Zelensky’s Dilemma

What happens if Ukraine can't achieve complete victory?

Daily Beast national security reporter Shannon Vavra argues “A Judgment Day Is Coming for Zelensky.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his advisers have been arguing in recent days that they don’t want to cede any territory to Russia in the ongoing war in Ukraine. And though that view is widely held in Ukraine, they could be trapping themselves in political quicksand.

Zelensky’s position, which he and his advisers have repeated countless times, is well-supported throughout the country, to be sure. Ukrainians overwhelmingly don’t want to give up any land to Russia—82 percent of Ukrainians are against it, according to a Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll conducted in May.

Zelensky has said Ukrainian fighters are capable of pushing back Russian forces, and even suggested they want to push Russia back to not just pre-February 2022 bounds, but wind the clock all the way back to before Russia’s incursion in 2014, as well.

But if Zelensky and his advisers have to one day confront the realities of the war and actually approach a negotiation table once more and consider—or make—territorial concessions, that could leave Zelensky on the precipice of political turmoil, according to Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

“Zelensky is going to have to make some really difficult decisions between what kind of concessions to make versus protecting positions of principle, and what kind of concessions he might want to make that could be acceptable to the Ukrainian public,” Pifer told The Daily Beast. “I think that’s going to be a really, really hard decision if they get to a point in a negotiation.”

THis is a variation of a point I’ve been making since Russia’s invasion: given that neither side seems capable of achieving its initial war aims, the end state is not obvious.

I’ve mostly focused on Putin, who I don’t think can sustain his position without a substantial victory. Indeed, his literal survival may well hang in the balance.

And I’ve worried, too, that the United States and other Western supporters may be essentially fighting a proxy war against Russia using Ukrainian soldiers. Our public stance is the same as Zelensky’s: Russian forces must leave all of Ukraine, ideally also including territories they annexed prior to the most recent invasion. While a laudable goal, we have no skin in the game. Further, we may well complicate any negotiated settlement by being unwilling to lift the latest rounds of sanction on Russia short of our preferred endstate.

As to Zelensky, the issue will take care of itself. I wish him success in achieving full victory against the invaders. If, as I suspect, that’s simply unachievable, Ukraine will eventually grow tired of bringing home sons and daughters in body bags in a futile effort. That’s just how wars work.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. drj says:

    And I’ve worried, too, that the United States and other Western supporters may be essentially fighting a proxy war against Russia using Ukrainian soldiers.

    Looking at Russia’s ultimate war aims, this war is existential for Ukraine. And the Ukrainians know it.

    Russia (under Putin, at least) will never be satisfied with some additional territory. Russia’s goal is to eradicate Ukraine as a nation an reincorporate its people into the Russian empire.

    Territorial concessions in this war will only make the next one easier for Russia.

    Considering the extent of the West’s sanctions (and material support) and the lack of Russian military success, it’s – quite obviously, I think, as Russia looks to be running out of steam before Ukraine will – best to stay the course for now. For the simple reason that it’s hard to see how Ukraine’s strategic situation will have improved the next time.

    Why let Russia attack another time at a moment of their choosing?

    And how many Ukrainians should be left to the tender mercies of the Russian genocidal imperialists in the meantime?

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  2. de stijl says:

    Zelensky is not wrong in his assessment. We are getting bored. We have Amber Heard and Johnny Depp to obsess about. Abortion. 2022 election run-up. Creeping fascism in our state governments.

    New things. Fascinating things. Russia invading Ukraine is yesterday’s news to a lot of people.

    The West is getting bored and not paying attention.

    Prediction: Russia will win eventually because of sheer mass. We will pretend to care, but not actually care that Russia invaded and absorbed most of Ukraine. We will do performative op-eds and think pieces and stew in our helplessness.

    Like Crimea a few years back. We will do nothing. Platitudes and weapon transfers. It will become this thing that happened outside of our control.

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  3. Tony W says:

    I think this is more of a case of Zelensky refusing to negotiate against himself.

