Zelensky is Betting Time is on Ukraine's Side | Opinion

If the first month of Ukraine's war was a comedy of errors for the Russian military—replete with immovable armored columns and vehicles with empty tanks—the last several weeks have been a tough stretch for Ukrainian troops on the front lines. Russian forces are still taking heavy casualties and now face Ukrainian sabotage operations in territory they occupy. But there has been a shift in momentum for Russian forces, who outnumber Ukrainian defenders in long-range artillery and are fighting on terrain more suitable for the scorched-earth offensive maneuvers the Russian army has historically conducted.

Dispatches from the Donbas paint a disturbing picture of hell on Earth, with tired, shell-shocked Ukrainian troops undergoing endless rounds of missile barrages. The Russian military is learning from past mistakes and adjusting tactics accordingly, concentrating firepower on a smaller portion of Ukrainian territory with the goal of causing so much destruction that Ukrainian troops have no option but to fall back. Depending on who you believe, Ukraine is either still in the fight for the industrial city of Severodonetsk or only a few days away from beating a tactical retreat across the Siverskyi Donets river.

Senior Ukrainian officials remain stoic, but even President Volodymyr Zelensky, a gifted orator and inspirational leader, has acknowledged the fight in Severodonetsk is "fierce" and could determine the overall battle in the Donbas. Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine's defense minister, has said at least 100 Ukrainian troops are being killed every day, with another 500 troops wounded. A leaked Ukrainian intelligence report, published by the Independent on June 9, draws an even darker picture. Desertions, according to the report, are now becoming a problem for the Ukrainian army, and the casualty rate inflicted by the massive Russian artillery bombardment is having "a seriously demoralizing effect" on the troops forced to endure them. Although Ukraine's total number of soldiers has doubled since the start of the war, there is a concern that Kyiv will struggle to sustain itself in this war of attrition as time goes on.

Even with such a high rate of casualties and the Russians progressing on a slow advance, the Ukrainian government is no mood to talk peace. This position is bolstered by high-profile commentators in the West who flinch at the very thought of sitting down at the table with the Russians. When The New York Times Editorial Board wrote that Kyiv may have to ponder territorial concessions to end the war, the paper was blasted for supposedly blaming the victim. When Henry Kissinger delivered similar remarks a week later, the former national security adviser and secretary of state was met with a chorus of denunciations, as if he learned nothing whatsoever from Neville Chamberlain's concessions to Adolf Hitler in Munich. And when French President Emmanuel Macron had the gall to phone Putin, other European heads of state blew it out of proportion as if it were the modern-day equivalent of phoning Hitler during the height of World War II. The only acceptable conclusion to the war, it appears, is for Kyiv to fight until it reclaims every last morsel of Ukrainian territory from the Russian marauders.

In a perfect world, Ukraine would kick the Russians out just like the Americans kicked Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait more than 30 years earlier. Who wouldn't like to see Putin, the macho-man, Peter the Great-wannabe, turn into a weak and disheveled shell of his former self, holed up in the Kremlin with his tail between his legs?

Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears on screen to address people at the City Hall Square in Copenhagen on May, 4,2022. Liselotte Sabroe / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP/Getty Images

Yet it bears repeating that we don't live in a perfect world. Today, the Russians control about one-fifth of Ukrainian territory and have established a land corridor from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula. Based on the battlefield dynamics at this time, there's a decent probability of the Russians expanding their control in the weeks or months ahead. As motivated, courageous and innovative as the Ukrainian army has been, and given the battlefield geometry as it now exists, can anyone analyzing the situation honestly predict with such smug certainty that a longer war will produce a better peace for Ukraine? What in this four month-old conflict, with its seesaw battles, tactical surprises and trail of disproven assumptions, warrants such confidence?

For a wartime commander in chief like Zelensky, there is no such thing as certainty. He can't afford to be certain about anything. Positions that seem viable today could quickly become unviable tomorrow.

Right now, Zelensky has calculated that peace talks with the Russians are a waste of time. Only when the battle turns Ukraine's way will such talks be appropriate—and even if those talks do happen, territorial concessions will not be a part of the discussion.

But as the war goes a certain way, so may his calculations about how to end it. As the leader responsible for the safety and welfare of more than 40 million people, Zelensky can't afford to have tunnel vision. Many of those arguing for Kyiv to fight until an unambiguous military victory is achieved have the luxury of residing in capitals thousands of miles away from the battlefield. Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, in contrast, will have to deal with the costs and consequences of such a strategy. Those consequences include additional infrastructure damage, a deeper economic catastrophe, more civilian lives lost and the very real possibility of more Russian gains on the ground.

Zelensky is gambling that more time, patience and grit will be the magic formula to resist the Russian advance and gift Ukraine better terms when peace talks do commence. As Ukraine's head of state, this is his decision to make. But what happens if his gamble doesn't pay off? These aren't easy questions to answer, and none of us, no matter our strong moral convictions, should pretend otherwise.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.