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Contemplating the Unthinkable in Ukraine: Trading Land for Peace

Image of Russia President Putin. Image Credit: Russian Government.

Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk Oblast in Ukraine, said on Sunday that the “situation has extremely escalated” in Severodonetsk; witnesses report that Russian howitzers are pounding the city “200 times an hour.” Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continues asking for “supplies of heavy weapons” from his Western supporters to enable his forces to, as he said on Sunday, mount an offensive to fight “until (Ukraine) regains all its territories.” A cold, hard examination of the realities of the situation, however, exposes that such objectives have little to no chance of being accomplished.

If the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) cannot reasonably expect to militarily defeat Putin’s army and drive them back to Russia, it might be time for Kyiv – and the West – to consider pursuing alternative solutions.

President Biden on Tuesday breathed life into Ukraine’s hope it can eventually win through fighting by agreeing to send advanced rocket launchers to Kyiv. “I will not pressure the Ukrainian government — in private or public — to make any territorial concessions,” Biden wrote. But will these launchers, or any additional heavy weapons, tilt the tactical balance in Ukraine’s favor? An unemotional examination says no.

There are three fundamental reasons why there is little prospect for Ukraine to defeat Russia in a reasonable timeframe at an affordable cost. First, the current balance of power between the two sides in Ukraine still decidedly favors Russia. Second, the cumulative total of all equipment the West has provided or promised is grossly insufficient to create enough combat power to drive Russia out.

And third, the physical cost to Ukraine in terms of soldiers that would be killed and wounded, civilians slain, and cities destroyed while the UAF tried to create sufficient combat power would be so high as to effectively bleed the country dry. The chances are high there would be little but a cratered moonscape of a country left in the end – and even then, there would be no guarantee, at all, that Ukraine, after paying such an egregious price, would come out on top.

Over the last 100 years of major armed conflict, there have been a few key factors that have been proven quite predictive in identifying who would win. Though this isn’t an exhaustive list, the capabilities and factors that almost always exist on the side of the victors include advantages in airpower, air defense capacity, artillery and rocket forces, and access to trained replacements.

Reports in recent weeks have revealed that in key sections of the Battle of Donbas, Russian air forces are now flying up to 300 combat sorties per day while Ukraine musters between five and 20. Only one month into the war, one of the few Ukrainian pilots (identified only as Andrey by the New York Times for his security) said, “In every fight with Russian jets, there is no equality. They always have five times more” planes in the air. The disparity in Russia’s favor appears to be growing as the war enters the fourth month.

Ukraine’s integrated air defense system was severely damaged in the war’s opening rounds and continues to operate in a degraded state while Russia’s modern system, based on the S400 system, remains fully operational. Ukrainian troops lamented to a BBC reporter on Monday that, “There’s a lot of artillery (from the Russian side),” said one Ukrainian soldier. “Bombardments are like a nightmare, we shoot one round, they shoot 10. When our sniper is shooting, they send in a full packet of Grads [rockets] on his position. So it’s basically a sniper with one bullet and they send like $1,000 of artillery rounds.” In combat vehicles, in some sectors, Ukraine is outnumbered 20 to 1.

Many in the West endorse Zelensky’s strident requests for “heavy weapons,” believing that if Ukrainian troops get more tanks and artillery pieces, it’ll turn the tide of the war against Russia. While I certainly understand the desire of all in the West to help Kyiv repulse Moscow’s invasion, there are fundamental reasons why it is very unlikely the total pledged aid from the West is going to change the dynamics. In all likelihood, the best Ukraine can hope for is to force a stalemate in the east – but even that is becoming less likely by the week.

As I explained in a detailed threepart series at 19FortyFive, it would take a bare minimum of 12 months (and more appropriately 18 months) to form an offensive force strong enough to have any hope of prying Russian troops out of Ukraine. Once the fundamentals are considered, it becomes clearer why there is little hope of a Ukrainian victory.

Zelensky’s troops are presently fully engaged along three fronts, and in danger of falling on the northern shoulder of the Donbas battle, as Ukrainian forces are being driven from Severodonetsk. While Russia’s casualties are very high, Moscow has upwards of one million additional active and reserve troops from which to draw replacements. Kyiv had somewhere around 170,000 total active troops when the war began and they too have suffered egregious casualties – but they have a far smaller manpower pool from which to replace losses.

To have any chance of driving Russia out of Ukraine, Kyiv would have to create an offensive force of at least 100,000, equipped with modern equipment (on par with NATO gear). Those troops, as noted, would need at least a year to assemble thousands of armored vehicles from Western countries, stockpile massive amounts of ammunition for every caliber of weapon, millions of gallons of fuel, spare parts and trained mechanics to keep the varied vehicle types running, and utility trucks to support all these logistic needs throughout the offensive.

That alone would take six to nine months to assemble – and that clock doesn’t start ticking until first a decision has been made by a host of Western nations. Ukrainian troops would then have to be trained on that specific gear, and then go through the cumulative and sequential training from individual skills through platoon, company, battalion, and finally regiment or division – which would take up to a year by itself, if done right.

And all of that would have to be done in the context of the existing UAF trying to stop a relentless Russian attack seeking to destroy large segments of Kyiv’s active force, which requires laser-like focus of the Ukrainian government and every resource they can muster. It is very difficult to imagine that Kyiv – or any nation on earth – could manage to simultaneously seek to repulse an invading foe who already occupies 20% of Ukrainian territory while taking the 18 months necessary to create a new offensive force from scratch.

Trying to create an offensive force strong enough to eject Russia from Ukrainian territory is akin to trying to repair an airliner with a burning engine while still in the air.


Ukraine’s military firing artillery. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Without question the decision as to whether to take that risk or not is entirely between the Ukrainian people and their government. But emotions aside, the risk of failure – defined by potentially losing the war outright – is dangerously high, in my estimation. Though it is distasteful to even contemplate, the authorities in Kyiv may eventually have to consider seeking a negotiated settlement with Moscow, and that would include ceding, initially at least, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea.

At present, virtually every leader and citizen in Kyiv vehemently rejects any consideration of trading land for peace. That is wholly understandable, given that Russia has violently seized Ukrainian territory and spilled much civilian blood in the process. But the choice may one day come down to salvaging what territory the Kyiv government can, sparing more death and destruction of the civil population, or risking losing it all. No one should have to face such a horrific choice, but if Russian attacks continue making progress and the Ukrainian casualties one day reach a tipping point, it may become required.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis

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Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.