Olena Lennon, Ph.D., who hails from Eastern Ukraine, recently returned from visiting many of her family and friends in her home country. She also spent time in Poland, which has welcomed millions of refugees from Ukraine. She shares her experiences in both countries, and discusses Russia’s war against Ukraine.
August 24, 2022
Renee Chmiel: I know you recently traveled to Ukraine. Can you tell us where in Ukraine you traveled? What were your general impressions?
Olena Lennon, Ph.D.: I first flew into Warsaw, Poland, spent a few days there, then traveled to Lviv, in western Ukraine, and eventually, to Kyiv. Despite the fact that active fighting has been concentrated in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, the entire country has been subjected to Russian missile strikes since Russia launched a large-scale offensive on the 24th of February. As a result, even in regions as far west as Lviv, air raid sirens can be frequent. Ukraine’s air defense systems have been rather effective at intercepting most Russian missiles outside active combat areas, but not all.
What surprised me was how many people were returning (or had returned) to Ukraine despite those risks. In fact, most people I met on my travels from Poland to Ukraine were going back to the southern port city of Odesa, where Russian shelling attacks had intensified significantly.
Lviv was relatively quiet (i.e. no air raid sirens) when I was there in late June and early July. But the city had visibly transformed from when I was there last, pre-invasion. When the war started, many Ukrainians flocked to Lviv, as it was both a transit hub for those continuing their travels abroad and a relatively safe destination within Ukraine’s borders. Many international news agencies and organizations operated out of Lviv when the offensive started. So, this relatively small, historic town with cobblestone streets has literally been bursting at the seams since March.
All cafes, restaurants, and stores were full and seemingly thriving in the new normal. But the entire city visibly lived and breathed war. From conversations on the streets and IDP (internally displaced persons) assistance centers throughout the city to Ukrainian patriotic signs, symbols, and souvenir shops and to uniformed soldiers and local militias out on the streets, war was palpable. Lviv has always been one of the most visual meccas of Ukrainian culture and patriotism, but is even more so now. However, due to a strictly enforced nation-wide curfew in Ukraine, all hustle and bustle stops at 11 p.m., including taxi services. Many stores and restaurants closed much earlier to allow their employees to catch public transportation home.
Kyiv was somewhat more tense. I was there right after an apartment and a kindergarten in downtown Kyiv were hit by a Russian missile – a first direct strike on Kyiv after several weeks of quiet. The next day, a Russian missile landed in a crowded shopping center in Kremenchuk, in central Ukraine, outside what we would consider “active war zone” parameters, however loose those parameters are under current circumstances. So, Kyiv was tense, but more vibrant than one would expect.
When Kyiv and the surrounding areas were under Russia’s air and ground attacks in February-March, many people fled. After Ukrainians forced the Russians to retreat in early April, Kyiv has been perceived as a relatively safe area, prompting the return of many of its residents, as well as becoming a destination for many people fleeing eastern and southern Ukraine, where fighting is the heaviest.
I had a chance to visit with some of my old friends from my native Donbas who had recently relocated to Kyiv. For some of them this was a second or third war-induced displacement: they were first forced to flee occupied Donbas in 2014-15 and resettled in nearby Bakhmut, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Sieverdonetsk and other towns. They were forced to flee again recently, as those towns are currently being obliterated by the Russian shelling. These perpetually displaced people now refuse to allow Russia to force them out of their homes again and are determined to stay in Ukraine and help with the war effort in any way they can.
Despite Kyiv’s seeming return to normalcy – if it can be called that – the signs of war were still visible. In addition to armed patrols, anti-tank hedgehogs, roadblocks, and sandbags lining up windows throughout the city, all roads into the city are permeated with military checkpoints. Many roads on the outskirts of Kyiv still bear signs of heavy fighting when the Ukrainians pounded Russian convoys attempting to encircle the city; remnants of destroyed Russian tanks still line some roads outside Kyiv.
