Strategic Patience Can Secure Victory in Ukraine

The West must overcome fatigue, avoid the cease-fire trap, and restore its resolve.
December 18, 2023
The West needs to summon the political will and strategic patience to support Ukraine or it will hand Putin an unearned victory.

As the US Congress—despite bipartisan support in both chambers—continues to dither, debate, and delay authorization for urgently needed support for Ukrainians as they courageously defend their country from unprovoked Russian aggression, a parallel debate over the objectives, goals, and strategy surrounding the war is intensifying. Those leading it suggest that because Ukraine proved unable to secure major ground gains in its first post-invasion offensive, and its allies are somehow fatigued by providing support, that “the time has come” for Ukraine and its allies to change strategy and redefine success.

While it is essential for countries at war to continuously reassess their strategy and adapt to changing battlefield and political shifts, those who say “that Ukraine and the West are on an unsustainable trajectory”, call for the country to abandon military efforts to reclaim its sovereign territory, press for a cease-fire that would lock in Russian territorial gains, and seek a diplomatic solution would hand Russian President Vladimir Putin an unearned and undeserved victory. In an eagerness to rid itself of this pesky Ukrainian war, the West should not redefine Ukrainian success as a Russian victory that will only set the stage for further land grabs, and potential attacks on NATO allies, in the years to come.

In their impatience with the idea of battlefield stalemate, those who call for Ukraine to agree to a cease-fire, focus on rebuilding the territory Kyiv retains, and forget about the territory Russia has illegally seized ignore the vital lessons from other often discouraging, stalemated wars. They also underestimate Ukrainian and Western resolve and capability while exaggerating Russia’s, as the West routinely did throughout the Cold War.

If such critics had been around during the American War of Independence, they might have advised George Washington and his troops that they were on an unsustainable trajectory and that time was not on their side given that they had over many years shown no sign of breaking through. They may also have noted that the British had far more formidable resources and a “large pool of manpower on which to draw”. In fact, Washington, and his bedraggled forces—perpetually short of ammunition, personnel, and food, and occasionally beset by mutinies—fought on for seven years, enduring multiple losses amid occasional victories while, critically, staving off defeat. Only at the end, with the support of the French army and 36 French warships, was Washington able to secure Britain’s surrender at Yorktown.

What the American soldiers fighting for independence in 1775 share with Ukrainian soldiers today is a determination and will to secure their country’s independence and sovereignty from foreign control and meddling. The Americans took up arms because, as John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, there had already been a “Revolution … in the Minds of the People” who had come to the realization, as Ukrainians have today, that unless they secured their freedom decisively, they would be forever subject to the whims and meddling of a foreign power.

Other commentators are fond of drawing parallels to World War I, when gruesome trench warfare led to the deaths of millions over years in which battle lines barely shifted. What they seem to forget is that this stalemated battlefield ultimately resulted in victory for the Entente and redrew the map of Europe. Germany and its allies surrendered. Russia withdrew from the war in 1917 after a revolution that toppled Tsar Nicholas II. Although the post-war settlement failed to achieve US President Woodrow Wilson’s vision for long-term peace, what had been a battlefield stalemate resulted in a strategic victory.

Many other wars, from the American Civil War to World War II, serve as reminders that years of aggravating military defeat or deadlock can shift over time as persistence pays off and the tide turns to the more strategically patient side.

Why, then, are so many policy experts in such a rush to press Ukraine to seek a cease-fire and retreat into a defensive posture? Why does Ukraine need to recalibrate its objectives and shift to a defensive crouch? Not because Ukrainians are unwilling to fight to defend their country. They clearly remain determined to fight and are dedicated to their cause. Rather, it seems Ukraine needs to shift, as Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan recently argued in Foreign Affairs, because “the political willingness to continue providing military and economic support has begun to erode in the both the United States and Europe”.

So, because we in the West are allegedly growing fatigued simply by providing military and economic support for a friendly, strategically vital country facing attack from the world’s most disruptive and aggressive dictator, Ukrainians should abandon hope of restoring their country to its borders. However, as Yale historian Tim Snyder points out, the Ukrainians are “the ones running the race. We are just holding a cup of Gatorade. We don’t get to be fatigued.” Indeed, talk of “fatigue” in a war the West is not even directly fighting seems absurd, especially as Ukraine has sacrificed tens of thousands of lives.

The real problem we in the West face is not fatigue but our lack of strategic patience. Full-scale wars launched by a major world power such as Russia, whose leader sees victory as vital to his survival, cannot be resolved on a timeline that meets our increasingly fleeting Western attention spans.

Unfortunately, Putin is banking on just such impatience. In fact, it is his only path to victory, and it appears that many in Congress and some governments in Europe seem prepared to clear the pathway for him by withholding critical military support. Not only is Putin depending on this so-called fatigue or loss of attention, but he and his shadow armies are actively stoking mis- and disinformation across the West to boost the fatigue narrative, as GMF experts have tracked.

Advocates of a cease-fire and a negotiated solution insist that “time will not be on Ukraine’s side” while they simultaneously suggest that time is on Russia’s side. They argue that Russia’s economy is booming, that North Korean and Iranian arms will reinforce Russian arms production, that Russia has “a large pool of manpower”, and that “Putin appears politically secure”. At the same time, they diminish Ukraine’s prospects by highlighting losses of life, economic challenges, and even by suggesting that the Western defense industrial base “has far too limited production capability”.

