How Ukraine Must Change If It Wants to Win

A beleaguered country needs more than volunteerism and chutzpah to protect its version of democracy.
Roman Pilipey / AFP / Getty
JANUARY 9, 2024, 8:30 AM ET
This article was updated at 9:45 a.m. ET on January 9, 2024
On december 29, Russia launched the largest missile attack against Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion. On January 2, another attack of the same magnitude hit schools, hospitals, and apartment blocks across Ukraine. Early yesterday morning—the day after Orthodox Christmas—the Russians hurled yet another missile barrage at Ukraine. Together, these attacks sent a message: Russian President Vladimir Putin is not interested in negotiations, cease-fires, or swapping land for peace. Although he cannot overwhelm Ukraine militarily, Putin now believes that he can keep up the pressure, destroy Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, wait for Ukraine’s allies to grow tired, goad the Ukrainian public into turning against the government, and then win by default.
Often, this new phase of fighting is described as a “war of attrition,” as if the only thing that will determine the outcome is the number of bullets. But although the number of bullets does matter, the war has an important narrative and psychological component too. Alongside the bombings, Kremlin officials are now telegraphing to everyone—to Western politicians and journalists, to Ukraine, to the Russian people—that they can absorb 300,000 casualties and massive equipment losses, that their country’s economy is thriving, that they are willing to devote half of the national budget to defense production indefinitely. At the same time, the Russians and their supporters in the United States and Europe describe Ukraine as corrupt, politically divided, and, above all, certain to lose. In Washington, some Republicans justify their (so far) successful attempt to block American aid to Ukraine by using this language. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister who courts investment from Russia and China, does the same when blocking European aid.
Ukrainians know that negotiations with Russia are fruitless, and in any case not on offer. They also know that military loss still means the same thing that it meant when Russia invaded in February 2022: occupation, mass repression, concentration camps, and the end of an independent Ukraine. They also know that the Russians are much weaker than they claim. Their soldiers still stumble into traps; their commanders still seem to be improvising. The Russian public is tired of the war and of the falling living standards it has created. Nevertheless, to beat the Russians militarily and psychologically, to undermine the Russian propaganda repeated by Orbán and the MAGA right, to maintain their alliances and defend their territory until the Russians have had enough, they have to change.
Two years ago, in the weeks that followed the full-scale invasion, ordinary people pitched in to buy night-vision goggles, the managers of chic bistros mobilized to feed troops, men drove their children to the border and then went home to fight in the territorial army. Now the volunteerism, chutzpah, and wild energy that carried the army and the society forward for the past two years have to be transformed into systems, institutions, and rules. Ukraine needs not just the most enthusiastic army, but the best-managed. Ukraine needs not just clever engineers who build innovative sea drones, but the most modern defense industry in Europe, if not the world. Finally, Ukraine’s government needs to eliminate any remaining corruption and mismanagement—and convince its allies that it has done so as well.
I did not invent these recommendations. I heard them in Kyiv, late last month, from Rustem Umerov, Ukraine’s new defense minister.
To outsiders, umerov might seem an odd choice for this job. Born in 1982 in Uzbekistan because Stalin had sent Umerov’s Crimean Tatar family into exile there in 1944, Umerov returned to Crimea with his parents only in 1991, when Ukraine became independent from Moscow’s control. When he was still very young, Umerov told me, he “understood how to be what is now known as a refugee.”