Air raid sirens are still frequent in Kyiv. When I got on a train back to Warsaw, everyone’s phones started buzzing from air raid alerts. All but two regions of Ukraine showed up as a red zone, indicating air raid warnings. Our entire journey westward (11 hours by train) lay through a red zone with air raid sirens called on and off, until we crossed into Poland.
As the Russians continue relentless bombardment of densely populated areas by using both ballistic and cruise missiles, Ukrainians believe that the only short- and long-term solution to having Russia as a neighbor is to acquire more advanced air defense systems, as Russia is seen likely to leverage air strikes against Ukraine in the foreseeable future, regardless of current battlefield dynamics.
All in all, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there is not a single person in Ukraine – and among Ukrainians abroad – who has not been affected by the war, in one way or another, whether people lost their homes, or they or their family members have been wounded, killed, or are currently risking their lives on the front lines.
The number of internally displaced people is astonishing – at least a quarter of Ukraine’s population has been forced out of their homes – and the number grows every day. Not to mention that Ukraine’s economy has shrunk by almost half and many regions even outside active combat zones are experiencing significant fuel and medical supplies shortages, unemployment, limited access to healthcare, and other hardships. Suffice it to say, it is the largest humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since WWII, with a potential to get worse.
RC: You mentioned the signs of war were still visible in the Kyiv area. Can you describe the damage you saw?
OL: I visited several towns and villages outside Kyiv – including Irpin, Bucha, Borodyanka, and Hostomel – that were heavily damaged during Russian air and ground attacks in the opening stages of the war and later occupied by the Russian forces. Visiting Borodyanka, a town about 20 miles from Kyiv, perhaps weighed the heaviest on me. Borodyanka saw some of the heaviest fighting throughout March and fell under Russia’s control for a few weeks until the Ukrainian forces liberated it in early April. The Russians left the town in complete ruins with school buildings, hospitals, and homes either looted, severely damaged or completely destroyed, not to mention countless broken lives as a result of torture and killings at the hands of the Russian soldiers. Walking those streets was gruesome. While the town had noticeably emptied out, I was still surprised at the number of people I saw out and about, fixing up houses, and doing other chores.
Another town that shocked me was Hostomel, which is home to Antonov Airport, about 10 miles away from Kyiv. Antonov Airport was one of Russia’s first targets as Russia planned to make the airport its principal staging ground and logistics hub for an offensive on Kyiv. The plan failed. The Ukrainians swiftly curbed the attack by shooting down Russian helicopters and denying Russia an ability to bring reinforcements. They then encircled the unsupported Russian forces on the ground and forced them to retreat.
Though Russia’s bizarre raid on Hostomel was repelled relatively quickly, the Russians managed to inflict significant damage on residential areas outside the airport. The neighborhood outside the airport looked like a dystopian post-war debris field, as not a single building was spared either damage or complete destruction. I did not see any people there, but many destroyed buildings still had people’s belongings amidst the debris. It made me think of how pointless Russia’s indiscriminate bombardments were and how little they achieved. Now Hostomel stands as one of many reminders of not only Russia’s strategic and tactical blunders, but also Russia’s senseless brutality.
RC: I understand the trip had a combination of personal and professional goals. Did you see your family? What are some of the things you are working on?
OL: I visited some of my family members who live not far from Borodyanka, outside Kyiv. In the early stages of the Kyiv offensive, they evacuated to a village on the Moldovan border, but have since returned and tried to resume their lives. Their area suffered massive infrastructure damages during the Kyiv offensive. While most vital infrastructure has been restored, the road to full reconstruction and recovery will be long and painful. There are also large amounts of leftover unexploded ordnance in the woods, parks, and playgrounds that will need to be cleared before the area can be considered safe.
One of my cousins works for a construction company in Irpin, so he feels a particular sense of duty to resume work, while – like most men of military age – expecting to be called to active duty any day. While my family in Kyiv were physically unharmed, many of their friends and colleagues experienced either deaths in their families or loss of homes, so entire communities are psychologically traumatized.
