Last weekend I was in Kyiv, where European, American, and Ukrainian officials were mingling with journalists and policy experts at the Yalta European Strategy conference. With Ukrainian troops liberating Izium, Balakliya, and other northeastern towns, the atmosphere was triumphant. Until the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the conference had been held in Yalta, and some participants began to speculate that, given the Ukrainian military’s sweeping gains, the conference might soon return to its original home. And as the meeting ended, here and there I heard: “See you next year in Yalta.”
When President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived early on the first day, he delivered an update on the war. “There is no exit but to win,” he declared, to a standing ovation. Over the course of the conference, no clear consensus emerged among the Ukrainian and international participants about what victory might actually look like, but the lack of consensus hardly seemed to matter. Soon, though, it will matter very much indeed.
I had previously traveled to Kyiv in March, when Ukrainian and Russian troops were still battling on the outskirts of the city, and a potential defeat had created a moment of maximum peril. But Kyiv had held out, and the city felt very different as we headed into fall. Shops remained open past dark. People lingered in the streets. Authorities had lifted the ban on alcohol and the once-ubiquitous air-raid sirens remained mostly silent. Which isn’t to say that the war wasn’t still there, but rather that the change in atmosphere was striking. But leaving the conference, I couldn’t help but conclude that recent Ukrainian successes had placed the nation in another—albeit different—moment of maximum peril.
A battle won can prove just as hazardous as a battle lost, particularly when success tempts military and political leaders to change the scope of a war. American history offers several such examples. In 1950, after U.S. forces retreated to a small perimeter on the southern tip of Korea, General Douglas MacArthur orchestrated a masterful amphibious landing that liberated Seoul and sent North Korean troops scrambling across the 38th parallel. When MacArthur decided to chase them north, toward the Yalu River, a Chinese intervention nearly destroyed his army, which would’ve cost America the war. In 1991, after the U.S. military annihilated the Iraqi army (at the time the fourth largest in the world) a similar temptation to expand war aims presented itself. The U.S. military had won the ground war in Kuwait in 100 hours, and it seemed it could march all the way to Baghdad, dealing with Saddam Hussein once and for all. President George H. W. Bush wisely avoided this temptation. Unlike MacArthur, he kept his objectives limited.
As Zelensky said at the conference, in Ukraine the war has only one conceivable outcome: victory. No one speaks about “the end of the war”; it’s a phrase you never hear. People speak only about “the victory.” But with each step Ukraine takes toward victory, the lack of consensus on what that word means becomes more obvious. For some, victory is a Russian withdrawal to its pre–February 24 borders; for others, Russia must not only withdraw but also pay reparations to Ukraine, and the European community must offer security guarantees, including NATO membership; for still others, victory also includes the restoration of Crimea.
Domestically, Zelensky’s job will become more perilous in inverse proportion to the military threat Ukraine faces. The question of how to achieve peace, and on what terms, promises to become ever more fraught. Ukrainians assign many meanings to the word victory. Zelensky must figure out how to deliver a victory without succumbing to the temptation of pursuing overly ambitious military objectives to placate his most hawkish supporters.
Ukrainian victories are changing the nature of the war and shifting assumptions. Mislaid assumptions lose wars. Russia assumed that Ukrainians wouldn’t be able to unite and counter an invasion. It believed that Zelensky, with his prewar approval rating of 30 percent, was a weak leader, and that the Russian-speaking sections of Ukraine would fall quickly. But as the war changes rapidly, Ukraine and its allies could make faulty assumptions of their own.
If Ukrainians have seemed doggedly certain about victory, it’s because their very existence depends on it. Vladimir Putin and Russia are—at least at this moment—fighting a war of choice. But will Russians continue to view the war as one of choice if Ukraine humiliates Russia on the battlefield; if, for example, it goes so far as to take back portions of the Crimea to which Russians also have a powerful emotional attachment?
Ukraine is winning the war, but it’s winning against a nation that is not at war but rather engaged in a “special military operation.” This isn’t simply semantics. It speaks to a key military assumption, that Putin cannot muster the political capital among the Russian people to implement a national mobilization through a formal declaration of war. But if there’s one thing Putin has shown an aptitude for, it’s manipulating political realities, both in other countries and in his own.
The use of a nuclear weapon—even a low-grade, tactical variety—would break a taboo that’s endured since the end of the Second World War. But the quickest way for Putin to change the scope of this war would be to use such a weapon. There is precedent for this under Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear-deterrence strategy. Although using a nuclear weapon might seem impossibly reckless, Putin has already demonstrated an appetite for such recklessness with the fighting around the Chernobyl and, now, Zaporizhzhya nuclear-power plants.
Recent successes have placed Zelensky on an ever more vertiginous high wire. “Victory” must be defined in a way that’s palatable to a majority of Ukrainians, but it must also be achievable on the battlefield and not so punitive that it shifts political realities inside Russia, creating narratives for Putin to exploit. Much will rely on Zelensky’s decision making in the coming weeks. Victory, like defeat, has its perils.