The war in Ukraine is changing — and the West now faces a stark choice

The inevitable fall of Mariupol — Ukraine’s long-suffering eastern port on the Sea of Azov, now besieged, pounded to dust and soaked in the blood of its residents — will carry with it a heavy symbolism, the kind observers say Western allies need to reflect upon urgently.

Is the goal to ensure the survival of a Ukrainian state? Or is it to defeat Russia?

A local resident walks past a damaged vehicle marked with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of the Russian military, in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 13. (Alexei Alexandrov/The Associated Press)

The inevitable fall of Mariupol — Ukraine's long-suffering eastern port on the Sea of Azov, now besieged, pounded to dust and soaked in the blood of its residents — will carry with it a heavy symbolism, the kind observers say Western allies need to reflect upon urgently.

Already, it has the potential to change the trajectory of war. Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky warned this week that peace talks will end if Moscow "eliminates" the city's defenders.

More than that, the end of the merciless blockade of Mariupol will free up Russian combat forces to concentrate on a growing offensive in the eastern Donbas region, which the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin claims it wants to "liberate" from Kyiv's control.

And that will mark a turning point in the war, one that will force Western allies to make a choice, said a former senior U.S. Army and NATO commander.

'We have to decide that we're going to win'

"I think the bigger problem for us, or the bigger challenge — that's the collective 'us', this includes Canada — is we have to decide that we're going to win," retired U.S. lieutenant-general Ben Hodges told CBC News.

"It's not about just keeping Ukraine in the fight. It's about winning. And that means we're going to do everything necessary to make sure that Ukraine is successful that does not require putting American or Canadian or British troops on the ground."

Ukraine's efforts to defend itself have been nothing short of extraordinary. Russia is concentrating on the Donbas now after Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops back from Kyiv. Ukrainian soldiers continued to hold their positions in Mariupol Tuesday night.

But efforts to articulate the West's longer-term war aims — beyond the near-term goal of helping Ukraine survive — have been hit-and-miss. U.S. President Joe Biden offered an unexpected moment of clarity when, during a speech in Poland, he said Putin could not remain in power — a statement immediately clarified by the White House to downplay the suggestion of regime change.

WATCH: Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland is asked whether genocide is taking place in Ukraine:

Freeland is asked whether genocide is happening in Ukraine

4 months ago
Duration 1:45
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters it was quite right for U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to use the word "genocide" to describe some of the events unfolding in Ukraine.

In her recent budget speech, Canada's Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Western democracies will not be safe until "the Russian tyrant and his armies are entirely vanquished" — and the West is counting on Ukraine to do that.

Such talk brings with it the risk of a wider war, but Hodges said allies now need to be clear about where their support of Ukraine is going and what — if anything — would be gained by negotiating with Russia.

"They smash cities. They murder innocent people. It's a medieval application of power, and I think that if there's ever going to be any sort of negotiated outcome, we need to have our eyes wide open about who it is we're dealing with," he said.

People shelter underground following explosions in Lviv, western Ukraine, on March 26. (Nariman El-Mofty/The Associated Press)

Hodges said that, regardless of Mariupol's fate, Zelensky would have found it tough to sit across the table from Putin given the string of reported atrocities his government has laid at the feet of retreating Russian troops.

Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, said he doesn't think "there's anything to negotiate right now" because Russia has made it "very, very clear that it wants to conquer all of Donbas and even a bit outside now."

He said people have been using the "G-word" to describe what has happened in Mariupol. He pointed out that definition of genocide includes "destroying the conditions of life" — and that is what has happened to a city with a pre-war population of half a million people.

Gunpoint concessions

Ukraine has signalled already it's prepared to drop its bid to join NATO. It would have to make further concessions in any negotiations, Arel said.

"How can you agree, strategically, to concede the partition of your own territory when you know that it's not just a matter of principle, of national honour, that you don't give an inch of your territory?" he said.

Arel said he also wonders how Zelensky could make compromises when he knows "what's going to happen to [the] civilian population" in those occupied territories.

"That makes it very, very, very difficult in these conditions to accept ceding territory, particularly because the real issue is ceding territory that Ukraine controlled on February 24," he said.

That, said Hodges, brings us back to the discussion of allied war aims.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walk past a checkpoint after a meeting in Kyiv on April 9. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters)

Giving up Ukrainian territory would be politically toxic for any Ukrainian leader, even for the immensely popular Zelensky. He has asked for security guarantees from NATO's leading members, including the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Turkey. France and Germany have signaled they might be willing to provide such guarantees, but the U.S. and U.K. have not.

Bloomberg News reported earlier this week that billionaire Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has travelled to Kyiv in a bid to restart the faltering peace talks.

Arel said he wonders how that would be possible, given the fiery language coming from Moscow, from members of the Russian elite and even from the Russian Orthodox Church, whose patriarch supports the war.

Internally displaced people from Mariupol and nearby towns arrive in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on April 1. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

"The language of hate speech is kind of the normal stuff now of Russian TV," said Arel, who added the West needs to focus and reflect on what's being said across a wide spectrum of Russian society.

"There's something that Putin has been harping on and all the Russian elites keep repeating and, now, the patriarch. It is that this is a war against the West, because the Ukrainians don't exist anyway. They're not real. They're just these agents of the West. This is a war against the West."

Hodges said the fall of Mariupol will give the Russians a victory to celebrate at the May 9 Victory Day parade in Red Square, which commemorates the end of the Second World War.

Without that, he said, it would be a pretty sombre event following the Russian Army's defeat outside of Kyiv and last week's sinking of the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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