The reality lies between these strawmen. First, Russia has lost far more soldiers than Ukraine, reflecting their extraordinary lack of concern for their own soldiers’ lives. A recently released US intelligence assessment notes that Russia began its illegal war with 360,000 ground troops and has already seen 315,000 killed and wounded in battle. The Kremlin has had to clear out its prisons to supplement its forces and routinely positions some of them behind their frontline troops to kill those seeking to retreat. Threatening to kill your own forces to keep them fighting is not a sign of military effectiveness. Moreover, Russia has lost two-thirds of its battle tanks—2,200 of 3,500—reflecting the mounting strain on its capabilities. By reorienting its economy toward military production, Russia continues to sacrifice the economic prosperity of its long-suffering citizens. (And let us not forget that Putin’s determination to destroy Ukraine emerged primarily from his fear that a more prosperous Ukraine within the EU would undermine his support at home as Russians see Ukrainian prosperity up close.) Finally, the suggestion that North Korean and Iranian military support might somehow prove superior to that provided by 31 NATO allies and other partners lacks credulity.

Moreover, while Putin would certainly welcome a cease-fire that would freeze in place his remaining gains from his unsuccessful 2022 invasion, there are no indications he would be prepared to negotiate with Ukraine, especially if he is convinced the West will lose interest in a slow, muddy, seemingly stalemated war.

Nothing conveys the embarrassing shift in thinking of some in the West more than the recent suggestion by Haass and Kupchan that “what began as a battle of necessity for Ukraine—a fight for its very survival—has morphed into a war of choice”. Likening Ukraine’s courageous effort to defend its sovereign territory from an attack that seeks to wipe it off the map and incorporate it into Russia to the George W. Bush administration’s ill-advised and unnecessary war in Iraq is quite an extraordinary intellectual leap. Ukraine does not have a “choice” because it is still fighting for its survival. Even if it abandoned its legitimate sovereign goal of recapturing its lost territory, Putin is unlikely to have his expansive thirst quenched by current gains. He will simply pocket the new territory and look for his next chance to attack and seize more. Ukraine will have neither stability nor the ability to rebuild as long as Putin lurks across the border rebuilding his war machine during a cease-fire.

What should be clear is that pressing Ukraine to seek a cease-fire and abandon its effort to restore its sovereign territorial integrity is not simply a strategic recalibration or a redefinition of success. Let us call it what it is: a capitulation to Russia, a defeat for Ukraine, and a strategic failure for the United States and Europe, one that will lead to potentially devastating consequences for the future of US and European global interests. The transatlantic partners would not be redefining success; they would be accepting defeat.

While there are economic costs to Western support of Ukraine, they pale in contrast to the costs the United States and its allies would face and the lives that would be lost should Putin emerge victorious in Ukraine and set his sight on other countries, including NATO allies such as the Baltic states. The Biden administration’s current $61 billion supplemental budget request amounts to a fraction of an $886 billion defense budget, and that modest investment is debilitating a country that sees the United States as its enemy, interferes in its elections, and undermines international security in Europe and beyond. Those who suggest, as some in Congress told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his recent visit to Washington, that the United States cannot afford to assist Ukraine due to challenges along the border with Mexico ignore the American capacity to manage multiple challenges. Moreover, the US ability to sustain support for Ukraine is reinforced by Washington’s many allies that are now providing the lion’s share of military and economic assistance. US support remains indispensable but manageable because the country leads a strong, unified global coalition.

Less than two years into Russia’s illegal, unprovoked, and brutal war, Ukraine has not only survived against the onslaught of Putin’s war machine but also retaken over half the territory Russia seized in 2022, pushed its navy out of the Black Sea, devastated its ground forces, and forced it to turn to North Korea and Iran for basic ammunition. Meanwhile, Ukrainians are more committed to their nationhood than ever before, and their country has a stronger military and closer ties to NATO. The Ukrainian economy is recovering from the impact of the invasion, with 5% growth this year. NATO is stronger and more unified and has added Finland and, soon, Sweden as new members that will enhance alliance defenses against Russia. These are significant strategic advances for Ukraine, NATO, and the United States. Why would the United States abandon this unified effort and capitulate to Russia now?

When cease-fire advocates argue that political willingness to support Ukraine is eroding, others need to be clear that such willingness is within the Western allies’ ability to control. Western leaders can shape the narrative of what is happening in Ukraine and what is at stake, and not meekly accept the idea—actively and persistently encouraged by Putin’s misinformation machine—that a battlefield stalemate is an advantage for Russia. Those who cite polls highlighting eroding public support must acknowledge that political leadership is shaping public views, and the more leaders equivocate and undermine support for Ukraine, the more their partisans will embrace such skepticism. Even then, support for Ukraine funding, when compared to support for funding anything else in the United States at home or abroad, remains relatively strong and bipartisan.

Those insisting that the West needs to press Ukraine to seek a cease-fire and pursue a diplomatic solution need to acknowledge the reality of the choice they are advocating. They would hand Putin an unearned victory, prevent Ukraine from living free from fear of the next attack, undermine European security for years to come, and convince China and other autocratic challengers that Western resolve to defend its interests is fickle and easily distracted. By rejecting the false narrative of fatigue and reaffirming our political willingness to support Ukraine, we in the West can, in contrast, diminish Russia’s threat to its neighbors and to the United States, send a clear message to China on Taiwan, reinforce global stability and order, and strengthen a young and vigorous democracy against a nefarious autocratic neighbor that seeks its demise. In the face of a protracted and difficult but by no means insurmountable threat, now is not the time to lose the nerve, the patience, or the will to defend allies and common interests and values. Now is not the time for the United States and Europe to lose their belief in themselves.