A Hard Choice Lies Ahead But Only Ukrainians Can Make It

From a Washington Post column by David Ignatius headlined “A hard choice lies ahead in Ukraine, but only Ukrainians can make it”:

KYIV — On a day when a horrific Russian missile strike killed more than 50 people in a grocery store and cafe in eastern Ukraine, a visitor asks a top official in her sandbagged office here how her nation can survive this brutal, exhausting war.

After a long pause, First Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Svyrydenko answers: “We have no choice. It’s an existential war. That’s not just a word. For our partners, it’s an option whether to help us or not. Even for Russia, the war is an option. But for us, there is no option.”

Svyrydenko, who is also the economy minister, describes her plans to keep the country functioning through a long, enervating fight: loans to start businesses and draw refugees home; subsidies for farmers to clear mines from fields; war-risk insurance to encourage foreign investment. It might sound like a dream. But she notes that there is a backlog of 40,000 people applying for government mortgages to buy homes in this ravaged country.

The war in Ukraine is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. People can’t disguise their fatigue or sorrow. The conflict is bleeding the country out. Ukrainians I spoke with during a four-day visit know they can’t keep fighting forever seeking what might be an unachievable victory. But they won’t stop, either.

“If you stop, nothing makes sense,” says Mariia Mezentseva, a member of parliament from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border. “We attended so many funerals in the last 18 months. At every one, I say with tears in my eyes: I will not stop until we reach our goal” of expelling Russians from all occupied territory.

“We have to be honest. People are tired,” says Pavlo Klimkin, a former foreign minister, during a dinner at a restaurant here. “Last year, it was confidence, maybe overconfidence. Now, people feel it’s a classic attrition war. … Nearly every family has someone killed. I would not try to sell the people an option that falls short of victory. Because it’s personal.”

As winter approaches, hopes that the counteroffensive that started this summer would bring a breakthrough haven’t been realized. But Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal says that the fight will continue and that he is planning a budget for next year that assumes 12 more months of war. He spoke Wednesday in a meeting with a group from the McCain Institute, with which I traveled here this week. The group included representatives of companies such as Microsoft, Palantir, and drone-makers Fortem Technologies and Skydio that are aiding Ukraine.

Yet Ukrainians are now willing to talk more openly about ways to end the war than during my visits last year. At a dinner with a group of parliamentarians at a restaurant on the Dnieper River, there is a noisy debate about the best strategy for saving the country that is worth recounting at some length:

Oleksiy Goncharenko, an opposition member from embattled Odessa on the Black Sea, presses members of the ruling party of President Volodymyr Zelensky. “I am very concerned,” he says. “Why? Take a look at the front. It doesn’t change. For a year it doesn’t change. But it was paid for by a huge amount of lives. … Ukraine can’t fight ‘as long as it takes.’ That will be a catastrophe.” Instead of battling, as Zelensky wants, to expel Russia from territories it has occupied since 2014, such as Crimea, he contends that Ukraine should seek security guarantees from NATO to protect the territory it holds.

But other parliamentarians loudly disagree. “Friends, we don’t have a choice, they want to erase us,” says Mezentseva. “The military way of defending our country is the only way possible.” Olena Khomenko, who serves on the parliament’s foreign policy committee, agrees that Ukraine must fight on until it regains sovereignty in all its 1991, post-Soviet territory. “We can’t give up on Crimea,” she insists.

Gershenko is almost shouting as he responds: “We all want everything. But this is the real world, and we must make decisions from real options. We don’t have unlimited time, and we don’t have unlimited people.”

The next day, Ukrainian defense officials describe what they see as the abiding reality on the battlefield. “I don’t think we will finish the war soon,” says Col. Hennadiy Kovalenko, an official at the defense ministry. “But we are convinced that this is a war of necessity.” He and other defense ministry officials say that continued (and if possible, expanded) U.S. shipment of weapons is essential.

“We depend 100 percent on the United States,” he says. Like other Ukrainian officials we met, he offers emphatic thanks for U.S. assistance and doesn’t seem worried that recent congressional turmoil will derail America’s commitment to aid Ukraine.

I’m left pondering the question that Ukrainians are struggling with so painfully. What’s the right way forward for a nation that is feeling the costs of war like a blast of shrapnel?

In just conflicts, the best strategy is surely to stay the course, especially when people begin to despair. And if Ukraine has the will to continue, and the United States and its partners remain firm in their commitments of support, then “as long as it takes” is the right course.

But if Ukraine seriously questions whether it can survive a fight that might take many years, then it needs to think about a way to freeze this conflict on its own terms — with a security guarantee from the United States as part of that deal.

“We are in grief,” Larysa Bilozir, a member of parliament from eastern Ukraine, tells me. She has just returned from her district, where 304 people have died in the war, and her visit coincided with the funerals of two young men.

Ukraine won’t sue for peace. As many people have told me this week, it’s too personal. As a superpower, the United States can try to steer this conflict toward a settlement that protects Ukraine and doesn’t reward Russian aggression. But don’t ask Ukrainians to give up their cause. They won’t do it.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”

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