After months of optimism, the Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion is in a very dark phase right now.
The fall of the key city of Severodonetsk last week has left the eastern province of Luhansk — one of two provinces that make up the contested region known as the Donbas — almost entirely under Russian control. After multiple missteps at the beginning of the war, Russia’s forces have settled on a strategy that more or less works: a slow grinding advance that leverages their advantage in artillery and ammunition. And while Ukraine’s strategy now appears to make the Russians pay dearly for every inch of territory, Ukrainian officials say they are losing as many as 100 troops per day.
This war has continually frustrated attempts to predict its trajectory, but at the very least, we can say that a recent debate over whether Ukraine should settle for pushing the Russians back to where they were in February, or fight to fully liberate areas that have been occupied since 2014, now looks like it was premature. There’s a real chance Russia will continue to occupy much of eastern Ukraine for the foreseeable future.
But to define this as “victory” for Russian President Vladimir Putin would be to allow him to rewrite history, ignoring his justifications for launching this war in the first place. Yes, Putin talked specifically about liberating Russian speakers in the Donbas, but his emphasis — including in his Feb. 24 speech announcing the start of the “special military operation” — was on larger-scale geopolitical grievances. He told the Russian public that it was a “matter of life and death” to counter the “further expansion of the North Atlantic alliance’s infrastructure, or the ongoing efforts to gain a military foothold of the Ukrainian territory.” This expansion, Putin said, was part of a U.S.-led “policy of containing Russia, with obvious geopolitical dividends,” and the perceived Western encroachment into countries bordering Russia was what made it necessary to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”
By Putin’s own criteria, his war has been accomplishing the exact opposite of its aims. Economically, militarily and culturally, the Russian invasion has pushed Ukraine out of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and further into the embrace of the United States and Europe.
On Europe’s doorstep
Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17, Putin said that the prospect of Ukrainian membership in the European Union was not a concern for him “because the EU is not a military organization.” If only Putin had come to this realization nine years earlier, a whole lot of trouble might have been avoided.
While Russia’s objections to NATO expansion get more attention, it was actually Ukraine’s aspiration to join the EU that set the decadelong Russia-Ukraine crisis in motion. In 2013, the Ukrainian government had been preparing to sign an association agreement with the EU — a preliminary step toward membership — but after a sustained pressure campaign from Moscow, including threats of trade sanctions and energy cutoffs, President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly shifted course, announcing that he was abandoning the EU agreement and signing a new economic pact with Russia instead. This reversal sparked the massive “Euromaidan” protests in Kyiv and led to Yanukovych’s ouster; that unrest was followed closely by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas.
The association agreement was eventually signed after Yanukovych’s overthrow in 2014, but EU leaders still viewed Ukraine’s aspirations somewhat warily, regularly castigating its leaders for high levels of political corruption and economic dysfunction.
Then came war.
Just last week, Ukraine was granted EU candidate status, along with Moldova — another country with a Russian-backed enclave on its territory. Ukraine had applied for this status only a few days after the Russian invasion, and its approval was granted with record speed (provoking understandable frustration among a number of Balkan countries that have spent years waiting for progress on their EU bids). Beyond the major vote of confidence in Ukraine from its counterparts in Europe, it’s also a step made possible by Russia’s invasion and Ukraine’s resistance.
“In the short term, if not for the war, the candidate status would probably not have been in reach,” Marie Dumoulin, a former French diplomat now with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Grid. “Some bigger [EU] member states were totally allergic to even discussing a potential European perspective for Ukraine, not to mention candidate status. What the war changed is the public perception of Ukraine. There is a very strong empathy for Ukrainians all around Europe. Ukraine is now perceived as part of the European family because it’s fighting for its freedom and its right to be, not an ideal, but a democratic state.”
Putin may downplay EU membership today as a mere economic alliance, but it was the dream that brought Ukrainians to the streets in 2014, and one that Putin himself has now made achievable.
When NATO weapons head east
In insisting that Russia’s influence be extended westward, Putin certainly wanted NATO’s military presence pushed away from Russia and the former Soviet republics. Here, too, his war has had the reverse effect.
The war has driven home a reality about today’s border between “the West” and the former Soviet bloc: It’s as much about hardware as it is economics or politics. From the difference in railway gauges inhibiting the shipment of grain out of Ukraine to the common power grid that leaves the Baltic countries vulnerable to Russian energy disruption, the legacy of the Soviet Union is hardwired into countries’ infrastructure in a way that’s very difficult to remove.
Right now, the piece of hardware that’s most consequential for the war is probably the artillery shell. At the outset of the war, the Ukrainian military relied on Soviet-era artillery systems, which fire Soviet-gauge ammunition. NATO systems use a different type of shell. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, the bulk of the world’s supply of Soviet-gauge ammunition is in the country they’re fighting against. As Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently told Grid, “The U.S. has now literally bought the world’s supply of Soviet-standard artillery ammunition. … There just isn’t very much of it out there. So that’s one of the reasons that they’re now moving to NATO-standard.”
