The war in Ukraine is primarily a war for control of people, not land. Russian President
Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine twice not mainly because he desires Ukraine’s land, but rather because he seeks to control its people.
Putin’s project, explicitly articulated in the 2021 article he published justifying the 2022 full-scale invasion, is the destruction of Ukraine’s distinctive
political, social, linguistic, and religious identity. Putin seeks to make real his false ideological conviction that Ukrainians are simply confused Russians with an invented identity, language, and history that a small, Western-backed minority is seeking
to impose on the majority of inhabitants. He sees language as one of the primary determinants of ethnicity—Russian speakers, he claims, must be Russians regardless of the state they live in. The Russian Federation has claimed special rights to protect Russians
in the former Soviet states since the 1990s, although the Kremlin did not act on those claims until Putin became president. Putin’s aim to destroy Ukrainian identity, language, and culture is thus one of the primary objectives of his entire enterprise.
The stakes of this war thus transcend hectares of land.
They include the lives, freedom, and identities of nearly five million Ukrainians currently living under Russian occupation, the nearly five million
more whom the Kremlin has illegally deported to Russia and the additional millions who have fled their homeland to other parts of Ukraine or abroad. Dry, abstract, “realist” discussions about pressuring Ukraine to make “concessions”—to “trade land for peace”—ignore
the reality of the war. This war is about people as well as land, and Western leaders cannot dismiss the consequences of the policies they pursue and demand.
Russia first experimented with its occupation playbook in 2008 when it invaded Georgia
and occupied the Georgian territories of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia “republics.” Russia further developed means and methods of occupation in Ukraine
after it invaded and seized Crimea and parts of Donbas in 2014. The international community denounced the 2014 invasion, refused to recognize Russia’s claims to these areas, and heavily sanctioned involved Russian actors. The international response, however,
failed to discourage Russia from continuing its occupation of Ukraine and setting conditions for the 2022 full-scale invasion. Russia succeeded in forcing the international community to accept and internalize the 2014 occupation enough that many even in the
West now view the 2014 territories as different from the rest of Ukraine.
Russia seeks to persuade Ukraine and its supporters that its control of occupied Ukrainian territory is irreversible.
The Kremlin is using the same playbook in the lands Russia has taken since Feb 24, 2022, that it’s used in Crimea and Donbas since 2014.
The Kremlin has employed that playbook successfully enough that all discussions of the Russian full-scale invasion treat the lands Russia illegally seized in
2014 differently from the rest of Ukraine.
The Kremlin seeks to create the perception that the Ukrainian territories it has occupied are permanently lost to Ukraine, discouraging Kyiv from seeking their
liberation and dissuading Western support for such efforts, even though their irreversible occupation will take time.
Indeed, Western leaders regularly question whether Ukraine should even try to liberate Crimea and parts of Donbas even though the actual status of these lands
under international law is the same as that of any other part of sovereign, independent Ukraine.
Russia intends to achieve the same effects in the lands it has occupied since February 24, 2022, and will be more likely to succeed in that effort the longer
that it is allowed to hold that territory.
The liberation of these strategically vital Ukrainian lands is thus urgent. Delay powerfully advances Russian objectives to the detriment of Ukraine and the West.