Ukraine has already won the war
Ukraine has won the war. This may seem a strange thing to say as Russian shells and missiles continue to rain down and Russian forces edge slowly forward on the ground, but a little thought should make its truth obvious.
To judge by President Vladimir Putin’s essay and speeches before the war, the Kremlin’s intention was to bring the whole of Ukraine back into some form of dependence on Russia. That aim has been defeated, for all foreseeable time.
The contours of a peace settlement are now reasonably clear. Ukraine will sign a treaty of neutrality that will prevent it joining both NATO and any Russian-led security alliance. Russia will get to keep the territories in Crimea and the Donbas that it has occupied since 2014 (whether or not this is legally recognized as part of the peace agreement), together perhaps with some additional territory in the Donbas.
But Russia has lost Ukraine. The West should recognize this Russian defeat, and give its full support to a peace settlement that will safeguard Ukraine’s real interests, sovereignty, and ability to develop as an independent democracy. Neutrality, and territories that Ukraine has already in practice lost for the past eight years, are minor issues by comparison.
It is no great exaggeration to say that through his invasion, Putin has created the Ukrainian nation. Until the war, there were serious doubts about whether Ukraine really is a united nation, because of the deep differences of language and historical culture between different parts of Ukraine, and the tensions between them.
Since the revolution of 2014, and the Russian occupation of Crimea and sponsorship of armed separatism in the Donbas, Ukrainians had already begun to draw together in hostility to Moscow. The Russian invasion, the heroic Ukrainian resistance, the death and destruction wreaked on Ukrainian cities (including mainly Russian-speaking cities in the east and south), and the united will to resist of Ukrainians from the different regions and traditions of Ukraine, mean that nobody can now doubt that Ukraine is a nation. That is Putin’s greatest achievement in this war.
A number of conclusions are to be drawn from this. The first is that the United States, Europe, and Ukrainians themselves can agree to a peace settlement along the lines being negotiated without having to fear that this will be a path to Russian domination of Ukraine. Ukrainians have shown that this is impossible. By the same token, if the West gives generous help and Ukrainians can apply the determination and unity they have shown in the war to post-war reform and development, Ukraine will move inexorably towards the West, including eventual membership of the European Union.
During the Cold War, Finland and Austria were barred by treaty from joining NATO, but no visitor to those countries could doubt that they were successful Western market democracies and fully part of the West in every real sense. One objection to this model has been that Ukraine is vastly more important to Russia than Finland or Austria, and therefore that without NATO membership, Ukraine would be constantly subject at least to Russian interference, at worst to Russian invasion.
The events of the past three weeks should have laid these fears to rest. Russia’s ability to interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs rested overwhelmingly on its capacity to manipulate the country’s Russian and Russian-speaking minorities and claim to speak in their name. That ability and that claim have now been destroyed by Russia’s own shells and bombs.
As to the threat of a new Russian invasion if Ukraine is not part of NATO, this has been destroyed by the courage and tenacity of the Ukrainians (with the help of Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles). In three weeks fighting, the Russian army has lost thousands of casualties — including, reportedly, four generals — yet failed so far to capture any of its key objectives (though it will probably capture the ruins of Mariupol in the next few days).
Meanwhile, the Russian economy is being devastated by Western sanctions. Can anyone seriously imagine that any future Russian government would wish to repeat this? As for the idea that a compromise settlement in Ukraine will encourage Russia to invade NATO members, this is now manifestly absurd. If the Russian army cannot capture cities less than 20 miles from the Russian frontier, how can it attack Warsaw?
One more task remains in order for Ukraine to consolidate its victory. Whether or not this forms part of the peace treaty with Moscow, the Ukrainian government and parliament should restore the legal protections for the Russian language and culture in Ukraine which Ukrainian laws over the past three years have abolished.
This is necessary in order to remove a source of division in Ukraine, and to deprive Moscow of a means of complaint and pressure. It will also be necessary in order for Ukraine to move towards membership of the European Union, with respect for minority rights enshrined in its constitution. Above all, however, Ukraine owes this to its Russian and Russian-speaking minority, because in this war they and their elected representatives have demonstrated their loyalty to Ukraine, suffered and died under Russian fire, and categorically rejected Moscow’s claims to represent them and defend them. Some mayors have reportedly been arrested by Russian troops.
Not only are Ukrainian cultural figures working in the Russian language and identifying with Russian as well as Ukrainian culture, like Nikolai Gogol (Mykola Hohol in Ukrainian) a completely legitimate part of the Ukrainian tradition; Russian language and culture in Ukraine can become an essential base and resource for the future democratization and liberation of Russia itself. This is something that is now of crucial importance for Russia, as the Putin regime moves to suppress all independent Russian voices and institutions.
In all this, President Volodymyr Zelensky himself can play a key role. It is a wonderful thing for Ukrainian liberal democracy that in this war, a Russian-speaking Jew should have emerged as a great and courageous leader of Ukraine. It may also one day prove to be a wonderful thing for Russia. Through his appeals to Russian citizens in the Russian language, backed by his personal courage and charisma, Zelensky has also become an inspiration to Russian liberals. And indeed, for any true Russian patriot, the contrast with the aging, isolated, and increasingly repressive autocrat in the Kremlin could hardly be more striking, or more depressing.