In Ukraine, the risk isn’t stalemate. It’s defeat.

He is also impeding talks that would lead to Ukraine’s eventual membership in the 27-nation group.

In Ukraine, the risk isn’t stalemate. It’s defeat.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

PARIS — An unspoken, unspeakable potential endgame in the Russia-Ukraine war is suddenly being uttered out loud: Kyiv is at risk of losing — and suffering unimaginable carnage and consequences.

The fact that Ukraine’s fate is hanging in the balance arises not from its inability to recapture territory from entrenched Russian forces, nor from the related fact of the Biden administration’s foot-dragging in providing the Ukrainian military with the weapons it needed, nor even from Russia’s advantage in sheer mass and resources.

It springs from two more immediate causes. One is opposition from House Republicans to further U.S. assistance. The GOP lawmakers are holding future weapons packages hostage to the unrelated issue of blocking migrants from illegally crossing the southern border. The other is aid from the European Union that is imperiled by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has become Vladimir Putin’s stalking horse.

House Republicans stand in the way of the Biden administration’s proposed $61 billion package of arms and other help that is critical to Kyiv’s ability to hold the line against Russian forces on the battlefield. Orban, exercising Hungary’s veto as an E.U. member, is blocking $54 billion in budget support that would help pay Ukraine’s bills through 2027. He is also impeding talks that would lead to Ukraine’s eventual membership in the 27-nation group.

Without those infusions of cash, arms and munitions, even the disappointing status quo over the past year, in which Ukraine has not managed to recapture much territory, is unlikely to endure.

Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told a Washington forum last week that the “big risk” is that Kyiv’s troops could “lose this war.”

That message should jolt policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic. The danger, as Ukraine’s top general warned publicly last month, isn’t simply stalemate. It is that Ukrainian forces, running low on equipment, might be compelled to fall back, shorten their defensive lines and abandon territory.

“It would be a way back to the darkest times of the war,” Nico Lange, a German security expert on Ukraine, told me.

It’s essential to think about what Ukraine’s defeat means, because it would be as much a strategic disaster for the United States and its NATO allies as a tableau of terror for Ukraine. Dual cataclysms, equally stark, played out on different timetables.

A complete Ukrainian military collapse is unlikely, at least in coming months. Kyiv’s armed forces remain well-led and motivated, and they are husbanding equipment to prepare for shortfalls. But it is equally unlikely to expect a negotiated cease-fire with Russia that would maintain existing battle lines. To believe in that seemingly anodyne outcome is to misjudge Putin — again.

For the Kremlin dictator, a “compromise” would involve Ukraine’s subjugation and dissolution as an independent state. That would include regime change, with Zelensky in exile (or dead), as well as an end to Kyiv’s aspirations to join the E.U. or NATO.

Putin and his factotums have held to that stance, even if they convey it using code words. In an interview last week with Agence France-Presse, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reiterated that the Kremlin insists on the “withdrawal” of Ukrainian troops from territory Russia has illegally annexed, as well as “demilitarization” and “denazification.” Translation: Stop fighting, retreat and accept a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv.

The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank, wrote in an assessment this week that “Russia does not intend to engage in serious negotiations with Ukraine in good faith and … negotiations on Russia’s terms are tantamount to full Ukrainian and Western surrender.”

In fact, Putin’s main advantage is strategic patience — the capacity to wait out what he is confident is finite Western political will and resources to sustain Ukraine, buttressed by his indifference to Russia’s staggering casualties. In the end, he believes, Ukraine will be forced to capitulate.

If he is right, the timetable of that ending would be accelerated if Congress and the E.U. fail to approve fresh support. That would leave Ukraine’s government unable to maintain basic services, and its military increasingly short of artillery ammunition, air defense capability and other equipment. Ukraine’s already badly battered front-line forces would become more brittle. Russian territorial gains would be accompanied by murders, rapes, kidnapping of children and other Russian war crimes on a chilling scale.

That grim scenario would be a staggering blow to Western prestige and credibility, revealing that pledges to back Ukraine for “as long as it takes” were empty.

A failure on that scale — let alone actual defeat in Ukraine — would have much more lasting repercussions than Kyiv’s inability to break through Russian battle lines. It could raise the curtain on a new era of aggression by authoritarian states, unchecked by the world’s diminished democracies.



Opinion by 
Lee Hockstader has been The Post's European Affairs columnist, based in Paris, since 2023. Previously he was a member of the Post editorial board; a national correspondent, a foreign correspondent, and a local reporter. He was awarded The Post's Eugene Meyer Award for lifetime achievement in 2014 -  Twitter


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