I did a lot of traveling this summer. Since June, I’ve been to the Oslo Freedom Forum; to a conference on digital regulation in the global south at the Rockefeller conference center in Bellagio; to Cartagena, Colombia for a business forum; to Almaty, Kazakhstan to deliver one of our Leadership Academy for Development programs; and finally, to Kyiv for the annual YES (Yalta European Strategy) conference. (I was also supposed to give a speech in Hong Kong, but discovered that the authorities there would not give me a visa because I was on the board of two sanctioned organizations, Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy.) I’ll write about Central Asia in a subsequent post, but for now I want to talk about the situation in Ukraine.
I hadn’t been to Ukraine since late 2019, and it’s become a lot harder to get to. You have to fly to Warsaw, then take a four-hour bus ride to a town on the Polish-Ukrainian border, and then an overnight train to Kyiv. We stayed at the Intercontinental where I’ve been many times before, near St. Michael’s and the Foreign Ministry. This time, however, they had a display of destroyed Russian armored vehicles on display.
The YES conference is hosted annually by the oligarch Viktor Pinchuk; I decided to go this year to show solidarity during the war. There were no missile or drone attacks while we were there, but the city was hit again just after we left. Kyiv doesn’t look like a city at war, except for the large numbers of soldiers in the streets and the tank traps on the Khreschatyk; the restaurants are trendy as ever and full of people. Zelenskyy spoke at the conference, along with the new defense minister (and friend) Rustem Umerov, Dmytro Kuleba the foreign minister, presidential chief of staff Andrii Yermak, and the military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov, and a whole host of other dignitaries.
The most important piece of information was one that no one could talk too openly about at the conference, which was the state of the counter-offensive launched in early June. Everything depends on the outcome of this battle. There was a lot of confidence expressed that Ukraine would win, and absolutely no willingness to accept an outcome less than a victory that pushed Russia back to Ukraine’s 1991 borders. Any estimate of the current situation has to be gleaned from other sources.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Up until the beginning of September, there were a number of annoying backgrounders and insinuations coming (apparently) from U.S. administration sources suggesting that the counter-offensive had bogged down and that the Ukrainians were making a variety of mistakes: they were not employing proper NATO combined arms doctrine, or failed to concentrate their forces adequately on a single objective. The former assertion is absurd: proper combined arms doctrine would have dictated that Ukraine employ superior airpower to gain air superiority over the whole theater. This was done by the United States and its partners during the two Gulf wars; in the former, the U.S. Air Force spent about 40 days reducing Iraq air defenses to rubble before the land invasion began. However, the United States has refused until recently to give Ukraine the F-16s and ATACMs that would be useful in such a campaign. After having tried and failed to breach the first Russian defensive line in the south in early June and suffering significant casualties, the Ukrainians reverted to tactics that brought success in Kharkiv and Kherson last year: using drones and accurate counter-battery fire to eliminate Russian artillery, ammo dumps, and command-and-control centers. If they had adequate airpower, this could have been done more quickly and effectively, but it is Washington that denied them this capability.
Nonetheless, the Ukrainians have been able to slowly but surely penetrate the first defensive line in the south. This is an important achievement; the second and third lines are apparently much less heavily fortified. The single most important obstacle are the incredibly dense minefields that the Russians have laid in previous months. There is no magic technology that allows the attackers to penetrate these barriers; they must be cleared of mines by sappers who are subject to attack by drones, helicopters, and artillery. This is slow and costly work, paid for by the blood and limbs of ordinary soldiers.
The other big development in the war has been the increasing tempo of Ukrainian attacks on Russian military and industrial assets in Crimea and Russia proper. The most spectacular of these was a drone or missile attack on the big naval port of Sebastopol on Sept. 13 shortly after I left, which apparently damaged or destroyed a Kilo-class diesel electric submarine and a large landing ship in dry dock. They also destroyed a major S-400 anti-aircraft site and recaptured a couple of oil platforms in the Black Sea. If it is true that the Biden administration has finally agreed to provide Ukraine with ATACMs, this could be the beginning of a serious campaign to force the Russians out of Crimea.
The common assumption that the counter-offensive has bogged down and that Ukraine inevitably faces a long war is simply wrong. Once the Ukrainians penetrate the third defensive line, the whole Russian position in southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts will become untenable, just as the city of Kherson and the right bank of the Dnipro became untenable last summer. And when that happens, Crimea becomes extremely vulnerable with all of its supply lines interdicted. The Russians have been asserting that Crimea is somehow sacrosanct and that an assault on the peninsula will trigger nuclear escalation; both people in the White House and grand strategists like Elon Musk apparently believe versions of this narrative. But the Ukrainians have been attacking Crimea for months with no Russian nuclear response.
The war has evolved in many ways since February of last year, not all of them to the benefit of Ukraine. The systems that seemed so devastating early on like Javelin anti-tank missiles and Bayraktar TB2 drones have been less useful recently as ranges have increased and Russian air defenses have improved. Small, disposable drones have become central to the fight on both sides, making the whole battlespace transparent in unprecedented ways. There has been a steady arms race in drone electronic warfare capabilities, and some new Russian models like the Lancet kamikaze drone have been effective against Ukrainian armor.
Apart from the war in the south, there are other big challenges ahead. Everyone in Ukraine assumes that the Russians will resume their attacks on the country’s electrical grid when the winter sets in. The Russians have done a lot of damage to Ukraine’s Danube ports that became the main export channel for agricultural products once Moscow pulled out of the grain deal this past summer. While the Russians have been running low on missiles and ammunition, they will be able to ramp up production in the long run, with help from countries like North Korea.
The Ukrainians are understandably growing tired after more than a year and a half of war. But there is no organized opposition to the government, no candidate running against Zelenskyy like General McClellan did against Lincoln in 1864 calling for negotiations. At the YES conference there were no Ukrainian voices suggesting anything other than the total expulsion of Russian forces from the whole of the occupied territories. If the United States can finally provide the weaponry to really force a showdown in Crimea, the Ukrainians could achieve something that looks like victory; let’s hope that the Biden administration finally comes to understand this and acts accordingly.
Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Image: Destroyed Russian equipment in front of the Kyiv Intercontinental Hotel (photo by author)
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