interest from their citizens in Ukraine winning the war. According to a survey by GlobSec, a Bratislava-based security think tank in Slovakia, only 40% of Slovaks believed Russia was responsible for the war in Ukraine. 

Italy could also go that way despite Italy’s new right-wing populist party’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni continuing Italy’s support for Ukraine. However, Italy has accepted two-thirds of the Ukrainian refugees as the U.S., and Italians’interest in that support is trailing down. A February poll by the daily Corriere Della Sera showed some 45% of Italians were against sending weapons to Ukraine versus 34% in favor. 

Most telling is the decline in European support from March 2022 to February 2023 for measures backing Ukraine. During that period, polling within Ukraine’s five strongest allies, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Poland, showed a drop in approval of economic/financial sanctions and sending arms as high as 16%. Still, except for Italy, the populations of the other four countries are just above 50% for sending arms. 

If Ukraine’s summer offensive to retake significant territory fails, the approval rates will continue to fall for supporting Ukraine. This is in keeping with the trend of national needs overriding a more globalist approach to enforcing a regional authority to halt the war. 

This nationalist attitude is becoming a significant force within the U.S. Republican Party, with the reactionary 50-member Republican Freedom House Caucus in the lead to curb, if not halt, funding to Ukraine.  Rep. Matt Gaetz, who led the vote to oust Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker, played an instrumental role in forcing the short-term budget measure to exclude any aid to Ukraine. Previously, he had introduced a bill to prohibit all security assistance for Ukraine, which failed 70-358 on the House floor, with 149 Republicans opposing it. 

Despite a sizeable portion of the House Republicans supporting aid to Ukraine, the nationalist sentiment for the U.S.  to withdraw from a globalist role is gaining support within their party. Opposition to Ukrainian aid often demands that President Biden present a clear strategy for achieving a U.S. objective in the war. A prime example is Republican Rep. Brian Mast, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who initially strongly supported the defense of Ukraine but has since said no further aid absent a clear strategy.

America’s attitude toward the war follows the same pattern as in Europe during the war.  A survey conducted for CNN by SSRS, an independent research company, found that between February 2022 and July 2023, there was a 14% drop in thinking that the United States should do more to stop Russian military actions in Ukraine. Doing more now stands at 48%, with 51% believing the U.S. has already done enough. The decline in U.S. support for Ukraine is about the same as in Germany and Poland. However, it is greater than the other three major European countries. 

The changing attitudes of the leaders and populace of Europe and those within the U.S. are all anchored in nationalism: the belief that each nation must first be concerned with its own needs before being involved with the needs of other countries. Russia is counting on the slow and steady growth of nationalism as its most significant leverage for winning the war with Ukraine. 

The one place where nationalism is not working for Russia is in Ukraine. An August 2023 Gallup poll showed that even though support for winning the war has slipped from 70% to 60% from the prior year’s September, Ukrainians want to keep fighting until they win. Regaining Crimea is considered a necessary objective, but in the province closest to Crimea, support drops below 50%. 

Nevertheless, with such staunch resistance, Russia might consider a treaty allowing it to limit Ukraine’s control over the Russian-occupied territory. But can they be trusted? Putin had previously broken two ceasefire agreements with Ukraine, Minsk I and Minsk II, in 2014 and 2015.  He may find an excuse to break another deal if it were just between the two countries. To be an effective treaty, it would have to be backed by an outside party, i.e., an example of globalism at work. 

A workable treaty with Russia would not negate any continuing attempt to manipulate Ukraine’s internal politics. Before Zelensky’s election, Russia operated through Ukraine’s oligarchs to wield extensive political influence. Unless Ukraine obtains sufficient military and economic strength and stronger democratic institutions, Russia will have Ukraine as a client state, similar in status to Belarus.

The emergence of nationalism among Ukraine’s current allies allows Russia to win the war slowly. Some argue that Russia cannot sustain a long war. However, its armed forces are four times larger than Ukraine’s. Its paramilitary forces are five times larger. Its population is over three times larger. All give Putin almost unlimited cannon fodder. 

Since Russia’s government is a one-person operation, dependent on the image of strong authoritarian rule, dissent from the highest to the lowest levels is not tolerated. Unless Putin were replaced, there are no brakes available to halt Putin’s war. A new leader would face immense opposition to ending the war without showing some tangible victory, given the considerable human and economic cost it has levied on Russia. 

A feasible but unpopular path forward for Ukrainians to avoid a devastating defeat would be to have its Eastern provinces and the Crimean Peninsula neutralized as Italy’s Trieste Province had been after WWII. For that survival victory, an outside power must intercede and mandate an end to the war. That is globalism. But globalism is the devil to conservatives in Europe and the U.S. because conservatives have embraced nationalism. 

Globalism is seen by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, as cosmopolitanism. It is a positive application of globalism on a personal scale. Appiah describes a cosmopolitan as someone who sees human beings as shaping their lives within nesting memberships: a family, a neighborhood, a plurality of overlapping identity groups, spiraling out to encompass all humanity. It’s a grandiose vision that expands one’s moral imagination. But it may demand too much acceptance from citizens from any country born into a culture defined primarily by national identity. 

However, a global approach allows America to stay engaged with other European countries and not reward Russia for its aggression. If we back away, other countries will also. Ukraine will most likely only be able to remain independent with foreign help. Ukraine losing the war could unleash an even larger refugee stream into Europe. Unpredictable hardships in Europe would result and be felt in the U.S. as well. By embracing an America First nationalism, we will be willfully blind to this impending repercussion. 

Americans must continue to value a democracy that embraces ethnic diversity, an independent judiciary, civil rights for all, and our common welfare.  If not, the U.S. could be overwhelmed by citizens abandoning those values for an uncompromising “ism,” be it nationalism, fascism, or communism. Creating a physical or mental wall around the U.S. will not protect us from that peril. A global approach would lessen that risk.

The attitude of America before WWII until the Pearl Harbor attack was not to get involved in Europe’s conflict. We need only to protect ourselves and ignore what happens in other countries. 

If we had not gone to war in Europe, nationalized fascism could have toppled other democratic countries, including the US. People aren’t attracted to losers, as Trump said in referring to Senator McCain as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. If Nazi Germany had won, perhaps many American citizens would have accepted fascism as a better alternative to living under a liberal democracy. History does not repeat itself but provides lessons to be learned. 

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