A significant factor in people’s physical security in that area is also proximity to Belarus, which the Russians have used as a staging ground for attacks. Even though the Russian troops were forced out of Kyiv and Ukrainians are now battle-hardened and more confident and equipped to defend the capital, people are not lowering their guard, or ruling out another attack coming from Belarus. But overall, everyone tries their best to keep their challenges in perspective and be optimistic.
As far as my immediate family, unfortunately, they remain in the Donbas and their situation is dire. Because of constant shelling in their area and damage to communication lines, phone and internet connection have been sporadic at best. It was impossible for me to see them on my last trip for security reasons, but I remain hopeful, despite the odds diminishing by the day.
Professionally, I have recently facilitated Ukraine country studies virtual training for a new U.S. advisor for Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, under the auspices of the United States European Command (EUCOM) Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC). The new training model emphasizes Ukraine’s security and defense infrastructure, so I have ongoing research interests in those areas.
I also serve on Freedom House’s team of experts that produces a yearly report called “Freedom in the World,” focused on assessing domestic political environments, civil liberties, political plurality, and the overall functioning of governments in every country of the world. Team Ukraine has their work cut out for them this year. In the context of an ongoing war, Ukraine’s democracy, political plurality, and government efficacy will need to be examined through the lens of national security emergencies in response to Russian aggression. This is not to mention the challenges of documenting events in Russia-occupied territories.
Maintaining democratic processes in wartime is not only challenging but may not seem a priority when survival is at stake. But Ukraine’s democracy is precisely what threatens Russia and what Ukrainians are fighting for. Documenting daily events and developments in Ukraine is no small task, physically or emotionally, but it is necessary not only for more accurate analysis, but also for future justice efforts.
Aside from those and many other projects, I will, of course, be incorporating the many aspects of the war in Ukraine in my U.S. Foreign Policy classes and facilitating related events at the University of New Haven.
RC: What are some of the biggest changes you observed since you last traveled to Ukraine?
OL: The level of destruction caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine just in the past six months is beyond comprehension. The Russo-Ukrainian war is the largest conventional war in Europe since WWII. Ukrainian forces are defending against Russian attacks along an approximately 500-mile long frontline, as well as airspace over the entire Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians have been killed, many more wounded, and about a quarter of the population has been displaced.
Russian forces have turned the city of Mariupol, the second largest city in Donetsk region, into a pile of rubble, and are trying to subject Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, to the same fate. Russia has indiscriminately shelled residential areas, hospitals, universities, and shopping malls. And those are only the visible scars and changes. Among the less visible ones are deep psychological traumas and the rupturing of the very fabric of Ukrainian society. Many families have been torn apart as women and children were forced to flee while men stayed behind to fight, prohibited to leave under martial law.
One of the other biggest changes is, of course, the fact that most men and women remaining in the country are involved in the war effort in one way or the other: whether they enlisted, were drafted, are in the reserves, or assist with other war needs as civilians. Many of my friends — former teachers, journalists, doctors, artists, etc. —have joined the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) to protect their towns and cities, but due to significant manpower losses in the Ukrainian regular army, many TDF members had to be deployed to active combat zones, with minimum training.
Among other changes, I would also highlight stronger civic and national unity in Ukraine. Ukrainian national and civic identity boomed after Russia’s first invasion in 2014, but this sense of unity has noticeably intensified and crystallized since Russia’s large-scale invasion in February of this year.
The majority of people in Ukraine did not favor territorial concessions to Russia even following Russia’s invasion in 2014. But at the same time, since the line of contact in the Donbas was mostly frozen for about seven years prior to this past February, there was still a general sense elsewhere in Ukraine that the war had a geographic address, as it were – the Donbas – and the rest of the country could continue business as usual. Besides, there was a sizable contingent of Ukrainians in the east of the country who favored some form of reconciliation with Russia to revive local economies. That sentiment is long gone, as no one believes in making agreements with Russia under current circumstances.