As Ukrainian leaders concede, the country probably isn’t joining NATO any time soon. But their new military gifts from NATO — HIMARS, Harpoons, CAESARs, and Panzerhaubitzes — mean they are ever more tied into NATO supply chains, as well as NATO training on how to use and maintain these systems. The war is “Westernizing” Ukraine’s neighbors as well: As former Eastern Bloc countries Romania, Poland and Slovakia have shipped what’s left of their Soviet military equipment to Ukraine, their arsenals are being backfilled by new NATO systems.
Taken together, the staggering quantity of U.S. military aid, the unofficial but very apparent role of U.S. spies and commandos in coordinating this aid on the ground in Ukraine, and the bolstering of NATO forces with more U.S. troops elsewhere in Eastern Europe make clear that Putin’s warnings of U.S. military power moving ever closer to Russia’s borders are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One Russian-speaking resident of Kharkiv recently told the Washington Post that after she was awakened by a rocket barrage one morning, she had a revelation: “That very instant, and all that stress, served to make me reject the Russian language — completely.” After the Russian invasion, she said, she decided she had “no right to use any language other than Ukrainian.”
Putin often refers to the idea of a “Russian world,” which “extends far from Russia’s geographical borders and even far from the borders of the Russian ethnicity,” but is united by a common culture, history and — especially — language. The Kremlin has invested heavily in efforts to promote Russian language and culture in other countries in the region. He openly rues the fact that the “Russian world” is now divided by post-Soviet borders and has used the supposed persecution of Russian speakers in Ukraine as a justification for military intervention in both 2014 and 2022.
It’s certainly true that the Russian language is a prominent part of Ukraine’s public life and culture. About a third of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language — including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — and a majority speak it fluently. And the cultural-linguistic lines between the two countries are sometimes a little blurry. For instance, some of “Russian” literature’s most celebrated writers, including Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov, were actually born in what is now Ukraine.
In recent years, the Ukrainian government has made a number of efforts — many of them controversial — to mandate the use of Ukrainian in public settings. But perhaps nobody has done more damage to the Russian language in Ukraine than Putin himself.
Since the war began, Ukrainian-language clubs have cropped up throughout western Ukraine to help Russian speakers who have fled the East, an effort to help them make “the switch.” Online Ukrainian courses are reportedly very popular as well.
Ukraine’s linguistic divide was once a political one as well. The map of areas that went for the “pro-Russian” Yanukovych and his “pro-European” rival in the 2010 presidential election is nearly identical to a map of areas where Russian is more widely spoken. But there are signs this division is fading away. A Wall Street Journal-NORC poll this week found that “support for Mr. Zelensky among people who primarily speak Russian or the Russian-Ukrainian patois known as surzhik was nearly as high as among people who primarily speak Ukrainian, suggesting that the invasion has unified the nation more than it has exacerbated its cultural divisions.”
Some 79 percent of those who primarily speak Russian said they had come to view the Russian people more negatively, only slightly below the number of Ukrainian speakers who felt that way. Seventy-seven percent of Ukrainians now oppose teaching Russian in schools and universities, and 73 percent oppose allowing it to be spoken in courts and government institutions.
As Zelenskyy, who switched to speaking Ukrainian before running for office, put it, “Russia itself is doing everything to ensure that de-Russification takes place on the territory of our state.”
The shrinking “Russian world”
If Ukraine survives as an independent state — something that was very much in doubt in February but now looks likely — it will almost certainly be a nation more uniformly opposed to Russian influence and more eager to assimilate into the West than ever before. That will be true even if Russia continues to occupy Ukrainian territory or declare new “people’s republics” in the regions it controls. It may even prove more true, given that the Russia supporters who remain — and they do exist — are more likely to be in these areas.
Putin’s expansionist vision is meeting opposition in other parts of the former Soviet Union. After Putin used his speech at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum to make the claim that all former Soviet territory was part of “historical Russia,” he was mildly but unmistakably rebuffed by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan. Tokayev restated his government’s refusal to recognize the “quasi-state entities” in Luhansk and Donetsk, referring to the sanctity of territorial integrity as defined in the U.N. Charter. The remark was all the more noteworthy given that Tokayev was sharing the stage with Putin, and that just five months ago he had welcomed a Russian military intervention into his country in order to put down anti-government demonstrations.
The invasion of Ukraine has not only accelerated that country’s departure from Russia’s sphere of influence, it seems to have other post-Soviet countries warily eyeing the exit. Whatever you call that, it’s not a victory.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.