    At some point there will be a reasonable peace deal on the table, that may include some concessions that he’ll be forced to accept, but there is no reason to start signaling what that might be right now.

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  4. Mikey says:

    @drj:

    Russia (under Putin, at least) will never be satisfied with some additional territory. Russia’s goal is to eradicate Ukraine as a nation an reincorporate its people into the Russian empire.

    A googolplex times this. Allowing Russia to keep any part of Ukraine simply enables the Russians to rebuild and fortify its forces at its leisure. Anyone who thinks they won’t use the time to do exactly that and push west in the future is simply not in touch with reality.

    Ditto anyone who thinks Russia will stop at Ukraine. Putin, last Thursday:

    After visiting an exhibition in Moscow dedicated to the 350th birthday of the tsar, Putin drew parallels between Peter the Great’s founding of St Petersburg and modern-day Russia’s ambitions.

    He told a group of young entrepreneurs “you get the impression that by fighting Sweden [Peter] was grabbing something. He wasn’t taking anything, he was taking it back”.

    When Peter the Great founded St Petersburg and declared it the Russian capital “none of the countries in Europe recognised this territory as belonging to Russia”, Putin said.

    “Everyone considered it to be part of Sweden. But from time immemorial, Slavs had lived there alongside Finno-Ugric peoples,” he added.

    “It is our responsibility also to take back and strengthen,” Putin said, in an apparent reference to Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.

    Russia must be pushed out of Ukraine entirely and suffer a humiliating and ignominious defeat in the process, or we will be saddled with an expansionist Russia forever.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    I got some pushback a couple months ago for noting Ukraine had a third of Russia’s population and a ninth of Russia’s GDP. Apparently Ukraine’s active troop strength is about equal to Russia’s, and the West is making up some materiel deficiencies. But Ukraine seems to be critically short on artillery ammunition as Russia settles into a WWII style battle of massed artillery. I see little evidence Russia lacks the will to fight on. Picture the U.S. with 90% MAGAs, FOX having a de facto and de jure monopoly, and a militarized Secret Service. Much as I hate it, it’s hard to see how Zelenskii’s situation improves from here.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    No concessions are necessary to wind the war down. Ukraine can keep up a low-grade war in the east so long as we supply them weapons and help to support their economy. And as long as we keep sanctions on Russia they will slip further behind as a military and economic power.

    We should begin training large numbers of Ukrainian troops in more advanced weapons systems. If Putin fires a missile at Kyiv, they should expect a return package in Moscow. Ukrainians should be getting Abrams tanks and HIMARS and ex-Soviet jets. When pilots can be trained they should be getting American-made jets as well. And we should be leaning on the Turks to let us send a flotilla into the Black Sea to break the illegal blockade. A single Virginia class sub would be enough.

    Risk war with Russia? The only risk Russia poses is nuclear, and if we let them get away with that kind of blackmail we are surrendering the West. We cannot blink every time someone says, ‘nuke.’ On the ground, in the air, at sea, Putin’s got nothing that NATO couldn’t handle easily, his only real power move is national suicide. This is not the time to wimp out.

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  7. Kathy says:

    The model I see is WWI in the Western Front. The allies could not expel German armies out of France and Belgium, but they could choke off much of Germany’s trade and keep inflicting military losses, to the point Germany had to give up because they could no longer fight.

    The problem in following this model, is that it costs an exorbitant amount of blood and suffering, and pain that will linger for years as Ukraine slowly rebuilds. It also takes large amounts of money.

    Then, too, Russia is not fighting in other fronts, nor supporting co-belligerents, at least not on massive scales. Nor will it accept crippling peace terms the way Germany was forced to. Instead, Russia can regroup and try again in a few years, perhaps with better plans and larger forces.

    To the last, it depends much on how long Mad Vlad lives. Also on how widely his mad vision is shared among the ruling elite and likely successors. The next war would be terrible even if it’s conducted by someone else, while Putin lies alongside Lenin in a mausoleum in Red Square.

