A year ago, Vladimir Putin’s Russia began its brutal and unprovoked attack on Ukraine, with the aim of a quick strike that would seize territory, destroy its neighbour’s independence and show the world that the West had no stomach for a fight.
After 12 months of bloody fighting, it is clear that Russia and Mr. Putin have already suffered a grievous strategic defeat.
The plan for a lightning victory collapsed, first into stalemate and then into retreat from Kyiv, then Kharkiv and then Kherson. The Russian army has been crippled, with the United Kingdom’s ministry of defence estimating this month that up to 60,000 soldiers have been killed, with total casualties as great as 200,000 dead, wounded, missing or captured.
There is one other casualty from Russia’s failures over the last year: its (unearned) reputation as a major military power to be feared.
The goal of turning Ukraine into a puppet similarly backfired, with that country now increasingly tied to NATO and with a membership in the European Union fast-tracked. The extraordinarily effective leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the barbarism of the Russian army, have cemented national solidarity.
And Russia’s aim of using the attack on Ukraine to splinter NATO has accomplished the reverse, with Finland and Sweden abandoning their long-sworn neutrality and moving to become full members. The backing of the United States has given Ukraine the modern weaponry it had long sought to counter Russian aggression. Canada, along with other NATO members, has been part of that critical lifeline of support.
Russia has lost, but Ukraine has not won, yet. Despite gains in the summer and fall, nearly a fifth of Ukraine’s territory is under Russian occupation. Russia is still able to pummel Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure with terror attacks, and to kill its civilians at will.
At the moment, Ukraine is on the defensive, with the Russians grinding toward Bakhmut.
But the very nature of that attack underscores Russia’s fundamental strategic weakness. The scope of its assault is local, a stunning contrast to the multipronged attacks attempted a year ago. And as U.K. military intelligence notes, Russia’s casualty rates, already high, have soared since last September, when a partial mobilization began.
In the meantime, Ukraine is preparing for a spring counteroffensive, with powerful Western armour (although still too limited in number) added to its arsenal.
Mr. Zelensky has stated the conditions of a Ukrainian victory: the liberation not only of the territory that Russia seized last year, but also of the Crimea, illegally annexed in 2014, and the Donbas region, peeled away from Ukraine that same year.
Some have argued that Ukraine should not push too far, lest it push Mr. Putin into a corner. He must be given an off-ramp, a path to peace that somehow preserves his prestige.
We fundamentally disagree. It would be foolhardy in the extreme to allow Mr. Putin any grounds to claim that his war of aggression was successful. That would embolden not only Russia but other countries, particularly China, looking to redraw borders more to their liking.
That means reclaiming any territories that Russia has seized since February, 2022, which would sever the so-called land bridge to the Crimean peninsula. Ukraine also clearly intends to expel the Russians from the Donbas region, and to reassert full sovereignty there.
The future of Crimea is less clear, in part because of the military difficulties involved in invading the peninsula, and in part because of its population’s pro-Russian sympathies.
Still, the Ukrainian army has, time and again, confounded not only the plans of their Russian enemies but the less-than-optimistic predictions of observers in the West.
Ukraine could, for instance, isolate Crimea by destroying the Kerch Strait Bridge and cutting off land supply routes to the north.
Most wars end through negotiation, not capitulation. The goal for NATO must be to give Ukraine every asset to be had in its spring offensive so that when any negotiation begins, President Zelensky is in a position of maximum advantage.
The end of the war, however it ends, must be a Ukrainian victory, as determined by Ukraine. And the end must be not just the defeat of the Russian army on the battlefield, but the destruction of Mr. Putin’s dreams of conquest.