There are places where victory seems to be within reach. In the capital of Kyiv, the war can sometimes feel merely like a distant threat, with many cafés and restaurants having reopened, and even the opera staging shows again. Air raid sirens have become a rarity. But can the momentum of battlefield success be carried forward to victory? Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military secret service, thinks so. He said that even the Crimea will have been reconquered by the end of the year – and that only a return of the Black Sea peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, will mark the end of the war.
It is a melody of a kind that many people, and not just in Ukraine, have begun humming. "Victory has to be the goal, and not some peace agreement," Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told DER SPIEGEL earlier this month. Her Polish counterpart was even clearer. "It has come to my attention that attempts are afoot on the international stage to present Putin with a face-saving solution," said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. "But how can you save a face that is already completely deformed?"
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began more than three months ago. Since the end of the Cold War, nothing has united NATO as much as Vladimir Putin’s war. He gifted the alliance with a new sense of purpose and self-confidence, along with two new accession candidates – Sweden and Finland.
Now, though, the unexpected military successes of the Ukrainians have triggered a new dispute within the Western alliance. Putin, it seems safe to say, is not going to be able to take over all of Ukraine. He also won’t be able to install a puppet government, as he had hoped to do. But how does a war launched by a nuclear power come to an end?
Since World War II, there have been numerous examples of a David defeating a Goliath: The United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975 because, after more than 50,000 lives lost in the war in the Far East, American voters had had enough.
The Soviet Union pulled its last troops out of Afghanistan in February 1989 because leader Mikhail Gorbachev had realized that the war against the mujahedeen could not be won. But the that defeat paved the way for the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire – an ignominy that Putin has called the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century and which he had hoped to compensate for with his invasion of Ukraine.
Officially, all Western leaders insist that the conditions under which peace with Putin becomes possible is entirely up to Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose relationship with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is anything but warm, has been especially eager to avoid the impression that decisions about Ukraine’s future are being made anywhere but in Kyiv.
On the other hand, the U.S. and NATO have collectively pledged more than 50 billion euros in military aid and have delivered tanks, drones, howitzers and plenty of additional weaponry. Further deliveries of materiel are also a referendum on the military prospects of the Ukrainians – and for that reason alone, Kyiv isn’t entirely on its own in establishing its aims.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz with French President Emmanuel Macron. They are both in favor of a more conservative approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin.Foto: Michael Kappeler / picture alliance / dpa
Behind the scenes, NATO allies have begun wrestling with the question of what war aims the alliance should support, and which it should not.
Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron are very clearly opposed to setting the bar too high for Putin. They certainly don’t want the Kremlin leader to win, but they are even less interested in risking a direct conflict with a humiliated and unpredictable nuclear power.
In Berlin, a number of leading politicians were concerned when U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at a conference with allies at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany in late April that Ukraine doesn’t just have to win the war against Putin, but Russia also has to be weakened to ensure that it is more difficult for the Kremlin to invade neighboring countries. The "Win and Weaken" strategy, as it quickly came to be known in Washington, was enthusiastically welcomed in many Eastern European countries.
But it was in diametrical opposition to comments made by Scholz and Macron. The German chancellor has never even uttered the word victory, and in contrast to U.S. President Joe Biden, he has also shied away from labelling Putin a war criminal.
Macron, for his part, said in an early May speech before European Parliament that the temptation to "humiliate" Russia must be resisted. In recent years, Macron has repeatedly sought to pursue dialogue with Moscow, and the French president has also spoken on the phone with Putin on numerous occasions since the beginning of the war – with nothing to show for it.
All Eyes on Washington
Neither Macron nor Scholz were able to prevent Putin from marching into Ukraine, and thus far, the Russian president has shown no particular urge to engage in serious negotiations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a few weeks ago that negotiations will only be engaged in on the basis of military results.
Which is why all eyes are now on Washington, the source of by far the largest contributions to the military buildup of Ukraine. The Americans have sent state-of-the art drones, artillery and anti-tank missiles – and plenty of money. Officially, Biden has never sought to water down the words of his defense secretary. A week ago Friday, U.S. NATO Ambassador Julianne Smith said at a conference in Warsaw: "We want to see a strategic defeat of Russia. We want to see Russia leave Ukraine."
Behind the scenes, though, leading officials like National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA chief William Burns have said in closed-door meetings with allies that the words of the Pentagon chief have been overinterpreted. Instead of a victory on the battlefield, they say, Washington is more interested in forcing Putin to understand that he cannot win the war.
U.S. President Joe Biden is at the center of the world's attention as the West seeks to figure out what an end to the war in Ukraine might look like.Foto: Evan Vucci / AP
That is a line that leaves plenty of room for interpretation and which avoids pushing Putin into a corner. It is also a reaction to the gloomy reality on the eastern front. Ukraine may have achieved astounding successes early on in the war and managed to push Russia back from many areas. But in contrast to the beginning of April, Western intelligence services now agree that a rapid Ukrainian victory is extremely unlikely. Putin, they say, is now pursuing a strategy that is far more astute than the poorly planned advance on Kyiv seen in the first days of the war.
