A year after invasion, what’s next for Ukraine?

by Carl P. Leubsdorf

In the year since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the world has thrilled to the pluck and the bravery of the Ukrainian people, its government and military in resisting the once mighty Red armies.

Bolstered by increasing arms support from the United States and its Western allies, Ukraine has fought the Russian armies to a standstill, even reversing some initial losses, halting offensives aimed at major cities and retaking parts of the country.

But though President Joe Biden’s administration remains steadfast, and its supply of Western arms is increasing, this war is in no ways won. After months of military setbacks, Russian forces have repaired some of their initial errors, gone back on the offensive and sought to regain lost territory.

At the same time, they have continued their terror campaign to level Ukraine to the ground, unleashing missile attacks on civilian targets as well as military ones. The country’s power infrastructure has been hard hit. Spring can’t come too soon in this war-torn country.

In the coming months, it seems inevitable the U.S. will seek to convince Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accept some sort of settlement that falls short of his goal to recapture all lost areas — including Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.

For now, The Washington Post reported, it is encouraging him to strengthen his bargaining position by gaining as much territory as possible.

Unfortunately, as long as oil sales keep the battered Russian economy sufficiently afloat to fight the war and Putin thinks he can win it, reaching a settlement will be hard and achieving Zelenskyy’s goals impossible.

Biden is scheduled to go this week to Poland — and possibly Ukraine — to condemn anew the Russian invasion and re-dedicate U.S. and Western support to Ukraine’s independence. Discussing ways to achieve a settlement may be an unstated part of the agenda.

One factor is that Biden may be facing new constraints on U.S. support for Ukraine because of divisions in the Republican Party. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has strongly supported helping Ukraine and some Senate Republicans have even pressured the administration to move more quickly with additional weapons. But House GOP support is less certain. While Speaker Kevin McCarthy says he favors continued help for Ukraine, he has warned that not all Republicans feel that way. Efforts to cut or end U.S. military support by the same far-right faction that sought to derail his speakership will test McCarthy’s slim GOP majority.

Meanwhile, each day that Ukraine resists the Russians is another day that exemplifies the enormous miscalculation Putin made in launching this attack and the underlying weaknesses of the country with the world’s largest nuclear stockpile.

After all, Ukrainian grit does not alone explain Russia’s failure to win a war that Putin and much of the West expected would take only days — or, at most, weeks.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Rand Corporation senior policy researcher Dara Massicot said the Russian invasion plan “was riddled with faulty assumptions, arbitrary political guidance and planning errors … which undermined its ability to conduct a large invasion.”

Perhaps the biggest Russian miscalculations were not military ones but political ones. One was the degree Ukrainians would fight to retain their own land. He may have believed the propaganda that it wanted to rejoin “Mother Russia.”

Equally wrong was his belief in the view that deep divisions in the West would limit any response and especially that some important countries like Germany would not help to bolster the Ukrainians militarily.

He may even have been persuaded that Biden’s inept August 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal signaled that the United States could not be relied on to assist its allies and was intent on withdrawing from the global peacekeeping role Americans have performed since World War II.

He must have missed Biden’s unambiguous words that proclaimed “America is back,” ready to resume its historical leadership role.

That stance was predictable from Biden’s long personal commitment to the Western alliance. But the degree that he would be able to forge Western unity was not.

Perhaps the two biggest surprises were Germany’s willingness to help arm the Ukrainians and decisions by Sweden and Finland to end their semi-neutrality and seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As a result, a weakened Putin has found himself confronting a reenergized and expanded Western alliance, rather than a divided one.

But Ukraine’s independence remains in jeopardy and the trip’s more important aspect may be the private discussions of how to end his war before it levels the country to the ground, leaving it free but shattered.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News and a frequent contributor. Email: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.