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  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    In effect the Russo-Ukraine war has been going on for seven years, beginning with Russia’s invasion of the Crimea and the little green men showing up in the eastern provinces. Europe has already given us a 30 Year War and a 100 Year War, so this war can go on for a long time.

    Several military analysts have stated that by the end of August, Russia’s military will be exhausted, perhaps, but the two sides hurling artillery back and forth across a static front line that has been abandoned by the civilian population is something that can go on at least until Putin passes. At that point a cease fire deal can occur.

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  9. steve says:

    No good ending here. Sounds like the part of Ukraine Russia is trying to steal is going to largely be destroyed anyway. I dont think there is any chance of concessions by Russia. It is up to Zelensky and Ukraine how long they want to keep fighting and how much they want to lose. They should decide what is best for them and this should not be treated as a proxy war. We should continue to support them with arms, supplies and training as much as we can because its the right thing to do and its pretty clear it wont stop here if unopposed.

    Steve

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  10. RecklessR says:

    I’ve mostly focused on Putin, who I don’t think can sustain his position without a substantial victory. Indeed, his literal survival may well hang in the balance.

    I see this sentiment voiced in the West and must admit I don’t understand the thinking behind it. It seems premised on an idea of Russia as being responsive to the will of its citizens, its citizens having free access to information, and being politically engaged. None of those things is the case, however.

    Russians live in a largely closed informational environment. There is little risk that they see the war as a loss. The state propaganda has already laid the groundwork to say that destroyed Ukrainian equipment is the demilitarization they sought. So little risk of Putin being seen to lose no matter what.

    Moreover, it wouldn’t matter if they did see the war as lost. Even when protesting for free elections a decade ago, with society being much less clamped down, didn’t get Russians anywhere. Instead, they lost the ability to elect governors.

    Russia does not and has not changed leadership without alternate power centers being available to take on the new leader mantle. There is simply no alternate power center to Putin right now, domestically. The rich are no longer oligarchs – their money is only theirs as long as they kowtow. There is no political opposition to speak of, and no one in the military to command personal loyalty.

    Thanks to their propaganda, I don’t see Russians believing they lost no matter what happens (absurd stuff like Ukraine invading successfully excepted). And if they did they’d still have no way to get Putin out.

    Why do you believe Putin’s position in Russia would substantially change without a victory in Ukraine? If you believe Putin’s survival hangs in the balance, by what method do you believe he could lose power and who would lead the push? Everything I know about Russia as currently constituted says that’s vanishingly unlikely so I’m curious to understand what this cautious western view of based on.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @RecklessR: I’m afraid I agree. Whatever happens, on state TV it will be a victory for Russia and a triumph for Putin.

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  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    so long as we supply them weapons and help to support their economy.

    So roughly 7 months? (Or, hopefully, in this case the US isn’t doing most of the heavy lifting?)

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  13. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    The danger of Ukraine losing US support begins in 2025. Dems will continue to support Biden on this overwhelmingly, though there maybe erosion on the margins and there is enough support among Rs for Biden’s policies for Ukraine to continue to receive US arms. But if an R wins in 24, who knows.

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  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: So you believe that a Republican-majority Congress will continue to permit the budget to “hemorrhage” to pay for weapons for a country that’s “not even an ally” and in whose business we shouldn’t even have started “meddling” in the first place? You have a lot more confidence than I do. I hope you’re right.

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  15. de stijl says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    At this point Rs are almost duty bound to prove that they are not pawns of Putin.

    They are, but whatever. Throw a bone to the PR professionals. Milk it. It’s like Homelander in The Boys S3 who no longer gives a fuck.

  16. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Enough that will be supportive that combined with Dem support Biden will continue to get weapons to Ukraine. Remember the war is a bonanza for the defense industry who are writing large checks to those congress critters that are supporting Ukraine.

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  17. Gustopher says:

    At some point, the cost of continuing to fight will be too high, and one side will have to make concessions. So far, the Ukrainians are rallying in support of their country and we should keep them well supplied.

    In the future, that might change, and we will have to accept that.

