Can the Ukraine War be Won?


I answer, “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, Vladimir. 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 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, writing in 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, and by contrast 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 or sphere of influence 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 East European countries. 

According to the post-Cold War historian Mary Sarotte, President George H.W. Bush rejected the idea. When formal negotiations began later in 1990, a ban on NATO expansion was never offered. And Gorbachev agreed to a treaty that did not limit the future expansion of NATO. 

Putin reinterpreted the treaty as an infringement on his nation when NATO expanded its membership into Eastern Europe. NATO’s expansion has an element of globalism in that its members belong to a larger body attempting to determine the future of a region. Russia saw that attempt after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. NATO added 12 countries that had been subservient to Russia by controlling their fellow communist governments behind the “Iron Curtain.” 

Another treaty was specifically written dealing with Ukraine. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer writes that in 1994, the Budapest Memorandum was signed by Russia and the U.S. and the U.K. committing all of them “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” in exchange for Ukraine giving up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. 

The U.S. provided “assurances,” not “guarantees,” to protect Ukraine from Russia. Guarantees would have implied a commitment of American military force. However, the NATO members and the U.S. would not provide it. Consequently, U.S. assistance has been limited to providing military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. 

Putin’s Russia invaded and then illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Russia then waged a simmering war for control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region until it launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. As a result, there are 8 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe. According to UNHCR figures, over half (4.8 million) are in the countries bordering Ukraine. Poland alone is hosting nearly 1 million. In comparison, the U.S. has admitted 271,000 Ukrainian refugees. 

A flood of additional Ukrainian refugees is of significant national concern for many European countries should Russia take over Ukraine. The larger liberal democratic governments realized that this influx could destabilize the Eastern European countries with weaker democratic institutions, leading to more strident nationalist governments. These governments would upend Europe’s liberal democracies’ agenda of a larger European Union, with an independent judiciary supporting civil rights for all its citizens.  

That danger has been underway. This month, Robert Fico’s populist SMER party won the most seats in Slovakia’s parliament. It is a pro-Russian party and likely to form a ruling coalition with Slovakia’s most right-wing party. Fico has pledged an immediate end to military support for Ukraine. Until his election, Slovakia had pushed for tough European Union sanctions against Russia and donated much military equipment to Ukraine.

This past September, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán threatened to withdraw support for Ukraine in protest of a 2017 Ukraine law that limits ethnic Hungarians from speaking their language, particularly in schools. Hungary has also blocked a $526 million EU military aid package to Kyiv since May because Ukraine listed Hungary’s largest bank as an indirect financial backer of Russia’s invasion.

Poland, one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, threatened to no longer supply weapons to it because of a diplomatic dispute over Kyiv’s grain exports. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki initially said Poland would focus on defending itself, but his administration has backpedaled from that statement. 

Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland are moving to defend their national concerns before that of Ukraine. However, the latter two governments are finding that their national policies are also being challenged by the EU’s demand that they change. 

This past July, the EU’s European Commission withheld funds from Poland and Hungary as punishment for breaching the binding effect of the EU Court of Justice rulings. Their national sovereignty is being compromised, and thus, they may feel less willing to pursue a more global approach to helping Ukraine. Popular support within all three countries has diminished since the start of the war for arming Ukraine. 

Other European countries are witnessing less interest from their citizens in Ukraine winning the war. According to a survey by GlobSec, a Bratislava-based security think tank in Slovakia, only 40% of Slovaks believed Russia was responsible for the war in Ukraine. 

Italy could also go that way despite Italy’s new right-wing populist party’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni continuing Italy’s support for Ukraine. However, Italy has accepted two-thirds of the Ukrainian refugees as the U.S., and Italians’ support is trailing down. A February poll by the daily Corriere Della Sera showed some 45% of Italians were against sending weapons to Ukraine versus 34% in favor. 

Most telling is the decline in European support from March 2022 to February 2023 for measures backing Ukraine. During that period, polling within Ukraine’s five strongest allies, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Poland, showed a drop in approval of economic/financial sanctions and sending arms as high as 16%. Still, except for Italy, the populations of the other four countries are just above 50% for sending arms. 

If Ukraine’s summer offensive to retake significant territory fails, the approval rates will continue to fall for supporting Ukraine. This development is in keeping with the trend of national needs overriding a more globalist approach to enforcing a regional authority to halt the war. 

