Can the Ukrainian War be Won?

Ukrainians wait in a miles-long line at a border crossing en route to Medyka, Poland.

The answer to the question Can the Ukrainian War be Won? “No ­ — unless both sides settle for exercising less sway over the future of their country. The Ukraine and Russia war, at its core, is about nationalism. Each is defending their motherland against outside control.

Put simply, the nationalist view of the conflict is clear. Ukrainians are fighting on their home turf and defending the land against Russians invading it. However, as articulated by their leader, V. Putin, the Russians are defending their historic dominance over Ukraine that the Western countries wish to break away.

Nationalism is more than just adjusting boundaries; it’s about sustaining a culture and often recognizing that it should be the dominant culture of a land. Culture defines a “people” by language, customs, history, and myths.

Russian President Vladimir Putin applied that belief in his 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” preceding the full-scale invasion of Ukraine the following year. Branko Marcetic, with the self-avowed socialist Jacobin magazine, describes Putin’s essay as presenting a vision of Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” with the Ukrainians being manipulated by unspecified “Western powers” as part of an “anti-Russia project” to make the country a “springboard against Russia.”

Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine is a classic nationalist objective of protecting a motherland from foreign powers occupying its territory while Ukraine is fighting to remain independent. Marcetic recognizes that Moscow’s invasion is self-evidently criminal and appalling. Nevertheless, he believes, as some do on the U.S. left and right political wings, that the West has contributed to the Ukrainian war by encouraging the addition of NATO nations on Russia’s border. That expansion eliminates Russia’s historic dominance over Eastern Europe. Does Putin have a legitimate grievance?

In a news conference in December 2021, Putin said, “You promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly,” However, that promise was vague. Secretary of State James Baker suggested to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, during an informal meeting, that if the Soviets peacefully withdrew from East Germany, NATO would not expand into the Eastern…