Why Ukrainians Think They Will Win
Despite the death and destruction that Russia rains down daily on them, the vast majority of Ukrainians are bullish about the future: 77% believe the country is moving in the right direction, 93% think they can beat back Russia, and 47% expect to win in the next few weeks.
Several factors account for this remarkable optimism.
The first and most obvious is that the Ukrainian armed forces, which were roundly expected to be weak, have stopped the Russian armed forces, which were expected to be unstoppable. In fact, the Ukrainians have displayed exceptional courage, competence, and effectiveness and demonstrated that their army is arguably one of the best in the world.
Unsurprisingly, Russian losses have been alarmingly high. The Pentagon’s conservative estimate is 7,000 dead. Christo Grozev of the Bellingcat research outfit puts the number at about 10,000. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defensesays it’s 15,600. A regime-friendly Russian newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, puts the number at 9,861—certainly a deliberate undercount. Whatever the exact number, Russia has suffered intolerably high casualties. Since the number of wounded is generally estimated to be three times that of the number of dead, somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 Russian soldiers have been put out of commission in a little over three weeks.
In addition, Ukraine claims to have destroyed 520 tanks, 1,577 armored personnel carriers, 101 planes, and 125 helicopters. Since reliable visual evidence is easier to get for such large machines than for corpses, the estimates are likely accurate. But even if exaggerated twofold, the numbers remain shockingly high.
Ukrainian military analysts now expect the war to move to the next two phases, a stabilization followed by a Ukrainian counter-offensive. The thinking is that the Russians have reached the limits of what they can do on the battlefield. Russia has already thrown its best troops against Ukraine (and they performed poorly), additional forces cannot be easily mobilized, hence leading the Kremlin to strongarm Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to enter the war, appeal to China for aid, and seek fighters in Syria. Moreover, Russian soldiers appear to be demoralized and confused, uncertain of just why they’re killing Russian-speaking people in Ukraine’s southeast who, until recently, were intensely pro-Russian. (At present 98% of Ukrainians consider Russia to be an enemy.) Time, Ukrainians conclude, is on their side, even if the Russian rocket barrage of Ukrainian cities continues—as even missiles are of limited number.
The case for optimism becomes only stronger when Ukrainians consider that the Russian economy is headed for disaster and that growing divisions within the Russian ruling elite may portend Vladimir Putin’s removal from office.
Two more factors—both existential—account for this optimism.
Most Ukrainians sincerely believe that Putin is out to annihilate them—and Russia’s indiscriminate terror bombing of civilian buildings, maternity wards, schools, and theaters provides hands-on proof of the plausibility of this belief. As Ukrainians see it, the choice before them is either to be killed in Putin’s ongoing genocide or to fight. Even if fighting results in defeat, at least the defeat will have exacted an enormous price from the Russians. The attitude is not unlike that of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto: we may be doomed, but we’ll go down fighting. Of course, in contrast to Warsaw’s heroic Jews, Ukrainians actually think they can and will win.
The final reason for optimism has to do with Ukraine’s historical experience. According to a study of the Moscow-based Institute of Demography, Ukraine suffered close to 15 million “excess deaths” between 1914 and 1948: 1.3 million during World War I; 2.3 million during the Civil War, the Polish-Soviet War, and the famine of the early 1920s; 4.0 million during the genocidal famine known as the Holodomor in 1932-1933; 300,000 during the Great Terror and the repressions in Western Ukraine in the late 1930s; 6.5 million during World War II; and 400,000 during the post-war famine and the destruction of the Ukrainian nationalist movement.
Ukrainians were also disproportionately represented in the Gulag and among Soviet political prisoners. Then, in 1986, came the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. The war over the Donbas took another 15,000 lives in 2014-2021. And now there’s Putin’s genocidal war of 2022.
Ukrainians are used to death and destruction, whether at the hands of Mongols, Russians, Germans, Ottomans, or many others. On the one hand, that leads to a kind of morbid fatalism so evident in Ukrainian folk songs. On the other hand, it also leads to resilience. Like Jews, Ukrainians have survived multiple disasters in the far and recent past. And, like Jews, they believe they’ll survive the present one as well.