Sept. 15—The startling rout last weekend of the Russian forces occupying northeast Ukraine does not imply that the end of the Ukrainian war is near.
The euphoria of a pell-mell Russian retreat should not obscure these inconvenient truths: Russia still holds about one fifth of Ukraine’s land, the Kremlin still insists that Ukraine has no right to exist, and Vladimir Putin is inherently treacherous. This bloody and destructive war is far from over.
But it does suggest that Ukraine and its western partners need to determine what the end looks like.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has, at least for public consumption, insisted that Russia must vacate all Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014. It is impossible to imagine Putin abandoning his claim to Crimea, and those positions make a negotiated settlement implausible — not that either side seems inclined to go to the table.
But even if Russia is eventually pushed back to the 2013 borders, this genocidal invasion has been shattering. Major Ukrainian cities have been reduced to rubble. Thousands of Ukrainians have been killed, with thousands more abducted and deported deep into Russia.
Justice demands that Putin and his regime be held to account for unleashing such inhuman evil. How practical it is to insist that Russia make Ukraine whole is another matter.
Lloyd Austin, US secretary of defense, said in the early days of the invasion that America’s strategic goal was to see Russia’s ability to menace its western neighbors broken. That, it seems safe to say, has been accomplished.
NATO is stronger than it was before the invasion, with Finland and Sweden nearing full membership. Europe is painfully weaning itself from Russian fuel. Russia’s army has been exposed as incompetently led and inadequately supplied. Other than its nuclear arsenal — certainly a significant exception — Russia is clearly a low-grade military power.
The West should continue to allow the Ukrainian government to set the parameters of peace and continue to provide the resources to maintain its position. And the West should understand that peace is inconsistent with Putin’s regime remaining in power.
This war will continue until either the Kremlin kleptocrats are gone or Kyiv is crushed. The latter outcome is unacceptable.