An Opportunity for Ukraine’s Allies

The West Should Exploit Recent Developments in Russia with Decisive Action
August 24, 2023

As Ukraine celebrates its 32nd anniversary of independence today, we must not forget that Ukrainians, since 2014, have been fighting and dying for their liberation from Russian occupation. This week’s developments have put a spotlight on two factors that may well shape the speed and efficacy of that liberation. First, dramatic footage appears to show the decapitation of the Wagner Group, a vicious, Russian state-created private military contractor that has spilled much blood from Syria and the Sahel to Ukraine. Second, recent contradictory prognoses by senior Washington officials for Ukraine’s military counteroffensive reveal the lack of clear US policy toward the war. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who holds a defeatist view of Ukraine’s chances of success against Russia, recently encouraged Kyiv to seek negotiations by opining that it will be difficult to evict all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory. A day later, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan noted that the counteroffensive was not at a stalemate. 

The Wagner Group, which provided the only military quasi-victory for Russia in Ukraine (the Pyrrhic victory of Bakhmut), is no longer the force it was known to be. And the sacking of Russian General Sergei Surovikin, who constructed the defensive lines that the Ukrainian military is struggling to breech, removes Russia’s only other credible military leader. President Vladimir Putin’s desire for loyalty over competency may prove beneficial for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, as will continued discord within the Russian armed forces. This offers an opportunity for the West, if it has the courage to seize it.

The United States and its allies do not control internal Russian developments, but Western policymakers must stop using their analyses of the state of the conflict in Ukraine as a substitute for policy. What are US goals in Ukraine? Is it a stalemate that forces the warring parties to a negotiation table that currently does not exist? If so, then the current situation is not a stalemate, and the effort is failing. Is it liberation by Ukraine of all its territory, including Crimea? If so, then the West needs to give Ukraine the means to do it. The absence of clear policy has devolved into a finger-pointing exercise between Washington and Kyiv about who is to blame for the lack of progress on the front. It also reinforces Putin’s belief that time is on his side, especially now that he has eliminated the leaders of June’s mutiny. 

That mutiny and a weak ruble may make the Kremlin a bit more uncomfortable, but they are far from changing Putin’s course of action. They will, rather, reinforce the approach to which Moscow’s termination of the Black Sea grain deal attests. Ukraine’s allies need to respond by shifting gears and acting to shorten the war by helping the country liberate its territories and begin reconstruction as quickly as possible. The West’s current, gradual, drip-drip-drip approach to providing support to Ukraine lengthens the war, increases Ukrainian suffering, and extends the threat to the global political and economic order. Clear, decisive, and fast-acting leadership is needed to end the conflict. And to be clear, stalemate is a Russian victory.