A Tipping Point in Ukraine

A moment of mortal danger for the embattled country

8 mins read
A woman (L) and her daughter (R) tearfully comfort each other at the grave of their husband and father, who died during the battle for the city of Mariupol in April, 2022, as Ukrainians mourn soldiers killed in Russia's war against Ukraine at a military cemetery in Dnipro, Ukraine, on April 21, 2023. (Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

We are rapidly approaching what feels like a point of no return in Ukraine, as a combination of Western disengagement, the lingering failure of Ukraine’s last major counteroffensive, and Russia’s mounting effectiveness on the battlefield threaten to rescue Vladimir Putin, transforming what has been a bloody debacle into a strategic victory for Russia. Waning American support is already having an effect on the battlefield, and with Donald Trump leading the GOP’s obstruction of American assistance to Ukraine in Washington, it’s looking like a moment of maximum opportunity for the Kremlin, and a moment of rising danger for Ukraine.

Indeed, Russian troops recently made the most important gains in months, even as Ukrainian forces fell back in disarray, deprived of sufficient ammunition to defend their frontlines, and suffering from worsening “shell hunger,” as Russian forces continue to press forward along the 600 mile front. It’s becoming increasingly clear that without another significant infusion of American military materiel and financial aid, Russia will be poised to make potentially sweeping gains in the next year. 

Ultimately, Russia could win the war, rebuilding the Russian empire over the warm corpse of the Ukrainian state, and reshaping Europe in the process. It would be an invaluable lesson about the limits of the Western democracies’ courage and resolve for Xi Jinping, likely fueling his drive to violently absorb Taiwan by force in the coming years. American credibility would be badly damaged, and Europe’s security architecture would be shattered for the foreseeable future, with Russia having successfully exploited the power vacuum caused by American retreat from the continent.

Even a cursory glance at history shows us that dictators who succeed in redrawing borders through aggressive war do not stop until they’re stopped. Thus, a Russian victory in Ukraine would almost certainly whet Putin’s appetite to test NATO still further, and perhaps attempt to consume yet more of the Soviet Union’s former satellites in Eastern Europe. 

American allies around the world would continue to lose faith in the United States, a process that’s already well underway, particularly after Trump’s recent invitation for Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries he deems “delinquent” in defense spending. 

In short, the geopolitical stakes are incredibly high. Wars are zero-sum contests of endurance and will, and the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine will have profound implications for our global future, either as a major victory for the China-Russia-Iran-North Korea axis of revisionist autocracies, or as a check on illegal aggression by a united West determined to protect the postwar order. That order has enabled nearly 80 years of peace and prosperity, and has successfully prevented the reemergence of Great Power conflicts in the nuclear era (i.e. World War III), and is thus well worth protecting.

Disaster in Avdiivka

The momentum is already shifting palpably, and can be seen in the changing frontlines on the battlefield. The recent fall of Avdiivka to Russian forces, and Ukraine’s excruciatingly botched retreat from that shattered city, which resulted in the capture or disappearance of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers, demonstrates that the tide is already beginning to turn. Ukraine’s dwindling supplies of critical artillery shells and other ammunition made it impossible to hold the Russian onslaught back. 

Clearly, these losses provide a mere preview of what we can expect to see in the future, absent another round of assistance for Kyiv.

An estimated 850 to 1000 Ukrainian soldiers remain unaccounted for from Avdiivka, in a tactical loss with grave strategic implications for a Ukrainian military already suffering from plunging morale and mounting difficulties with troop mobilization. Add to this the political discord in Kyiv, and the recent dismissal of Valery Zaluzhny by President Zelensky, and the elevation of Oleksandr Syrsky into commander-in-chief, and it’s clear that Ukraine’s facing serious challenges at every level.

Putin’s politics

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is on something of a run. In a show of confidence and a political stunt designed for domestic consumption in the run-up to Russia’s rubber-stamp election, Putin took what the Kremlin said was an impromptu joyride in a Tu-160M nuclear capable strategic bomber

It’s the latest version of a Cold War-era bomber, which the Russians call the “White Swan” and which NATO has codenamed “Blackjack.” These massive swing-wing aircraft can deliver a dozen nuclear warheads to targets in the United States and beyond, and the Kremlin released footage of Putin sitting in the pilot seat alongside another pilot, in what was a stark reminder for Western policymakers that Russia remains a potent nuclear superpower. 

In truth, the Russian dictator has much to celebrate. He’s reversing what was a bleeding wound in Ukraine through sheer force, throwing endless Russian soldiers into the inferno while improving military tactics, and he’s simultaneously having real success abroad through the Kremlin’s network of allies and useful idiots, particularly in Washington. 

The minority of far-right Russia-friendly Republicans intent on blocking U.S. aid to Ukraine are now seeing the fruits of their obstruction. Pressed by former president and presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, with its thin congressional majority, has effectively choked off American aid to Ukraine at a crucial moment in the conflict, giving the Kremlin a window of opportunity to transform Russia’s military debacle into something resembling a win.

Building on that political success, the Kremlin’s been polishing Putin’s image among receptive circles in the United States, giving his first interview to a Western journalist in years, when he spoke to Tucker Carlson for two hours recently. It was a lesson in Putin’s utterly distorted view of history, what he considers Ukraine’s nonexistence, and what he feels is Russia’s perennial victimhood at the hands of an evil and duplicitous West. The interview was filled with obvious falsehoods and noxious propaganda, none of which seemed to bother Carlson in the slightest. He sat there stupefied as Putin lectured him, force-feeding him lies and bile.

