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How to help Ukraine to stand its ground

Everyone wants this war to end. But calls for Ukraine to cede seized territory to Russia are misguided.

A relative of Roman Shevchenko holds a candle during his funeral in Bila Tserkva, near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 22. Shevchenko, 40, was a civilian who joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces to defend his country when the Russian full-scale war started. Roman was killed on Feb. 9 in Vuhledar, a city in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

Imagine that marauders broke into your home and seized two rooms. They snatched your toddler and sent her away to be adopted by another family. They dragged your teenager into those rooms and tortured him. And then they asked you to accept this arrangement while they planned to take over the rest of your home.

This is what Russia has done to Ukraine.

This war started in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea. It intensified a year ago when Russia invaded Ukraine. The conflict has been devastating for Ukraine’s people, its infrastructure, and its economy. But Ukrainians have fought back, bolstered by US and NATO weaponry and a conviction that losing the war will mean losing their country.


Everyone wants this war to end. But calls for Ukraine to cede seized territory to Russia are misguided.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia will not negotiate in good faith. When Moscow couldn’t manipulate President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine through political means, it tried to assert control through military means. While the pronounced objectives of Russia’s war have ranged from “liberating the Donbas,” to “protecting Russian-speakers,” to “denazification” to “countering NATO,” the underlying goal remains unchanged. Russia wants to control Ukraine. In fact, Russia feels it has the right to control Ukraine because it should not exist.

Any agreements Russia makes to respect Ukrainian sovereignty are worth what past agreements, like the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, have been worth: nothing. Russia will continue to covet Ukraine until it is convinced that this goal is out of reach. Countries stop fighting wars not because they change their goals but because they update their understanding of their capacity to achieve these goals. This happens by losing on the battlefield.

The only way to convince Russia that it cannot control Ukraine is to push it as far out of Ukraine as possible. This will require that the United States, NATO, and allied countries intensify their military and economic support. While Ukraine has received an astonishing amount of aid thus far, it is not yet enough to effectively repulse Russia’s sadistic army and paramilitary organizations.


What about economic sanctions? The European Union, the United States, and a few Western countries have imposed waves of sanctions on Russia since the war began. But for most of last year, Russia was earning over 750 million euros per day from sales of hydrocarbons — much of them to Europe. It’s estimated that these revenues were roughly twice the $300 million or so that waging the war cost Russia every day.

The European seaborne oil embargo imposed in December and the follow-on ban on petroleum products will cut into Russian hydrocarbon revenue. But that oil will be sold elsewhere, albeit at a lower price. Only 34 countries have actually sanctioned Russia, and some, like Turkey and China, have increased trade since the war started. Putin said recently that the Russian economy shrank by 2.5 percent in 2022. Even if that’s overly optimistic, the real number is much less than the 12 percent to 15 percent originally forecasted last year. While the economy may become more complicated to manage, Russia will be cutting military spending last.


Economic sanctions will not squeeze Putin into pulling out of Ukraine or even convince him to stop fighting.

Finally, there’s something both parties agree on: Supporting Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression is in America’s interest. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview last week that the GOP supports Ukraine and those who feel differently have been getting too much media coverage. “[T]here’s been way too much attention given to a very few people who seem not to be invested in Ukraine’s success,” McConnell said. President Biden’s remarkable visit to Kyiv on Monday reflects the same sentiment. Given that most members of the Kremlin elite show little interest in modifying Russia’s imperialist narratives, expansionist views will prevail until shown to be untenable.

If that is true, the West should be doubling down on military support to Ukraine. The Russians are on the back foot, not yet able to fully circumvent sanctions and import what they need to replenish what has been lost. It will be cheaper to support Kyiv now than to wait for Russia to recreate broken military supply chains, conscript hundreds of thousands of additional soldiers, and possibly add China’s lethal aid to their reserve of matériel.

Invaders should not be rewarded with concessions. Putin will probably interpret a willingness to negotiate as evidence of weakening Western resolve. Asking Ukraine to give up land will embolden the Kremlin in ways we will regret for decades and possibly generations. Pushing Russia back now will reduce the chances of having to fight a strengthened Russia in the future. Ukrainians are fighting not only to push the marauders out of their home; they are fighting to prove that democracies are stronger than autocracies. If Ukraine isn’t given the military support it needs to stand its ground, the price to stop Russia later will be far greater.


Alexandra Vacroux is executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.