War in Ukraine: We need perseverance (opinion)

Everyone longs for an end to the Ukraine war. In order for this to succeed, we must not let up in our support for Ukraine, especially now.

Anyone who talks to soldiers in Slovyansk, a few kilometers from the embattled front line in Donbas, two years after the Russian attack on Ukraine, is talking to people who want an end to the war more than anyone else. They have endured two winters in the trenches, watched their comrades die, lost sight of their families, and are increasingly wondering why their peers in Kiev sit in cafes while they hide in the cold, damp earth Donbass ruin their health and risk their lives.

The soldiers have a fairly sober view of whether Ukraine can win this war. Winning in the sense of: throwing the Russians out of the country, liberating the occupied territories including the Crimean peninsula, as stated in the approved motion of the traffic light coalition decided on Thursday. You ask very matter-of-factly: With what? And with whom?

A new mobilization is desperately needed in Ukraine

One problem is of his own making: the Ukrainian president has avoided aggressively defending the mobilization of another 500,000 Ukrainians for too long. The measure is sorely needed to provide relief to those who have been on the front lines for two years – and to restore a sense of justice that has been partially lost over the last year.

At the same time, however, it has become clear over the last few months that mass does play a role: a country with a population of well over 140 million can mobilize more people than a country in which, according to current estimates, a good 30 million still live. “For too long there has been the assumption that Ukrainians are militarily superior just because they are morally superior,” a Ukrainian friend recently said to me. It was a mistaken assumption. Of course the morale of the troops plays a role in war, but in the brutal war of attrition that we have been seeing for almost a year and a half, individual heroism is only of very limited help.

On the second question: How should the Ukrainians defend themselves against the Russians? Since the beginning of the war, the West has played a key role that it has had to face. Because the idea that is sometimes expressed by both Wagenknecht and Trump – stop the arms deliveries, then the war will end – could not be more realistic: We have already seen in the past few months what the failure of US arms deliveries is leading to. The Ukrainians are on the defensive and have to give up square kilometer after square kilometer of their land. This strategy would inevitably lead to Ukraine’s surrender, and the blood of the Ukrainians tortured and killed by the Russian occupiers would be on our hands.

A Ukrainian victory might have been possible

At the same time, however, it has become clear that a military victory for Ukraine against Russia, which in the best case scenario would even mean the collapse of the Putin regime, is not realistic under the given conditions. Perhaps it would have been possible in the first months of the war if all the weapons that the West, including Germany, only wanted to provide after too much hesitation had been delivered straight away.

Political developments in Washington leave little hope that the USA will return to the role of support for Ukraine that it held until the end of 2023. It is the moment of truth for the Europeans, especially for Germany, which has long been reluctant to take on the leadership role: let us in the EU manage to overcome national sensitivities and bureaucratic obstacles in this crucial situation and provide at least as much support to the Ukrainians to stop the major Russian offensive that is currently being built on various sectors of the front? Good news at the end of January was the agreement between EU members on both financial aid for Ukraine amounting to 50 billion euros until 2027 and on extensive arms and ammunition deliveries.

The war of attrition in Ukraine is a bloodletting

At the same time, however, we should think more about what options there are to end this war beyond the big words victory and defeat. The political leaders of many European countries are coming under pressure: their people want to know what the plan for ending the war actually looks like? One thing is clear: a continuation of the war of attrition at its current intensity means a bloodletting, especially for the Ukrainians, which calls into question the country’s future development.

A recent survey has shown, that today 41 percent of Europeans are in favor of getting Ukraine to sign a peace agreement with Russia, while 31 percent say that Ukraine should continue to be supported in liberating the occupied territories. In Ukraine, too, the proportion of those willing to make compromises such as ceding territory is growing. At the beginning of December their share was 19 percent. The Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko explained to me on my recent trip to Kiev that the majority of the population could support this in the summer.

The question of NATO membership is also part of the bargaining chip, should talks take place: If this is unrealistic at the moment, then it must be replaced by guarantees that make it impossible for Russia to resume the war after a few years. An important component is military equipment that turns the country into a kind of porcupine, so well equipped that Moscow will not dare to attack again.

The crux of the matter, however, is: How do you get Putin to the negotiating table? A lot of things are going according to plan for him at the moment. The dream project that the Soviets were already working diligently on seems to be coming true: a wedge is being driven between the USA and Europe. The irony of history: There is an American behind this, Donald Trump. It is possible that it is countries like China or Turkey that could initiate negotiations – unlike in 2014, Europeans and Americans have already become too clearly sides in this conflict.

In this situation, we Europeans have no choice but to hope for the best – that Trump doesn’t win the elections after all. But at the same time prepare ourselves for the worst. On the one hand, this means becoming defensive yourself, as Defense Minister Boris Pistorius recently said. Because we can twist and turn as we please: Vladimir Putin, as he has proven over the last two decades, can only be persuaded to change his mind by someone who demonstrates strength.

On the other hand, it means that we will persevere in supporting Ukraine, even if after two years of war we would prefer to look the other way. Let’s go back to those soldiers in eastern Ukraine – how much they would like to climb out of the trenches and return to their families.

But they know that they have no choice: if they went home, the Russian army would be on their doorstep within a few days.