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Is It Time for the Tough Talk With Ukraine?

Even Zelensky insiders are suggesting it’s all over.

Close advisers to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are reportedly suggesting that the end to war is on the horizon – but not necessarily in the way the nation’s leader might have hoped. When Russian forces invaded Ukraine almost two years ago, the world rallied to the plucky nation’s defense – not with boots on the ground, but rather with military equipment, piles of cash, and solemn vows. As attention shifts to ongoing hostilities in the Middle East, the initial enthusiasm for supporting Zelensky against Vladimir Putin, the arch-villain Russian president, has waned. Perhaps it’s time to ask the question that has been studiously avoided over the last 20 months: Could Ukraine ever win against Russia?

A Bad Case of the Realisms

Time magazine’s Simon Shuster traveled to Kyiv after Zelensky’s recent speech in Washington, DC. Having previously penned the 2022 “person of the year” article proclaiming the Ukrainian leader the winner of such an honor, Shuster appeared both a fan and an insider. So his Nov. 1 article detailing close allies pooh-poohing the idea of victory should be considered a serious wake-up call.

A long-term member of Zelensky’s team “tells me that, most of all, Zelensky feels betrayed by his Western allies. They have left him without the means to win the war, only the means to survive it,” Shuster wrote. It got worse:

“Despite the recent setbacks on the battlefield, he does not intend to give up fighting or to sue for any kind of peace. On the contrary, his belief in Ukraine’s ultimate victory over Russia has hardened into a form that worries some of his advisers. It is immovable, verging on the messianic. ‘He deludes himself,’ one of his closest aides tells me in frustration. ‘We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.’”

A Proxy by Any Other Name …

GettyImages-1784628017 Joe Biden

Joe Biden (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

For President Joe Biden, the leaders of the European Union, and presidents and prime ministers the world over, the conflict in Ukraine offered a unique opportunity to reap the benefits of being wartime leaders without the negative optics of flag-draped coffins returning home from overseas. They could talk tough, look tough, boast about defending the world, and all it would cost them was taxpayer cash – which has rarely been a deterrent for the ambitious politician.

As such, the great and the not-so-good have pushed Ukraine to continue to engage in a war that, if we were to be honest, it never had a chance of winning by itself in the first place. It appears that key figures in Ukraine are starting to realize this harsh truth, but it may be too late to change course or protect the future of the belabored nation.

A History of Warfare

Russia and the erstwhile Soviet Union are not strangers to international conflict. Since Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, the nation has been involved in roughly 50 wars – some European-based, some internal, and some in far-flung locations. But it is a rare war in which, historically, Russia has not flung half a million lives at a problem before determining whether to properly engage. As of early November, it is estimated that Russia has lost a little more than 300,000 personnel – however, these figures are provided courtesy of the Ukrainian government and as such should be taken with a pinch of salt. The EU’s political science blog, The Loop, suggested that Russia and Ukraine have overestimated enemy casualties by double.

Regardless of the actual totals, it is clear that this has become a war of attrition; that means the side willing to lose more people will eventually win. British broadsheet The Telegraph commented:

“Ukraine, meanwhile, had a pre-war population of 44 million. By the end of the first year of the war, some six million had fled abroad. The armed forces number around 200,000 active personnel, roughly the same again in reserve, and can draw on another 1.5 million fighting-age males.

“It’s a brutal but simple calculation: Kyiv is running out of men. US sources have calculated that its armed forces have lost as many as 70,000 killed in action, with another 100,000 injured.”

When compared with a potential ten million service members, outside contractors, and a huge conscript pool available to Putin, it seems that a commitment to the bloody cause will be the ultimate prevailing factor. As Dalibor Rohac, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, succinctly observed: “Human losses weigh far more heavily in the calculus in Kyiv than in Moscow.”

Can Ukraine Save Its Future?

In February 1968, famed reporter Walter Cronkite concluded his statement on a recent trip to Vietnam, saying, “[I]t is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

It was a powerful indictment of both optimism and pessimism in the face of an ultimately unwinnable war. It was also a realistic appraisal that called for maturity over fury, and for cooler heads to consider how many human lives were expendable chasing after a goal that clearly could not be achieved.

While political capital is still to be made, it seems that those cooler heads will be pushed to the sidelines. Zelensky has rallied his countrymen and the international community for almost two years, a near-impossible feat. Perhaps it is now time to consider that a generation of young men will be lost to this struggle, a tragic situation that may well have further-reaching impact than who controls Crimea. Zelensky lived up to his pledge as best as he could. But now it is time to think of the future.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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