Trudy Rubin: Can Ukraine win the war against Russia? I’m traveling there to find out

17 July 2023

When this column appears, I will have arrived in Odesa, Ukraine.

I want to see how Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are faring on the ground, as the country wages its counteroffensive against the Russian invaders. I also want to learn how the disappointing NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, has affected Ukrainian morale, and whether new weapons pledged by NATO countries will arrive fast enough to make a difference.

What many Americans don’t realize is that Ukraine has a second enemy beyond Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

That enemy is time.

In his concluding speech in Vilnius, President Joe Biden seemed to imply he expected Russia’s war on Ukraine to continue indefinitely. He compared the struggle to the Cold War struggle for freedom in Eastern Europe. “Putin still wrongly believes that he can outlast Ukraine,” Biden said. “After all this time, Putin still doubts our (NATO allies) staying power. He is making a bad bet.”

But, as a visibly disappointed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy understood, Putin’s bad bet could still pay off if alliance leaders don’t realize how hard it will be for Ukraine to sustain a long war.

NATO’s Eastern European members do grasp the urgency of achieving victory in the coming year (before the U.S. election season) and securing Ukraine against future attacks with admission to NATO. But for some inexplicable reason, the Biden team still appears to believe that time is on Ukraine’s side.

That lack of U.S. comprehension was clear when Zelenskyy let loose an angry tweet in response to NATO members’ decision not to provide Ukraine with a clear timeline for joining the alliance. He was responding to language that said Ukraine would get an invitation “when allies agree and conditions are met” while steadfastly refusing to define any of the conditions.

Zelenskyy called that language “absurd.” The U.S. response was to leak to the media the administration’s pique at the Ukrainian’s “lack of gratitude.” Yet I fully understand this undiplomatic explosion (later smoothed over).

While the White House was referring to aid in dollars, ammunition, and tanks, Zelenskyy was thinking of human beings. This extraordinary man knows that the longer the war lasts, the more Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and the harder it will be for his country to rebuild. Ukraine can’t continue to lose its best and brightest indefinitely.

And if the war drags, according to the likely interpretation of NATO’s “conditions” for membership, Ukraine will never be able to enter the alliance, and thus will never be secure. That means Europe won’t be secure, either.

True, Biden deserves kudos for large-scale U.S. military and economic aid to Ukraine and for rallying Western European allies to do likewise. But this is not — as MAGA zealots in Congress claim — wasting U.S. money on a corrupt government, nor is it charity.

Biden rightly recognizes that a Putin victory will mark the end of a post-World War II era in which it was inconceivable that a great European or Asian power could invade and destroy a neighbor. It would also mark the formal demise of the United Nations, whose charter is based on preventing such military aggression. The world would have reverted to the Hobbesian chaos that existed in the 1930s.

But where Biden is mistaken is to compare the Ukrainian situation to the Cold War. Putin’s Russia is not Stalin’s Soviet Union, nor is Putin capable of playing Stalin. Russia’s war has not only deeply damaged its economic future, but is splintering its army.

Putin’s military is cracking. His response to the mutiny by Wagner militia chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was astonishing, letting this warlord fly around Russia, retrieve millions of dollars from his home, and reportedly meet Putin in the Kremlin. Even if Prigozhin ultimately “falls” out a window, Putin’s indecision displays his weakness.

And that is not all. One of Russia’s most important and popular generals, Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, commander of the 58th Army in Zaporizhzhia, which is the key front for the counteroffensive, was just fired for telling the top brass that top Defense Ministry officials were “betraying his troops” by not sending vital weapons and man power. This further signifies a command structure in disarray.

Now, when Putin’s focus is on internal political survival, is not the moment for NATO weakness. If Biden wants to convince the Russian leader that he can’t outlast Ukraine, NATO should announce it will be working on specific conditions for Ukrainian membership, to be announced at the next summit in Washington, D.C., in 2024. Ukraine understands it cannot join the alliance in wartime, but the path can be clearly paved, and the end of the war accelerated.

Equally key, now is the moment to rethink how weapons from allies are delivered to Ukraine, and which weapons. For Ukraine to succeed in the counteroffensive, it needs coordination and concentration of weapons deliveries in critical mass. It also needs speedy delivery of specific systems that are most vital to break through Russian minefields. That includes airpower, long-range missiles, and ammunition.

Instead, Western weapons are delivered piecemeal, drip by drip, which gives the Russians time to develop countermeasures.

Why the White House is still dallying in green-lighting delivery of F-16s by European nations is beyond comprehension. As is Biden’s refusal to send ATACMS long-range missiles.

Either we want Ukraine to push the Russians back and then move toward NATO admission, or we don’t. That is the question. Again, a war of attrition means failure.

So I am traveling to Kyiv, Odesa, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and other cities to write about how Ukrainians believe they can still win this war, and what we can do to help them. Help them in our own self-interest, to avoid giving a weak Putin a new lease on power and permitting him more time to destroy.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101. Her email address is [email protected]

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