"A Story of Grinding Progressive Advances": Ukrainian Effort and the War

An Interview with Alexander Motyl

This Feature appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

Alexander Motyl has built a career analyzing the decline and dissolution of the USSR, including Russia’s emergence and Ukraine’s place within post-Soviet Eastern Europe. The Journal spoke to Professor Motyl on the state of the war, the resilience of the Ukrainian people and military, and the folly of blaming NATO for Russia’s unprovoked invasion.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): We’re well past the one year mark of the War. We are your thoughts on the state of affairs at the moment—can you reflect upon the past year?

Alexander Motyl (AM): A year ago, at least initially after the attack on February 24th, I was stunned. I thought that the Russians would engage in some kind of limited military action in the East in the Donbas area; I did not think they would embark on a full-scale invasion on all fronts. Nor did I think that they’d be committed to destroying the civilian population and committing genocide.

In the first few weeks, it looked like the Russians were making significant gains, but it became clear that they weren’t going to proceed as quickly as they imagined. The Ukrainians were putting up a stiff resistance and were, in some cases, pushing the Russians back. Despite my initial shock, on February 26th, I actually wrote an op-ed for the Atlantic Council, and the title of the column that I proposed to them was “Putin Will Lose.” Because it seemed to me that there was just no way that he could possibly win. And since then, it’s been a story of grinding progressive, and occasionally very impressive, Ukrainian advances.

JIA: What has gone on more recently?

AM: As you know, since the onset of the war the Ukrainians recaptured Kharkiv province and then roughly half of Kherson, and, although the Ukrainians are readying a counteroffensive, it has been more or less of a stalemate since about June. But it’s a stalemate that has cost the Russians enormously. I believe the Ukrainian estimates, which are about 200,000+ Russian dead and presumably two to three times as many wounded. But what’s clear to me is that the Ukrainians are pushing back, while the Russians haven’t been able to launch anything resembling a successful offensive. They lose thousands of men to gain 10 yards. So the best the Russians can achieve isn’t even a Pyrrhic victory, but a Pyrrhic defeat.

JIA: What do you think has been key to Ukrainian success on the battlefield?

AM: Many people focus on the resilience and morale of the Ukrainian army. They’ve also had excellent leadership at the level of generals, lieutenants, and sergeants. They’ve also been more mobile and better able to adapt than the Russians. In contrast, the Russian leadership seems to be at best out of date, at worst committed to strategies that lead to enormous casualties.

During a recent tank battle in the South of Ukraine, the Ukrainians apparently destroyed about 130 armored vehicles. And what’s striking about that battle is the degree to which the Russians kept on doing the same thing over and over again, regardless of losses. And more recently, in Bakhmut, they launched wave after wave and suffered enormously high casualties. The only strategy that Russia seems to have at this point consists of destroying civilian infrastructure along with civilians and that isn’t working too well.

JIA: What about off the battlefield? What’s the sentiment in Ukraine right now?

AM: The government is stable, President Zelensky is popular and there is a very large amount of social solidarity. Poll after poll shows that Ukrainians want the war to continue until there is complete liberation of all their territories; despite the devastation that Ukraine has incurred, there’s been a significant amount of stability internally. This is all in very sharp contrast to what’s taking place in Russia.

The general mood in Russia is one of depression and possibly even borderline despair. There’s a sense that people can’t do anything to change things, and the war isn’t working out quite the way everyone was expecting it would unfold. What’s worrisome for Putin is the fact that there are very clear indications that the elites are split. There’s dissatisfaction within the armed forces, there’s dissatisfaction in the FSB, and some Russian analysts even speak of a situational alliance between the army and the secret police. And we’re not talking years from now, it’s more like months from now.

JIA: That seems to cut against the image that Putin has constructed of himself.

AM: With every day that passes, the possibility of an internal rebellion becomes more and more plausible. After all,the fact that the Soviet Union actually managed to fall apart should teach us to be careful in our expectations that some things will never change. We also know from history that, sooner or later, dictators fall. They are either overthrown, or they die, or they buy villas on the Riviera. So, it would be shocking if there were no voices of opposition in Russia today—the Russians would have to be unique in world history.

JIA: What about sustaining support for Ukraine from allies? Do you have any concerns about this, given how deep we are into the War?

AM: I think there’s still a broad consensus in the United States and the West more generally that the pressure needs to be maintained. Some countries are a little bit iffy, but as long as the Germans, the Brits, and the Americans are pretty much speaking with a single voice, I don’t expect anything to change in terms of foreign support for Ukraine. Of course, the Ukrainians need to continue to show they can use these weapons and this money effectively. So far, they’ve done that. The irony is that if they have a counteroffensive and it’s successful, there will be increasing pressure to end the war as quickly as possible. I’m hopeful that within the year, this may all be over. 

JIA: So when might a negotiation happen?

AM: The Ukrainians won’t be inclined to negotiate if they’re losing and they aren’t necessarily going to be inclined to negotiate if they’re winning. Because, of course, the expectation is that they’ll win even more. But the real problem is Putin. There’s no way you can get him to the negotiating table unless the Ukrainians are going to say, “Sure, keep all the territories you currently claim as yours.” Putin rushed to annex four entire provinces officially, and he has identified himself and his survival with the war and with Russia’s retention of these provinces. If the war goes well, he survives, but if the war goes poorly, he may not. But to my mind, I see no possibility of peace, even if the Ukrainians were willing to talk, as long as Putin is in power. So he needs to be removed. And only once he’s removed will it be possible for some kind of negotiated settlement to occur.

JIA: Is there anything else you would like to add?

AM: There’s still a debate over who or what is responsible for the War; there are some people who say it’s NATO, and then there are others who say it’s Putin or Russia more generally. I happen to be in the latter camp. It’s clear from Putin’s behavior that the war is the culmination of his inability to conceive of an independent Ukraine. It was also clear that Ukraine had no chance of becoming a NATO member in anybody’s lifetime. At best people were saying, “Well, you might be a member 20 years from now.” So the notion that Ukraine was on the verge of membership and that nuclear weapons would be sent to Ukraine’s eastern borders was totally crazy. The countries that comprise NATO, whether it’s the Germans, the French, the Italians, are not spending as much as they were supposed to on security. So there’s no way that one could argue that NATO was an objective threat—it’s all about Putin. And then consider that the War actually began in 2014, as Putin’s response to the Maidan Revolution. NATO membership for Ukraine was on nobody’s mind then. Finally, we now know, thanks to a Russian investigative report, that Putin made the decision to launch an all-out invasion in early 2021, well before the Russians claimed that they feared NATO’s expansion into Ukraine.