For NATO and Ukraine, Reality Bites
There’s an iconic scene in the 1990’s cult classic movie, Reality Bites, where Leilaina, played by Winona Ryder, delivers the valedictory address. “What are we going to do now?” she asks, before following up with an even more pertinent question: “How can we repair all the damage we inherited?”
She then answers her questions with a plaintive, “I don’t know.”
In watching NATO and Ukrainian officials struggle to comprehend the reality of the situation they find themselves in, with the long-awaited and much-anticipated counteroffensive floundering against Russian defenses that have proved to be impenetrable, Leilaina’s words came immediately to mind.
Ukraine has dispatched the last of its strategic reserves, led by the elite 82nd Airlanding Brigade, into the battle for the Zaporozhye village of Rabotino. Here, in fields made fallow by conditions of war, Ukraine’s best fighting forces have been eviscerated by Russian defenders who have refused to yield. Based upon the experience of the lead elements of the 82nd Brigade, this fate awaits them as well.
With the Ukrainian strategic reserve committed and soon to be defeated, there are no more forces of significance available to Ukraine and their NATO overseers capable of influencing the conduct of the battles raging all along the 1,000-mile line of contact between the armies of Ukraine and Russia.
Russia, meanwhile, retains an uncommitted reserve of some 200,000-plus fresh, well-trained and equipped forces which are leaning into the bit to be committed to battle. When they are eventually unleashed, Ukraine will lack the resources necessary to fend off their attack, signally the culminating moment in a Russian campaign designed to achieve just this result—the collapse of the Ukrainian ability to sustain large-scale ground combat.
The situation had become so dire that Stian Jenssen, the chief of staff to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, opined in from a Norwegian audience that a solution for the end of the conflict with Russia “could be for Ukraine to give up territory, and get NATO membership in return.”
But even here, Jenssen was delusional. While reality dictates that Ukraine will never get back its former territories of Kherson, Zaporozhye, Donetsk, Lugansk, and Crimea, and that the wisest choice would be to concede the inevitability of a Russian victory while avoiding the potential for the loss of even more territories, Jenssen seemed to forget that one of the primary goals behind the Russian decision to initiate the special military operation was to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.
Only someone totally separated from reality could articulate a scenario that has Russia conceding an issue that is linked to its existential survival (i.e., the expansion of NATO into Ukraine) in exchange for accepting an already accomplished fact—Russian control of the former Ukrainian territories.
Both the Ukrainian government and Jenssen’s boss, Stoltenberg, pushed back against the notion of a territory-for-membership swap. “NATO will support Ukraine until it wins the conflict,” Stoltenberg told a gathering of reporters in Oslo a day after Jenssen’s gaffe, implying that Ukraine’s contention that a key condition for conflict resolution remained evicting Russia from all of the former Ukrainian territories liberated by Russian troops and claimed by Russia as a result of referenda held in 2014 (for Crimea) and 2022 (for the other four territories.)
But it is becoming increasingly clear that reality is trumping desire. There is no chance for Ukraine to achieve its stated objectives, something Jennsen’s comments reflected, and Stoltenberg’s did not. NATO struggles to generate new sources of equipment for the rapidly depleting Ukrainian Army, which has lost much of the tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and artillery systems provided by NATO and other nations in preparation for the failed counteroffensive.
Equipment previously considered to be too provocative, such as the F-16 fighter, have now been greenlighted for release to Ukraine. But none of this matters — even if Ukraine were to receive everything it wanted, the fact is that Ukraine cannot generate the manpower, either in quantity or quality, necessary to competently operate such equipment on a modern battlefield against a Russian Army which, by any honest measure, has emerged from this conflict as the most lethal, capable fighting force in the world.
The US and NATO are both struggling with how to manage a situation where a strategic Russian victory is inevitable. While Jenssen later expressed “regret” for his suggestion of a territory-for-membership swap, the fact is that Ukraine’s hardline position regarding the conditions it will accept regarding conflict termination is not realistic, and the longer Ukraine’s allies and partners continue to play along with such fantasy, the more difficult the path toward an eventual solution will become.
Indeed, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov’s recent rejection of negotiations with the West over an end to the conflict shows this to be the case. Lavrov cited as the main reason for the Russian stance the fact that any such negotiation would be little more than a “tactical trick” designed to give the Ukrainian Army a chance to rest and rebuild.
It appears more and more likely that the end of the conflict will take the form of capitulation, not negotiation, where Ukraine plays the role of Imperial Japan in a replay of the surrender ceremony in September 1945 in Tokyo Bay onboard the USS Missouri. The terms under such a scenario would be unconditional, Ukraine’s defeat total and NATO’s route unmitigated. Ukrainian and NATO officials would do well to reflect on this reality before deciding to continue the conflict to “the last Ukrainian.”
The Russian conditions that were set forth in the peace deal Ukraine initialed before backing out under pressure from former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appear to be on the table, except for Russia’s newly acquired territories. The alternative, as Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko recently explained to a Ukrainian journalist, could be the dismemberment of Ukraine where what remained of the nation was a pathetic shadow of its former self, stripped of economic viability.
Reality does, indeed, bite.