Here in America, this nationalist attitude is becoming a significant force within the U.S. Republican Party, with the reactionary 50-member Republican Freedom House Caucus in the lead to curb, if not halt, funding to Ukraine.  Rep. Matt Gaetz, who led the vote to oust Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker, played an instrumental role in forcing the short-term budget measure to exclude any aid to Ukraine. Previously, he had introduced a bill to prohibit all security assistance for Ukraine, which failed 70-358 on the House floor, with 149 Republicans opposing it. 

Despite a sizeable portion of the House Republicans supporting aid to Ukraine, the nationalist sentiment for the U.S. to withdraw from a globalist role is gaining support within their party. Opposition to Ukrainian aid often demands that President Biden present a clear strategy for achieving a U.S. objective in the war. A prime example is Republican Rep. Brian Mast, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who initially strongly supported the defense of Ukraine but has since said no to further aid, absent a clear strategy.

America’s attitude toward the war follows the same pattern as in Europe during the war.  A survey conducted for CNN by SSRS, an independent research company, found that between February 2022 and July 2023, there was a 14% drop in support that the United States should do more to stop Russian military actions in Ukraine. Doing more now stands at 48%, with 51% believing the U.S. has already done enough. The decline in U.S. support for Ukraine is about the same as in Germany and Poland. However, it is less than the other three major European countries. 

The changing attitudes of the leaders and populace of Europe and those within the U.S. are all anchored in nationalism: the belief that each nation must first be concerned with its own needs before being involved with the needs of other countries. Russia is counting on the slow and steady growth of nationalism as its most significant leverage for winning the war with Ukraine. 

The one place where nationalism is not working for Russia is in Ukraine. An August 2023 Gallup poll showed that even though support for winning the war has slipped from 70% to 60% from the prior year’s September, Ukrainians want to keep fighting until they win. Regaining Crimea is considered a necessary objective, but in the province closest to Crimea, support drops below 50%. 

With such staunch resistance, Russia might consider a treaty allowing it to annex Ukraine’s occupied territory. But can the Russians be trusted? Putin had previously broken two ceasefire agreements with Ukraine, Minsk I and Minsk II, in 2014 and 2015.  He may well find an excuse to break another deal if it were just between the two countries. To be an effective treaty, it would have to be backed by an outside party. 

A workable treaty with Russia would not negate any continuing attempt to manipulate Ukraine’s internal politics. Before Zelensky’s election, Russia operated through Ukraine’s oligarchs to wield extensive political influence. Unless Ukraine obtains sufficient military and economic strength and stronger democratic institutions, Russia will have Ukraine as a client state, similar in status to Belarus.

The emergence of nationalism among Ukraine’s current allies allows Russia to win the war slowly. Some argue that Russia cannot sustain a long war. However, its armed forces are four times larger than Ukraine’s; its paramilitary forces are five times larger; its population is over three times larger. All give Putin almost unlimited cannon fodder. 

Since Russia’s government is a one-person operation, dependent on the image of strong authoritarian rule, dissent from the highest to the lowest levels is not tolerated. 
Unless Putin is replaced, there are no brakes available to halt Putin’s war. And it is not likely that Putin will be gone any time soon. 

A feasible but unpopular path forward for Ukrainians to avoid a devastating defeat would be to have its Eastern provinces and the Crimean Peninsula neutralized as Italy’s Trieste Province had been after WWII. For that outcome, an outside power must intercede and mandate an end to the war. That is globalism, but globalism is the devil to conservatives in Europe and the U.S. because conservatives have embraced nationalism. 

However, a global approach allows America to stay engaged with other European countries and not reward Russia for its aggression. If we back away, other countries will also. Meanwhile, Ukraine will most likely only be able to remain independent with foreign help. Ukraine’s losing the war could unleash an even larger refugee stream into Europe. Unpredictable hardships in Europe would result and be felt in the U.S. as well.

Americans must continue to value a democracy that embraces ethnic diversity, an independent judiciary, civil rights for all, and our common welfare.  If not, the U.S. could be overwhelmed by citizens abandoning those values for an uncompromising “ism,” be it nationalism, fascism, or communism. Creating a physical or mental wall around the U.S. will not protect us from that peril.

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics


  1. “Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine is a classic nationalist objective of protecting a motherland from foreign powers occupying its territory …”

    This makes sense only if you accept that Ukraine really is Russia’s territory. One doesn’t invade another country in the name of nationalism. I get that you present this as Putin’s perspective, but just want to note that it’s nonsense.