I discussed this new sense of unity with one of my friends in Lviv who, along with her husband and two small children, had hosted dozens of refugees from eastern Ukraine in their home. One of her friends was killed in the war, but many more were seeking combat deployments to the east. She told me that while Donbas might seem culturally and geographically distant, her peers in western Ukraine were willing to fight and die for Donbas – not only because it was about protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, but also because what they were willing to fight and die for was the right of their fellow Ukrainians to live in their homes, regardless of where they were from. Her words encapsulate the essence of this war: Ukrainians are fighting for the basic rights of fellow humans, not just for their territory.
RC: I understand you traveled through Poland and spent some time there. What were your impressions of the mood in Poland? And did you get a chance to speak with any refugees?
OL: When a large-scale war started in February, approximately five million Ukrainians – mostly women, children, and elders – ran for their lives and sought refuge abroad. The overwhelming majority of those refugees flocked to the Polish border. The Polish people and government have done an incredible job assisting Ukrainians fleeing the war and havae absorbed as many as three million refugees within their borders, the largest share of any other neighboring country. Thousands of Polish and international volunteers camped out at border crossings handing out food, medical supplies, clothes, and other necessities to Ukrainian refugees, and many opened their homes to provide temporary housing as well.
Polish officials went above and beyond to secure emergency housing, protection, and other essential goods and services for Ukrainians – notably, at an enormous economic and social cost to their own country, even with the E.U.’s financial assistance. Among international organizations on the ground, World Central Kitchen stood out to me as one of the more visible ones. Their distribution centers were set up at most transportation hubs providing shelter and meals to Ukrainians. (They also act through local volunteers in frontline towns in Ukraine.)
“I hope the current and successive Russian governments will be held properly accountable for all the lives ruined and lost.”Olena Lennon, Ph.D.
Two of my Polish colleagues who teach at Military University of Technology and Warsaw Information Technology School invited me to speak with a group of Ukrainian refugees who are currently continuing their university studies in Warsaw as part of a special scholarship program for Ukrainian students. The students I spoke to hailed from Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, Kryvyi Rih, Kyiv, and other cities in Ukraine. Many had family members and friends fighting on the front lines. I was humbled by those students’ incredible courage, tenacity, and maturity.
As we shared our stories, they seemed interested in my journey from the Donbas to the U.S. many years prior, as none of them had been to the U.S. before. When I asked them what message they would want to relay to Americans, they almost unanimously said that people in the West should not underestimate the brutality of the Putin regime and the danger it presented not only to Ukraine, but everyone who would come in the way of Russia’s imperialistic ambitions. I found their message piercing, as Russia’s brutality was not hypothetical to them. They experienced it firsthand. This generation of young Ukrainians have a lot to offer to the world with their talents, experiences, tenacity, and wisdom. I hope they will realize their full potential wherever they end up.
By the time of my visit, many Ukrainian refugees had reportedly either moved elsewhere in and outside the E.U. or returned to Ukraine, but many remain in Poland with a view of long-term placement. Many of my friends who had fled the war are scattered all over Europe, but some are still in Poland and report mostly positive experiences, despite many challenges of being a refugee. But even if the initial refugee flows have seemingly subsided, Polish officials still have their work cut out for them in facilitating long-term integration of existing refugees, including expanding schools, transportation infrastructure, social support systems, employment opportunities, etc.
I encountered many Ukrainians in restaurants, stores, and other public places in Warsaw and heard an equal share of Ukrainian and Russian spoken everywhere I went. My limited observations, combined with official and unofficial reports, would point to significant efforts and sacrifices made by most European nations – but especially central and eastern Europe – to rise to the occasion and assist Ukrainians at this most trying time. But for most Ukrainian refugees, the road to recovery will be long and thorny. I hope the current and successive Russian governments will be held properly accountable for all the lives ruined and lost.
RC: You mentioned that Poland absorbed the largest number of Ukrainian refugees. What about Poland’s contributions to Ukraine’s war effort itself?