Russia’s war aims, to be sure, are far more limited that they were initially, even in eastern Ukraine. Instead of completely encircling the Ukrainian troops in the Donbas, a goal that Russia quickly had to discard, Putin’s army is now focusing its attentions on the eastern tip of the Donbas in the area of Sievierodonetsk. Over the weekend, the Russians continued to up the pressure in the region, and on Monday, reports emerged that the first Russian troops have now entered the city.
The strategy Putin has pursued in the Donbas has involved heavy artillery fire against Ukrainian positions before then slowly advancing. Supply lines have also been firmly established. Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, estimates that Russia is currently able to send up to 300 tons of munitions to the front every day – sufficient for a huge amount of firepower. At the same time, says the German government, Western sanctions on the import of Russian energy have not proven as painful as hoped. India alone more than doubled its oil imports from Russia from March to April. A leading German official says that the Russian war machine will only begin sputtering once the embargo results in a lack of important electronic parts necessary for modern weapons systems.
The CIA has produced similar scenarios. According to the U.S. intelligence agency, Putin is preparing for a slow and brutal war of attrition in eastern and southern Ukraine. Because the Kremlin chief is completely isolated from any form of critical advice, experts believe that he thinks he will be able to continue to conquer territory in the coming months. Militarily, the U.S. is prepared for a protracted conflict. When defense ministers from more than 40 countries gathered for a video conference last Monday, the focus was not just on the rapid deliveries of armored vehicles and howitzers. U.S. Defense Secretary Austin also requested allies to begin planning for a war that could stretch out over several years.
The German government shares that gloomy outlook. For a breakthrough, one side has to have a 3:1 advantage over the other, a dominance that neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians can muster. Which means that most signs now point to an extended and bloody standoff. Experts in Berlin believe that Putin will only sit down to the negotiating table once it becomes clear that there is no more land left for him to win. It is an analysis that is consistent with what top Russian officials are saying. Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council, said last Tuesday that Russian troops are not "chasing deadlines," when asked about the slow pace of the invasion.
Putin has apparently now identified a minimum goal of conquering all of the Donbas, the protection of which served as one of the justifications of the war in the first place. Of the two parts of the Donbas area, Russia has almost completely taken the Luhansk region and around half of the Donetsk region. Furthermore, the Kremlin looks intent on officially annexing those areas of southern Ukraine that it has occupied in recent weeks. "Russia is here forever," said Andrey Turchak, leader of the United Russia party, during a recent visit to Kherson. A new decree from Putin has enabled the rapid distribution of Russian passports to residents of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, another indication that Putin is intent on moving rapidly to solidify control.
A destroyed Russian tank near KharkivFoto:
Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
The question is for how long the West can continue to insist that Putin’s invasion was a "strategic error." If Russia is able to conquer the rest of the Donbas and also overrun large parts of southern Ukraine, that line of argumentation begins to lose relevance. Any negotiated solution that might emerge at that point, many observers fear, would likely be little more than an extended cease-fire for Putin – after which he would simply continue his war against Ukraine, just as he did after taking his initial steps in 2014. As a result, calls have grown louder in Washington for taking a more assertive stance against Moscow and for getting Europe to support it as well.
The goal of weakening Russia is correct, says John Herbst, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Putin, he says, is committing horrific war crimes in Ukraine. "When countries like Germany or Italy now say we have to find an off ramp for Putin or even a face-saving solution, that is utterly wrong."
In Berlin, by contrast, there are fears that an extended war of attrition could lead to a fracturing of the alliance against the Kremlin. "Putin is trying to ensure that the West tires of the war to the point that the focus shifts to the significant economic consequences of the sanctions," says a senior German intelligence official. He believes that the consensus could even begin to crumble as early as this summer. Last Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spoke openly about her worries of war "fatigue," which could lead, she says, to a situation in which the European public begins focusing its attentions on other issues.
The Chancellery noted with a fair amount of gratification that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has been far more conservative in his stated war aims than many of his own people. During a video call early last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Zelenskyy was asked if he felt that a reconquering of the Crimea was realistic. He responded that doing so could cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, and said that such a price plays a role. And at the moment, not even the Americans seem prepared to arm Ukraine to the point that it could launch a battle for Crimea – much less Scholz, whose government still hasn’t even managed to fulfill its promise of delivering Gepard tanks to Ukraine. Kyiv isn’t the only capital to have noticed the shortcoming; the rest of Eastern Europe has as well.
"For Berlin, the conflict seems to be far away," says Justyna Gotkowska, a security expert at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. Whereas many Eastern Europeans are secretly hoping for regime change in Moscow, she says, Scholz is only able to come up with the statement: Putin cannot be allowed to win. It’s seriously damaging to Germany’s image, Gotkowska says. And she believes Germany won’t be able to repair it simply with money, once it comes time for the rebuilding of Ukraine. "Germany would then look like it was trying to make a profit – after having done so little to save the country."