    I sadly expect that the US will stop supporting Ukraine before that happens though. The Republicans will take over Congress, and the drumbeat of “how can we afford to keep shoveling money to support Ukraine when we cannot even afford X for Americans” is already out there, picking up steam on the right.

    Not that they want to do anything about X. They’re still workshopping X, actually.

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  18. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog: It’s not the majority of Congress that matters, it’s who holds the leadership and what they allow to even come up for a vote.

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  19. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Gustopher:

    Understand that. If R’s take control, the likely majority leader will me McConnell, he’ll have opposition, but not enough to depose him and if it’s not McConnell, the likely candidates don’t hail from the isolationist wing of the party.

    Also, unlike the House, an R takeover of the senate isn’t a foregone conclusion. Leaving aside Biden’s popularity and the usual rejection of the prez’s party in the off year, the senatorial map is favorable to Dems and R’s are accommodating them with some whack job candidates.

  20. Skookum says:

    The model I see is WWI in the Western Front.

    Just curious: Why doesn’t the American Revolutionary War come to mind?

  21. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Skookum:

    For one thing George III was getting significant push back regarding the colonial war. Putin isn’t getting any significant pushback on Ukraine. For another, France was of a much greater concern.

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  22. dazedandconfused says:

    I’ve mostly focused on Putin, who I don’t think can sustain his position without a substantial victory. Indeed, his literal survival may well hang in the balance.

    Putin can claim the taking of the eastern section as a substantial victory, his recent Peter The Great/Swedish War comment was precisely that. As long as it’s not too expensive to defend it’s plausible he can sustain this for quite some time, and await the Ukrainians getting sick of the war.

    No Ukrainian politician can currently discuss letting those sections go. IMO if Zelensky himself were to start advocating that now he would be replaced within a week. It can only be broached if and when the majority of the Ukrainian public are no longer convinced taking it all back is not feasible or not worth the price.

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  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: From your lips to God’s ears. I’m guessing that they will go into “make him a one-term President mode” and oppose everything except burning the country to the ground. And then they’ll want exclusive control of what happens to the ashes.

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  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Indeed. There will always be a cause more local and important than whatever Democrats are wanting on any given day. But even that cause will not be more important than cutting taxes for the rich. Priorities, man.

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  25. JohnSF says:

    Element one of the situation: Russia.

    Highly doubt Putin’s survival relies upon any objective end state (always excluding Ukraine taking Moscow, which let’s face it, has a asymptotic implausibility factor).
    His control of the media space, the coup-proofed military/security structures, and their public control functions seems solid.
    It may be usurped internally, but how probable that is is very unclear.
    Low, I’d guess; but it’s just a guess.
    And what could trigger an attempt is guesswork redoubled.

    Part two of the situation:
    Ukrainian political and military position.

    Zelensky has said Ukrainian fighters are capable of pushing back Russian forces, and even suggested they want to push Russia back to not just pre-February 2022 bounds, but wind the clock all the way back to before Russia’s incursion in 2014, as well.

    Frankly Pifer and Vavra are making a case for the sake of a case here.
    Zelensky’s statements indicate Ukraine would like to restore the pre-2014 frontiers.
    But they also appears well aware that this may not be possible at an acceptable cost; hence the repeated statements of preparedness to negotiate with Russia on the basis of the 2014/22 demarcation lines.
    Such statements have not produced political upheavals in Ukraine.

    However, it is pretty certain that accepting Russian conquests beyond the 2014/22 lines would provoke such an upheaval.
    But in any case the Ukrainian government is not likely to offer such concessions.

    They continue to have good reason to believe that they have a long term advantage, if current strategic conditions continue:
    Western support for Ukraine.
    Failure (possible incapacity) to fully mobilise by Russia.

    As long as these conditions hold, the situation is as at Day 1: the Russian field army is a wasting asset with less regeneration potential than Ukraine.
    Russia my be able to take territory, at high cost, but retaining it is another matter.