OL: Poland is absolutely central to Ukraine’s war effort against Russian aggression. In addition to absorbing the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, Poland is also the largest individual provider of military aid to Ukraine in the E.U. and third largest globally, behind the United States and the United Kingdom. In terms of volumes of delivered weapons and other equipment to Ukraine, Poland is second only to the U.S. and ahead of Europe’s largest economies such as Germany and France.
It’s worth noting that this level of support is particularly remarkable knowing that Ukraine and Poland have previously ruffled feathers and had diplomatic fallouts over historical narratives related to ethnically motivated crimes the Poles and Ukrainians committed against each other during WWII. But Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has put all previous grievances between Ukraine and Poland on the backburner and ushered in a new era of unity and cooperation between these two nations that consider Russia an existential threat to their survival.
Shortly before my visit, the U.S. also announced an establishment of a permanent military base in Poland, making Poland the first country on NATO’s eastern flank with a permanent military base (up to then the U.S. only had a rotating troop presence in Poland). Poland is also hosting one of NATO’s four new multinational battlegroups (the other three being in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania).
At the time of my visit in the area, NATO also held a historic summit in Madrid during which leaders of NATO countries adopted a new Strategic Concept for the next decade. The document reflected changes in the security environment in the past ten years and identified Russia as the main threat to European security in the next ten years. All these developments made for truly historic times in the region. All in all, I would say Poland is a center of gravity not only in the West’s support of Ukraine’s war effort, but also in NATO’s strategic deterrence and defense posture writ large. I anticipate Poland’s geopolitical centrality only growing and U.S.-Poland-Ukraine ties only deepening.
RC: Can you bring us up to speed on the status of the U.S.’s assistance to Ukraine and American strategic goals in the region more broadly?
OL: The U.S. has been the largest provider of military aid to Ukraine for many years. Since the beginning of an all-out war on February 24, the U.S. has stepped up its support, both quantitatively and qualitatively, to historic levels. The U.S. alone has provided billions of dollars in military, financial, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and remains the largest provider of military in-kind aid, including some of America’s most advanced multiple launch rocket systems, combat drones, and other capabilities.
The Biden administration has pledged to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, but it doesn’t mean the support is unlimited or guaranteed. The U.S. has been trying to right-size military aid to Ukraine in such a way as to give Ukraine an advantage on the battlefield while acknowledging that capabilities alone will not turn the tide of war without other things falling into place, including continuous supplies of munitions, training, maintenance, logistical and intelligence support, etc. The U.S. and other western partners have been training Ukrainian troops in the U.K. and across Europe on how to use the new advanced weapons they had been receiving, as well as in infantry battlefield skills, urban warfare, etc. But it’s a race against time, as Ukraine needs every soldier and every capability on the battlefield, in real time.
It’s worth noting that support for Ukraine is one of few foreign policy issues that has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Several U.S. congressional delegations have visited Kyiv since a large-scale war started signaling support for continued assistance to Ukraine. One such bipartisan delegations was led by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut (along with U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina), who arrived in Kyiv after I left. The delegation met with Ukraine’s President Zelensky to communicate not only support for giving Ukraine more advanced weapons, but also to promote legislation that would classify Russia as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” The resolution has since been passed in the Senate with unanimous support and is awaiting a vote in the House before the State Department makes the ultimate decision. If Russia is designated as a state sponsor of terrorism it will be joining North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Cuba on that list.
As far as broader regional goals, Russia’s war against Ukraine has prompted the U.S. to elevate European security in its system of priorities and to boost its forces and equipment in Europe. With Finland and Sweden poised to join NATO and governments across Europe increasing their defense spending, NATO is as strong as it has ever been.
With this in mind, and given the volatility of the China-Taiwan relations, some have suggested that the U.S. should refocus their attention and resources on the Pacific theater. But, the reality is, as a great power, the U.S. must tackle multiple problem sets at the same time. The war in Ukraine is not just a Europe problem; it is a global event that has upended physical, energy, and food security across the globe. It is therefore incumbent upon the U.S. and its partners to continue helping Ukraine to reclaim its territories and degrade the Russian military machine to keep Ukraine’s and global economy afloat.
