The US and its role in helping Ukraine against Russia 3:03

Editor's note:

Anna Arutunyan is a journalist, analyst and author specializing in Russian politics.

She is the author of “Hybrid Warriors: Proxies, Freelancers, and Moscow's Fight for Ukraine” and co-author, with Mark Galeotti, of the upcoming book “The Fall: Prigozhin and Putin, and the Fight for Russia's Future.”

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.  

(CNN) --

With Switzerland hosting a peace summit in Ukraine this summer, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has high hopes that it will "strengthen" his country.

But now that Russia's war against Ukraine is in its third year, another summit is unlikely to offer a breakthrough, not only because Moscow will not be present, but more importantly because neither side has a clear vision of what means a victory now or how to achieve it.

Much is still being assumed about Russian President Vladimir Putin's intentions to completely subjugate Ukraine, but while he would accept it if he could get it, the Kremlin keeps its goals as unclear as they were when it began its "special military operation" two years ago. years.

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"There will be peace when we achieve our goals," Putin said in December, "the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine, its neutral status."

This means everything and nothing, and can be interpreted as anything the Kremlin wants.

Western policymakers would be wiser to make judgments about the Kremlin's intentions based more on its actions than its words.

The Russian war machine, although in a better position than a year ago, is hardly capable of taking Kyiv as it attempted to do at the beginning of the war, and since mid-2022 it has focused on territorial gains in the east.

Ukrainian anti-aircraft gunners monitor the skies on February 20, 2024, just days before the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion.

(Credit: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

After announcing the illegal annexation of the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in September 2022, Moscow has largely limited itself to attempting to capture all of those regions.

As for what it will do if that ever happens, Moscow is signaling to the West a much more aggressive stance than it has the intention or ability to carry out, testing the extent to which it can get away with it.

"The special military operation began as an operation against Ukraine, but over time it took the form of a war against the collective West," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said recently.

It does so in part because the plans and intentions of Ukraine's Western allies are so vague.

Are the US, EU and UK offering Ukraine limited help to defend its territory (as they appear to be doing) or are they in fact waging a proxy war to “defeat” Putin's Russia (as they seem to be saying)?

Just as the Kremlin is doing, Ukraine's Western allies are signaling their determination to “defeat” Russia without really articulating what that defeat means.

Far from keeping the Kremlin on its toes, this strategic ambiguity actually makes Western powers look weak from Moscow's point of view, promising too much to compensate for a lack of political will.

This became evident at the Munich Security Conference, where one policymaker's description summed up the substance of the West's strategy in Ukraine: “Many words, no concrete commitment.”

One reason for this is that over the past year, Ukraine's stated goal of victory—recapturing all occupied Ukrainian territories, including Crimea, under Russian control for almost a decade—seems increasingly unrealistic.

The military support that Ukraine's allies are willing and able to offer stops precisely where Ukraine's most pressing shortage lies: manpower.

Despite French President Emmanuel Macron's recent bombastic comments about “not excluding” sending troops to Ukraine, NATO powers are not seriously considering this destructive and escalatory measure, and rightly so.

But in Ukraine the issue still remains.

“The most immediate problem in every unit is lack of personnel,” a Ukrainian company commander said recently, echoing the growing recognition on the Ukrainian front of how serious the problem has become.

Indeed, Zelensky fired his commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, last month amid controversy over suggestions that up to 500,000 more troops could be needed to achieve Ukraine's goals.

The proposal was financially and politically unviable, so Zelensky dismissed the general and launched a “reset” of the military command, but without expanding the army or reducing its objectives.

There is another problem: it is one thing to return Russian forces to their positions by February 24, 2024 (difficult as that may be after two years of war), but quite another to dislodge the de facto Russian administrations from the territories of Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea that they have occupied for a decade.

But Ukraine's Western allies are failing to take these realities into account and, amid the growing reluctance of right-wing parties in the United States and Europe to bear the costs, are instead resorting to triumphalist rhetoric.

A recent report from the Estonian Ministry of Defense pledged to “defeat the imperialist theory of Russian victory,” but did not define exactly what that entailed.

Allies of former US President Donald Trump who oppose the aid package that has stalled in the US Congress may be wrong to think that $60 billion will not “change the reality on the battlefield”: More weapons can and will help Ukraine to maintain its defense and perhaps regain more territory.

But it will hardly guarantee the “destiny of the free world” or “save democracy as we know it,” as some US lawmakers claimed in supporting the bill.

The problem is that while more weapons and aid will help Ukraine defend itself, there can be no guarantee that a country of about 37 million people can ultimately defeat an adversary of more than 140 million.

Carefully suggesting that this is inevitable misleads Ukraine, sows distrust among Western taxpayers and signals weakness to Russia.

While there is room to tighten the sanctions already in place, they will not force any quick changes in Kremlin policy, and as Western countries begin to deplete their own stockpiles of weapons and ammunition, there is also a limit to the number of additional military aid.

can be provided.

Law and justice may say that Ukraine deserves to liberate the occupied territories, but pragmatism suggests that this may be a bloody or even unattainable goal.

Western allies must begin to recognize their limited resources, or at least the limits of what they can or will offer Ukraine.

This will mean being honest in defining what can be achieved in practice.

It is all very well to declare that the only acceptable goal is the absolute “defeat” of Putin.

But when political and economic constraints limit the resources the West is willing to deploy, continuing to insist on it may well corner Kyiv, forcing it to choose between peace and eternal war in pursuit of some unclear notion of “victory.”

However unpleasant and unfair, the most plausible victory may require not only greater military support for Ukraine, including serious security guarantees, but also some recognition that Kyiv may have to abandon some of its objectives, whether through promises of neutrality or, so harshly, a pill like this is to swallow: some of the occupied territories.

Russian war in Ukraine