    The problem with NATO alliances with countries bordering Russia? That Russia is blocked from invading them. I can see why he’s sore.

    Poland’s prime minister saying no to more Ukraine aid? Oops, now no longer prime minister – opposition parties won in yesterday’s elections.

    The answer is for an “outside power” to “intercede and mandate an end to the war”, while occupying the disputed territories including Crimea? If Putin cheerfully agrees to that, it would 1) a miracle, and 2) evidence he thinks he’s going to get that territory in the end. Those UN peace keeping troops etc. … what do they do, when the Russian tanks come back? UN fights Russia in all out war?

  2. James Baker III’s assurance to Gorbachev during the 2+4 talks on German reunification in 1990 that NATO would not advance “one inch to the east” referred to Soviet military forces in East Germany, where Soviet forces were deployed at the time. Baker was not suggesting the US recognized any right of USSR to retain a “sphere of influence” in the Warsaw Pact countries. When the Soviet Union disbanded a year after German reunification, Western declarations of recognition of Soviet troops’ rights to being staged in Eastern Europe were nullified. East Germany no longer existed, nor did the USSR that had sought to keep NATO at bay. The elected leaders of Russia, Ukraine and (dubiously) Belarus negotiated the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the respect for Soviet republic borders of the USSR as those of the newly independent states. Putin’s claim of betrayal by US/NATO has no validity. The elected leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus agreed to the post-Soviet borders and the other 12 former Soviet republics agreed. Only Putin has called into question the legitimacy of the sovereignty of post-Soviet nations.

  3. Nick states that “Each is defending their motherland against outside control.”

    It’s sad to hear you suggest that Russia was being attacked or anyone sought to control it before it invaded Ukraine. I’m sorry you further the fantasy.

    Of course many do NOW take such a stance that Russia needs to be defeated in at least some way and it’s for good reason.

    • The challenge in explaining why Putin, and unfortunately, a good portion of the Russian population, could support an invasion of Ukraine is understanding the conflict from the Russian perspective. To do so does not endorse or suggest that it is the correct one to have, but it must be recognized that it exists. To understand your opponent, you must understand what motivates them.

      I wrote: “Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine is a classic nationalist objective of protecting a motherland from foreign powers occupying its territory …”

      The more significant challenge is convincing the population that this belief is a false nationalistic narrative. Hence, unrestrained nationalism opens the door to endless conflicts about whose land its citizens should have control over.

      That is why there is a need for larger institutions that have the resources to restrain, if not halt, such conflicts. Achieving that objective is one that nationalists in every country oppose. Nevertheless, without a practical entity to intervene, local conflicts can spill into regional or even global conflicts due to competing alliances choosing a side to support in that local conflict.

      • Nick,

        Your first paragraph in the article presents the statement “Each is defending their motherland against outside control” as if YOU are agreeing. That’s how I read it.

        Maybe I misread?

        I would have gotten the point if you had written “Each believes, though mistakenly, that it is defending their motherland against outside control.”

        But, anyway, your article has indeed got me thinking so I will add that it’s stretching reality to think that Putin actually truly believes that Russia is being attacked. The idea is risible. There’s no basis in fact. (What probably really annoys Putin is that Russia is simply not important enough to be attacked by the USA or NATO.)

        And my reading of Putin is that he is not a fool and he is play-acting at being fearful. I mean, who the hell would want to invade Russia? Or be so stupid as to do it?

      • Europe and the US are intervening – they supply Ukraine with arms and intelligence. That’s the only way.

        The conflict won’t end with part of the disputed territory still under dispute. Russia and Ukraine must take or surrender every square inch. I think most of us want to see Ukraine survive unconquered, and given Putin’s obvious determination, that means grinding Russia down to practically nothing. A lull with UN peacekeepers in charge, would just give Russia time to re-arm.

        Even if some international agreement made those eastern districts and Crimea a new nation with automatic provisional NATO membership status – Russia would have an easy time making it essentially an appendage, a sort of Transnistria like state. If they’re going to get it, might as well let it go now, as later.

    • Thanks, AS. I cringe at the notion that might makes right. It is true Russia has vastly more powerful resources but the Ukrainians have the advantage of grit and commitment to defending their sovereignty and independence. The arrival of US and European military aid is having an influence in the latest do-or-die battle for
      Avdiivka, where Russia has reportedly lost 6,000 troops and dozens of tanks in the past week. Might does not make right in a rules-based world.


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