RC: You mentioned that the U.S. has increased security assistance to Ukraine to record levels. What about other countries? Do you think the U.S. has done enough, and will it be able to sustain such levels of support?
OL: Since the start of Russia’s large-scale offensive in February, the outpouring of support for Ukraine has been truly incredible. Ukraine has been receiving government aid from at least 40 countries and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, community groups, and private philanthropists. For example, “Razom,” a small, young, volunteer-run (the majority of whom are Ukraine-born) organization based in New York City, has raised millions of dollars for Ukraine, surpassing many well-established international organizations. Also, due to security concerns, many international aid organizations were limited in their ability to provide an emergency response on the ground. The brunt of the dangerous frontline work has been borne by Ukrainian volunteers who – almost with no protection, training, or equipment – organized civilian evacuations and delivery of basic essentials to both civilians and soldiers.
The European Union is the second largest provider of aid to Ukraine, after the U.S. (But not a close second – the U.S. has committed at least three times more money for Ukraine than all E.U. members combined.) However, given Europe’s historically low defense budgets, a ban on sending lethal aid to war zones, and strong dependence on Russian energy, the E.U.’s notoriously slow bureaucratic machine has proven more agile and active than expected.
Many European countries reversed their long-standing policies on military aid and defense spending and have drawn from limited financial resources and weapon stockpiles to help Ukraine close the capability gap. But even Europe’s largest supporters of Ukraine, Poland and the U.K., are beginning to run out of weapons and ammunition to give to Ukraine without risking their own national security. Europe’s power houses Germany and France have been accused of being too slow and reluctant to give military aid to Ukraine in proportion to much higher levels provided by smaller countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, relative to their GDPs.
Coordinated Western sanctions have also been rather effective in undermining the Russian economy, and they are expected to degrade its military chest in the long-term. However, Europe’s inability to disconnect from Russian natural gas remains a vulnerability that Russia has exploited to promote its agenda among European leaders. Until Europe (especially its largest economy Germany) can achieve energy independence from Russia, it will be vulnerable to Russia’s manipulations and run the risk of internal disunity.
To your question of whether the West has done enough to help Ukraine – perspectives on this matter vary and ultimately, historians will judge. I think the West should have done more and earlier, but I also recognize that it’s always easy to criticize in retrospect. Of course, we could criticize both the U.S. and NATO/E.U. members for not stopping the Russian war machine in Ukraine on a scale and timeline appropriate to Ukraine’s needs, but the level of support has still been remarkable.
The U.S. and other countries have overcome significant political and logistical barriers to expedite weapon deliveries to Ukraine, including longer-range missile systems and munitions. Some policy makers have expressed concerns that providing Ukraine with long-range missiles could potentially lead to escalation, but these concerns have not been substantiated.
The U.S. assesses that Ukrainians have utilized the U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) effectively as they were able to disable Russian command and control nodes, ammunition depots, and logistics hubs. These attacks are believed to have contributed to a reduction of Russian artillery fire in the Donbas, as well as allowing Ukrainians to gain momentum in preparation for a potential counteroffensive to recapture Kherson, a strategic city in the south of Ukraine. But Ukraine’s ability to mount a counteroffensive hangs in the balance without continuous Western aid. It is possible that the Europeans will soon have depleted their stockpiles of what could be provided to Ukraine, so the U.S.’s continued supplies of weapons and ammunition will be Ukraine’s main lifeline.
“Russia is fighting not just against Ukraine but against Western values and institutions that Ukrainians have embraced.”Olena Lennon, Ph.D.
RC: How do people in Ukraine view the resolution of the war?