    Ukraine may be suffering higher losses than in previous fighting, due to Russia finally dropping secondary offensives for a single artillery-heavy drive in north Luhansk.
    But if anything like past experience of intense conventional war hold true, Russian loss rates will be even higher.
    And contrary to much conventional wisdom, it is far from clear that Russia can sustain such losses for a prolonged period without its field army becoming ineffective for continued attacks.
    At which point, the Russian problem is that they will not have enough manpower to establish a strong continuous defensive perimeter, or to secure their nominal “occupied zone”, or even protect all their supply routes.

    Ukraine can nibble them to death, as long as their economy and supply is sustained by Western support.

    That, of course is the third crucial element in the strategic calculation.

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  26. JohnSF says:

    @Skookum:

    Why doesn’t the American Revolutionary War come to mind?

    First:
    The American theatre could be interdicted at critical moments by French naval power; Britain could not march land armies from England into New England. 🙂

    Second:
    Once the French did intervene, Britain decided that the crucial war was the Anglo-French naval/colonial fighting, that the League of Armed Neutrality must be conciliated, and the American Continental Colonies were a mere side-show compared to the West Indies, Mediterranean and India.

    Basically, an entirely different strategic situation.

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  27. JohnSF says:

    @Kathy:
    Actually, there is a case to be made that by 1918 the Allies were in sight of having the military capability to boot the Germans from France, at the same time that the German economy was cracking under blockade.

    The British/Imperial Army offensive of the Hundred Days, the more limited French local operations, and the American Meuse–Argonne drive. cleared most of France between 25 September and 11 November 1918.

    Some argument that this was, at least partly, because massive numbers of Germans were diverted to an attempt to “beat the blockade” by economic exploitation of the occupied areas of Russian Empire and Romania.

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  28. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If Putin fires a missile at Kyiv, they should expect a return package in Moscow.

    1 – Waste of a missile; purely symbolic/”morale” strikes have been a Russian folly, which the Ukrainians have shown no inclination to emulate.
    2 – Insofar as “morale/political” issues go, could be a net plus for the Puta. Actually, would not surprise if he “false flagged”. (See September 1999 Apartment Bombings)
    3 – Causes Chancellor Scholz and the German maiden aunts to take to their fainting couch. Again. (And Macron to solicitously offer to mop their brow. Again. Still not gonna get there, Emmanuel.) Can do without.

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  29. Skookum says:

    Basically, an entirely different strategic situation.

    I agree with your point, but I was reflecting on the cynicism in some posts. Is “yearning to be free” and the willing to undergo years of conflict an old-fashion notion? That even before a year of conflict the sense emerges that Zelensky needs to negotiate? As an American I wanted to pull out of Afghanistan long before we did because the Afghans themselves weren’t willing to fight. But if Ukrainians are willing to die to be free of Russia, then I support them. Even if it is considered a proxy war–as was the American revolution in the eyes of England and France?

  30. JohnSF says:

    @Skookum:
    Oh, as far as the motivation side goes, yes, 100%.
    I have (or had, gets a bit involved cousin separation wise) Ukrainian relatives; speaking to a Ukrainian friend of said relative back in 2018, his words:
    “We were free. We were enslaved. Never again”.
    (And it goes for all of the variant strains of Ukrainian nationalism)

    Proxy, schmoxy.

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  31. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Whatever else is going on, we absolutely are fighting a proxy war with Russia. Our military is loving the combat testing going on, our military contractors are loving the contracts to provide for Ukraine and restock our own supplies, and the politicians love the idea of Russia being seriously weakened. Probably the only people not thrilled are the investment and corporate classes, who are taking huge losses on investments they never should have made in the first case.

    I’m not saying our motivations are entirely cynical, we DO like underdogs and we DO appreciate people fighting against autocrats. But there is a lot of self-interest on our side.

    Personally I think it’s going to come down to who can endure more: Russia with its military losses and economic pain, or Europe when it gets cold this winter. Ukraine itself can endure the military pain I believe, but if the support from us and Europe dries up…