How Ukraine Must Change If It Wants to Win

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.

[From the June 2023 issue: The counteroffensive]  

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 Umierov, Ukraine’s new defense minister.

To outsiders, Umierov might seem an odd choice for this job. Born in 1982 in Uzbekistan because Stalin had sent Umierov’s Crimean Tatar family into exile there in 1944, Umierov returned to Crimea with his parents only in 1991, when Ukraine became independent from Moscow’s control. When he was still very young, Umierov told me, he “understood how to be what is now known as a refugee.”

His memories of resettlement and his membership in Ukraine’s Muslim Tatar minority might have led him to feel excluded or alienated. Instead, he drew for me a clear line from his childhood experience of exile to his present role in defending Ukraine. From the time he was a student, he understood that the Tatars are only safe when Crimea is part of a democratic, tolerant Ukraine—but a democratic, tolerant Ukraine is only guaranteed if Ukraine is part of Europe. He was an advocate of Ukrainian membership in NATO and the European Union when that position wasn’t particularly popular. “We want to be a part of the civilized world,” Umierov now says, “part of the rule-of-law world … What Russia proposes is no rule of law, no development, aggression towards all their neighbors.”

Following the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, when many Tatars were expelled from their homes once again, Umierov became an advocate for Crimean political prisoners, directly negotiating for their release. Starting in February 2022, he served again several times as one of Ukraine’s intermediaries with Russia, as well as with Turkey and the Gulf States, both formally and informally.

Along the way, he obtained a reputation for competence. When I asked others about him in Kyiv, they mentioned the languages he speaks (which include Turkish as well as English, Russian and Ukrainian) as well as his wide range of contacts, lack of pretension, and absence of drama. I met him in the same featureless conference room where I had previously met his predecessor, Oleksiy Reznikov, a personable lawyer who forged good relationships with his foreign counterparts but retired amid a series of news stories about Defense Ministry corruption. Reznikov was not personally implicated: Since 2022, in fact, there has been no suggestion of misused foreign aid or of high-level corruption in the Ukrainian army. But there has been overcharging and waste, just like in the U.S. military—the difference being that if the Ukrainian army has a shortage of winter uniforms because someone has written a bad contract, people might die.

Ending both the reality and the impression of sloppiness is now Umierov’s second-most important task. It’s also part of a larger problem, he told me. Ukraine needs everything, all the time: artillery rounds, winter shoes, F-16s. Prioritizing the army’s needs, translating that into concrete purchases and coordinating with both Western companies and Ukraine’s growing defense industry is a complicated managerial problem that needs more than one solution. Umierov mentioned several, including the creation of 10-year contracts that will help both domestic and foreign companies plan long term, and investment conferences designed to encourage Western companies to cooperate directly with Ukraine. When talking about these changes, he makes frequent reference to “OECD rules” and “NATO standards.” He also talks about “systems” and “transparency.” These are not buzzwords. Ukraine’s continued existence depends on making them mean something real.

[Read: Can Ukraine clean up its defense industry fast enough?]

Umierov’s more important task—Ukraine’s most important task—involves people, not shoes and bullets. Ukraine needs to recruit and train more soldiers, as well as to give veterans a rest from combat. Fear and paranoia about military service are growing; there are reports of people being pressed into the army and of others trying to sneak across borders and swim across rivers in order to dodge mobilization. Umierov understands this, again, both as a narrative problem and a real one. He wants to change the tone of the conversation: “This is not a punishment,” he says of military service. “It’s an honor.” But everyone is afraid of the unknown, he told me, and right now military service involves a lot of unknowns. “People should understand how they will be trained, how they will be fed, how they will be taken care of during the operation. And then how they will exit.” The details are still a matter of debate, but he wants to end the uncertainty, negotiate new rules with the military and with Parliament, create a national military-service database and then give all military-age citizens a clear set of options.

For Ukraine to weather Russia’s narrative war, Umierov also thinks that the Ukrainian political debate needs a “decompression.” The purported rivalry between the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the chief of the army, Valery Zaluzhny, has had a lot of airtime in the Ukrainian media. Umierov is widely thought to be one of the people who bring the two men together. When I asked him about the friction between them, he replied that he just wants these discussions to become less exciting: “It’s also normal, you know, for there to be disagreements between people. I mean, okay, there’s general unity, everybody wants to win the war, but there can be different opinions.” Instead of politicizing disagreements or making a fetish of them, “we should be focused on the objectives, strategic objectives, military objectives.”

None of these tasks is simple, and any of them could trip up larger, richer, and less embattled countries. Russia has a much larger population but has made a mess of mobilization, which it now does by stealth, forcing ethnic minorities and even foreigners with work visas into their army. European democracies have so far failed to rapidly ramp up domestic military production, even in the face of a growing, existential threat from Russia. The U.S., meanwhile, is incapable of any kind of decompression: Americans have hardly any debates that are calm, apolitical, and “focused on the objectives.” All of our conversations about Ukraine, just to take one relevant example, are now fully politicized: a part of the Republican Party is opposing aid to Ukraine simply because that harms Joe Biden.

But then, we don’t face the same stakes. Ukraine’s battle against Russia has always been a civilizational clash, between an open society and a closed one, a rule-of-law society and a dictatorship. Ukrainians are still betting that their version of democracy is not just more attractive than Russian autocracy but more effective. On the way out of Umierov’s office, I met some of his younger colleagues, who were joking about how confusing expressions like “institutional transformation” can sound to many Ukrainians, especially the older employees of the massive apparatus that is the Defense Ministry. But they weren’t suggesting that they won’t try to explain, or that they won’t eventually implement an institutional transformation and win the war. If they believe in Ukraine’s future, so should we.

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