OL: Most Ukrainians were not in favor of making territorial concessions to Russia even after Russia’s first invasion in 2014. Russia’s brutal war of the past six months has only consolidated that position. Russia’s indiscriminate attacks and war crimes against Ukrainian civilians further confirmed what most Ukrainians have known for a long time — that Russia seeks to destroy the Ukrainian state, not just control some of its territories. The threat is existential for the entire Ukraine.
Ukrainians have no appetite for negotiations because they believe that allowing Russia to control any parts of Ukraine will not only result in more war crimes, but enable the Russians to consolidate their positions, regroup, and restrike again. Nor is there any trust in Russia honoring its agreements with Ukraine, based on Russia’s track record in that department.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky has received much praise and admiration for galvanizing the Ukrainian people and the West to fight Russia against all odds and until the end, but the truth is the Zelensky Administration was just as – if not more – galvanized by the Ukrainian people. The war has reinforced a feedback loop between Ukraine’s leaders, its military, and ordinary civilians in pursuit of key unifying objectives: deplete the Russian military and deny Russia an ability to control any Ukrainian territories.
To some observers, this position may seem naive and idealistic. But one should rest assured that Ukrainian military and political leaders are not delusional about Ukraine’s losses and military parity. They recognize that Ukraine is still outgunned and outmanned by Russia and that Western support is no silver bullet. Ukrainian leaders are realistic in their assessment of Ukraine’s combat effectiveness and are trying their best to prioritize strategic objectives over incremental gains. But at this point, a diplomatic solution is nowhere in sight, until Russia reconsiders its objectives in Ukraine.
RC: You mentioned that there was no appetite for negotiations with Russia in Ukraine at the moment. What are some of the alternative scenarios for war termination?
OL: While it is true that all wars end at a negotiating table, at this juncture, most experts agree that the moment for talks has not come yet because both Ukraine and Russia believe in their ability to gain the upper hand. The Zelensky Administration has insisted Ukraine would not agree to any territorial concessions and that no negotiated settlement was possible without Russia’s troop withdrawal from the Ukrainian territory. For their part, the U.S. leaders have promised to follow Ukraine’s lead on when and how Ukrainians want to approach talks with Russia.
In the meantime, given Russia’s reliance on long-range artillery, helping Ukraine deplete Russia’s long-range capabilities is believed to give Ukraine the upper hand on the battlefield, at least in the short-to-medium term. That said, Russia’s many blunders and losses have not been lost on the Russian decision-makers either, and they, too, have made strategic and tactical adjustments.
The Russians seem to be more risk-averse, especially in lieu of deepening manpower shortages and mounting economic and political costs. They haven’t made any significant gains in Ukraine in the past few weeks, and they have had many of their ammunition depots destroyed by Ukrainian missile and drone strikes. The Russians are frustrated and are expressing their frustration by resorting to more brutal tactics, including nuclear sabotage at a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia. But even if Russia’s offensive capacity and overall military power will be further diminished at the hands of Ukraine’s forces equipped with more advanced weapons, a long-term resolution is in the distant future.
Russia is playing the long game, but so is Ukraine. Ukrainians have nowhere to retreat. They are defending their territory. This war already has the makings of a war of attrition. At the end of the day, the outcome of this war will be a function of endurance — military, political, economic, and social endurance. With that in mind, Ukraine’s survival is contingent on two broad factors: strengthening its military, economic, and political endurance while simultaneously weakening Russia’s. Therefore, the U.S. and other partners should keep a steady flow of weapons, munitions, and financial assistance to Ukraine, while simultaneously tightening a chokehold around Russia’s economy.
Russia’s sustained military and economic losses will hopefully chip away at the Kremlin’s ability to restore its war machine and sustain its war effort in Ukraine. What’s important for all of us to remember is that Russia is fighting not just against Ukraine but against Western values and institutions that Ukrainians have embraced. Ukrainians are defending Western institutions with their lives. Helping Ukrainians to preserve their statehood is the least the West can do, not the most.
Olena Lennon, Ph.D., is a national security practitioner in residence at the University of New Haven.