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What is the West's objective in Ukraine?

Michael Ignatieff
Michael Ignatieff • 4 min read
What is the West's objective in Ukraine?
The fall of the Zelensky government would give Putin the victory he so desperately needs. Photo / Bloomberg
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We know what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants in Ukraine: To wipe the country off the map. We also know what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wants — to keep Ukraine alive as a democratic state. The question is what the West wants. What is its strategic goal?

So far, the West’s objectives have been framed in the negative: To avoid being drawn into a war with Russia, while still doing whatever possible to help the Ukrainians. That has meant saying no to Zelensky when he asks for a NATO-enforced “no fly zone.” But the West’s war strategy cannot be built on what it will not do. NATO and its allies must define a positive objective.

At the beginning of the invasion, when many predicted a quick Russian victory, the West could stick to virtue signalling, congratulating Zelensky and his government on their courage while discreetly preparing to evacuate them to exile.

Zelensky refused the offer, and now that the Ukrainians have shown what they can do, NATO is pouring anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles into the country and sharing military intelligence with Ukrainian commanders.

The West has entered a proxy war, and in proxy wars, the proxy defines the objectives. When proxies do well, it is tempting to start envisaging more ambitious objectives, from forcing the opponent into a humiliating stalemate to effecting regime change. Yet this raises the risk of strategic hubris.

We risk forgetting that Russians have long experience enduring economic hardship. They can absorb a great deal of economic punishment before rising against the regime. It is also hubristic to predict that Putin’s inner circle will rise up and dethrone him.

See also: Russia resumes Ukraine grain-export deal in abrupt reversal

It is far too early to conclude that Putin is losing the war. He has already shifted to more destructive and effective tactics, with the hideous destruction of Mariupol and Kharkiv indicating what may be in store for Kyiv. Neither the West nor its proxy are in any position to announce regime change as the strategic goal, which would risk provoking Putin into pursuing an even more violent and dangerous escalation.

The West has been congratulating itself on the severity of the sanctions regime, but sanctions are weapons that hit both sides. Every Western leader knows that higher gasoline prices mean political trouble back home, especially in an election year. If the West cuts back further on Russian energy imports, or if the Russians turn off the tap themselves, a recession or even depression will loom.

Western leaders may be concerned about the likely long-term economic impact of sanctions, but they also know that focusing on their own economies — and hence their own political futures — at the expense of the Ukrainians would look disgraceful, and not just to the Ukrainians. At a time when the war has roused fury in Western electorates on an unprecedented scale, saving Western economies by sacrificing the Ukrainians is poor politics and bad strategy.

See also: Russian Odesa missile strike tests Ukraine grain export deal

Plausible scenario

If a Russian victory can still be prevented, the West will need to step up its assistance to the Ukrainian military to force Putin into a bloody stalemate, followed by a negotiated settlement that leaves at least part of Ukraine intact and in the Zelensky government’s hands.

Even here, the West needs to plan for the worst, not hope for the best. The worst would be the fall of the Zelensky government, after a long siege and bombardment of Kyiv. Providing the Ukrainians with anti-aircraft, anti-missile, and anti-artillery capabilities is essential to break the siege. But if these fail to hold the Russians back, the West will have to decide whether it can stand by and watch the presidential palace being bombed and a democratically elected government being destroyed.

The fall of the Zelensky government would give Putin the victory he so desperately needs: It would allow him to wipe out Ukraine as a sovereign state, and to begin the Russification of a newly conquered people.

This plausible scenario should give Western leaders strategic and moral clarity. The West’s strategic objective in this war ought to be to preserve the Zelensky government. By saving the government, the West can save Ukraine. Any Russian effort to finish off the Zelensky government should be the West’s red line: the moment at which it sends a message to Putin that if he does not stop, it will respond with force.

Western political leaders have an opportunity to decide on this strategic message at this week’s NATO summit. If they can reach a consensus, it will then be up to the alliance’s military leadership to draw up tactical plans for delivering the message loud and clear.

— © Project Syndicate Michael Ignatieff is Professor of History at Central European University and the author of On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times (Metropolitan Books, 2021)

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