Rather than challenging Putin about murdering his political opponents or brutally invading his peaceful neighbor or anything at all, the right-wing propagandist was mostly silent, as Putin filibustered, on and on. The former Fox News firebrand seemed to be infatuated with Putin’s authoritarian system, and was particularly delighted with Moscow’s magnificent grocery stores and, of course, its showcase subway system (a Stalinist vanity project, incidentally, and a relic of Soviet communism).

Clearly, Tucker Carlson would love nothing more than to see America abandon democracy, and emulate Russian authoritarianism, something that is actually not out of the realm of possibilities right now.

However, shortly after that fawning interview aired, Putin’s most voluble and effective political opponent, Aleksei Navalny, was reported dead, perishing in the Arctic “special regime” penal colony where he was being held on manufactured charges of embezzlement and “extremism.” This news couldn’t help undermining the propaganda value of Carlson’s interview, though it did reiterate that challenging Vladimir Putin is a dangerous business, even for a celebrated dissident with a global profile.

On a similar note, Russian intelligence agents are suspected of assassinating a Russian pilot turned defector, Maksim Kuzminov, who delivered his Mi-8 helicopter to Ukraine’s military intelligence agency for half a million dollars in cash, and a new life in Spain. Unfortunately, that new life abruptly ended last week in a hail of FSB gunfire, when Kuzminov’s bullet-riddled corpse was discovered near where he lived, having been gunned down and then run over with his own car for good measure.

Thus, this week was yet another grisly reminder of the Kremlin’s lethal reach, and Putin’s willingness to pursue his enemies wherever they might be in the world, both within Russia and far beyond its borders. It captured his utter disdain for the rule of law, and shows that he feels free to murder his enemies at will, regardless of what the West thinks about it.

Optimism in the Kremlin

All of this taken together speaks to an optimistic moment for Russia and for the 71-year-old Vladimir Putin, even as it also signifies a moment of real peril for Ukraine, and the world at large. It feels like it’s been a long time since Ukraine has been able to muster the kind of awe-inspiring victories seen earlier in the war, when Ukraine’s forces defied the odds and halted Russia’s armored columns at the gates of Kyiv, and recaptured the large cities of Kharkiv and Kherson in lightning campaigns that stunned the world, and galvanized support in the West.

Instead, Ukraine’s mostly been trapped in bloody attritional combat, with vanishingly few territorial gains, a bitterly failed offensive, and a perpetually rising death count to little effect. Of course, Russian forces have also paid a massive price, though strict wartime censorship prevents the Russian people from hearing and complaining about it. A large pool of willing recruits, attracted by high wages to the military, are offsetting the worst effects of the huge number of casualties suffered by Russia, and the Kremlin hasn’t had to undergo another unpopular mobilization to replenish troops, despite continuing losses on the battlefield.

Perhaps most striking, though, is Putin’s success influencing American politics. His ally Donald Trump has tightened his grip over the GOP in Washington, effectively transforming the Republican Party into an arm of the Kremlin. Trump has installed a puppet into the Speakership, Mike Johnson, who’s played absurd political shell games designed to hurt President Biden and block aid to Ukraine, all on Trump’s orders. Johnson demanded border restrictions in return for assistance to Ukraine; when he got exactly that, he rejected them, saying he didn’t need new border legislation. Later, when Ukraine aid was presented as a standalone bill, he rejected that because there was a lack of border restrictions. 

His perfidy would have been comical if it hadn’t been so destructive.

Obviously, he thinks American voters are morons, and believes they won’t quite understand what he’s up to, as he serves Donald Trump who serves Vladimir Putin, and perhaps he’s right. Trump’s on the brink of claiming his third GOP nomination, after being charged with 91 felonies, and with only a single feeble Nikki Haley still standing among his primary rivals.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians are dying at the front, in a valiant struggle to prevent Vladimir Putin from consuming their young democracy, and spitting out a Russian satrapy. They have the courage to fight and die for their freedom, while a minority of the most extreme far-right American lawmakers display only cowardice, subservience, and fear, choking off aid to a country fighting for its very existence in service to a dictator, even as they assist an aspiring dictator in his destruction of our own democracy.

It’s pathetic and shameful. History will not forget.

As America nears what will be a transformative election, Ukraine’s battle to survive Russian aggression and America’s own battle to preserve its democracy have coalesced into a single shared struggle, on which the hinges of history will turn. Personally, I continue to hope that Putin was incorrect in his earlier assessment that the Western coalition supporting Ukraine would eventually crumble, and that all he had to do was continue to apply pressure through his political proxies, and wait it out.

It’s a grim thought that if Putin does prevail in Ukraine, it will be primarily because of American inaction, due to cowardice and democratic dysfunction in the GOP, led by people the Kremlin has cultivated for years. 

It’s the polar opposite of what America achieved in World War II and afterward during the Cold War, a betrayal of everything we supposedly stand for. The irony that a clique of disloyal Americans are working on behalf of a Russian dictator who’s trying to destroy the system we worked so hard to build is inescapable, and supremely tragic.

Alexander Ziperovich

Alexander Ziperovich is a Political analyst and Opinion columnist. He writes about politics, justice, foreign affairs, and culture, dissecting the larger historical and social context behind important events.

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