Ukraine can no longer win

22.02.2024
Lesedauer: 6 Minuten
Fotoquelle: The Hill

As the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion nears, and the latest aid package for Ukraine stalls in Congress, we must be clear-eyed about the future.

There is no path for Ukraine to win this war. American support will not change this reality.

Two years ago, the Ukrainian Armed Forces defied expectations immediately. Days before Russia’s massive combined arms incursion, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley spoke for the U.S. military when he predicted to Congress that Kyiv would fall within 72 hours.

Many military analysts similarly predicted the Russian Armed Forces would quickly rout the overmatched Ukrainians. American leaders encouraged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to leave the country, lest Russian troops assassinate him.

These projections of immediate success for Russia misread the progress Ukraine had made in capability and readiness since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. They also overestimated the Russian forces’ readiness, air superiority, and command cohesion.

One year ago, all signs were encouraging. Ukrainian forces had been bloodied, but they held on to territory in the east in defiance of expectations. Successful counteroffensives allowed Ukraine to regain territory in the south. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy defiantly declared the coming year one of “our invincibility.” American aid to the country offered a king’s ransom in artillery and anti-tank weapons through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and the flow seemed unceasing.

Inspired by Ukraine’s stunning success against the much larger and more advanced military, the West galvanized behind Zelensky and his troops. Tragically, all these indicators led to unrealistic expectations.

Today, the situation is grim. The fighting has slowed to a cruel slog that works to Russia’s favor. Ukraine runs low on troops and munitions, while Russia maintains both in plenty. The long-planned, high-risk, months-long Ukrainian spring 2023 counteroffensive failed, with Ukraine unable to regain territory seized by Russia. Support for Zelensky in Ukraine and the West has finally slipped. American aid is logjammed in Congress, and the U.S. seems tired of funding the war.

Over much of the past two years, following those predictions of immediate Russian victory, analysts and policymakers have gone in the other direction with a new set of misjudgments: that the Russian Army is a paper tiger; that the generals will turn on Putin; that Ukraine will bleed Russia out in Donbass.

The reality, two years in, is that there is no path to victory for Ukraine, at least not in the sense of pushing Russian troops back to 2021 lines of control. After Ukrainian troops abandoned Avdiivka following some of the war’s heaviest fighting — the most significant loss or gain by either side in nine months — almost all advantages accrue to Russia.

The seizure of Avdiivka does not materially change the war, but it does change the momentum. Moscow can throw mass in terms of bodies, tanks, artillery, and drones at exhausted Ukrainian forces until they crack. Ukraine is exhausted and outnumbered, struggling to recruit new troops. The best Ukraine can do now is fight Russia to a negotiated settlement that allows it to keep its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security against another Russian invasion. Even these provisions may now seem unrealistic.

In the first year after the full-scale Russian invasion — February 2022 to February 2023 — Ukrainian troops overcame massive disadvantages in technology and mass. They did so mainly with American Javelins, Stingers, and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems.

During that period, Ukraine had largely bipartisan support in D.C. Throughout the following year, American aid — including dozens of tanks, more than a hundred Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and more than a hundred Strykers — kept Ukraine in the fight. During this period, support among Republicans in Congress began to wane.

It is clear that even if the House approves the current proposed aid package, the flow of weapons is coming to a close. Without a continuing stream of those weapons, Ukraine will ultimately fall. Even the F-16 fighter jets that the U.S. will ship to Ukraine in the coming months will not turn the tide. F-16s require long, smooth runways; the fighter aircraft will struggle to land and take off on Ukraine’s bombed-out runways.

Russia also has the advantage of time. While Putin can lead Russia along a single strategic trajectory regardless of the length of the war, the U.S. is subject to the whims of democracy. The White House and seats in Congress change hands. Policies change as voters grow weary of supporting other countries.

Geopolitics changes fast. The upheavals in the world over the past two years distracted the U.S. from supporting Ukraine. Hamas’s stunning and savage infiltration into Israeli territory last October, and Israel’s gruesome retaliation, became the primary international focus of the White House and Congress. Iran began a low-grade war against the U.S. through its proxy forces in Iraq and Syria. China promised to invade Taiwan. All of these cataclysms require attention and money — elements in limited supply — otherwise spent on Ukraine.

Adding to the uncertainty is the looming U.S. presidential election this year. Donald Trump, Biden’s most prominent challenger, harbors a deep distrust of NATO. His recent remarks reinforce this, suggesting leniency toward Russia for acting against NATO members who fail to meet their treaty obligations.

Given all these headwinds and the enormous strategic stakes involved, it is critical to consider the path forward in light of the shifting dynamics.

In considering an aid package to Ukraine, Washington policymakers and their constituents must assess how long the cash and weapons will continue to flow and toward what end. Getting to a favorable or at least even negotiated settlement will take more than a year of fighting. Putin has no incentive to stop fighting and every incentive to continue pushing and waiting for his adversaries to run out of troops and munitions, and for policymakers in the U.S. to run out of patience.

None of this is fair to the people of Ukraine, who have placed their hopes of sovereignty on America’s commitment to them. It is, however, the tragic reality of the situation.

The $60 billion aid package held up in Congress will not significantly change the future. This fight is a long haul one that will require additional aid. The spigot will close at some point — perhaps soon — turning off aid and sealing Ukraine’s fate.

Col. (ret.) Joe Buccino is a research analyst at the Defense Innovation Board and a former communications director at U.S. Central Command. He served as the communications director for the NATO support mission in Europe from February to November 2022. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or any other organization.

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