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The Hard Truth About the War in Ukraine (And Why U.S. Policy Must Change)

TOS-1A from the Russian Military.

Time to Change America’s War Policy towards Kyiv – before Ukraine losses even more of its territory – On Wednesday afternoon, the governor of Luhansk reported that Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) had been driven out of Severodonetsk and now only held portions of the city’s outskirts. Russian troops continue to threaten Bakhmut to the west, which is the last major town through which Ukrainian troops and supplies can be sent to Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. If that falls, about 10,000 of Kyiv’s defenders will be cut off. The entire northern shoulder of the Donbas fight is perilously close to falling to Putin’s troops.

The Russians are likewise increasing pressure on the Ukrainians from the Izyum front, putting at risk another pocket of Zelensky’s troops in the Slavyansk and Kramatorsk salient. After taking Popasna weeks ago, Putin’s troops continue their drive north from there to try and cut off the Ukrainian supply routes to Severodonetsk, while driving south from Izyum in an attempt to close the ring and trap an additional eight to ten thousand UAF troops.

Yet only days ago, after personally visiting the front, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told western reporters that his troops still had “every chance” of winning the fight for Severodonetsk. While optimism and hope can be critical enablers in a war, leaders must also make sober, accurate decisions. Already reports are beginning to emerge that Ukrainian troops in the Donbas are beginning to express doubt about their military leaders – the Telegraph claims leaked intelligence reports from Kyiv admit Ukrainian units suffering up to 600 total casualties per day (100 killed and 500 wounded) and now desertions are on the rise .

Ukrainian troops have fought heroically and fiercely since the war was thrust upon them back in February. They have performed well above what virtually anyone thought they would. Courage and tenacity, however, will only go so far in determining the outcome of a war. Many pundits are predicting the war will deteriorate into a long-term war of attrition that could drag on for years. It’s not entirely clear, though, that the Ukrainian side can continue to offer effective resistance over a long enough period to make a years-long war of attrition possible. It is also unclear whether the rest of the world can endure a long-term war of attrition.

The World Bank issued a warning on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine has “magnified the slowdown in the global economy, which is entering what could become a protracted period of feeble growth and elevated inflation.” The United States was already suffering the worst inflation in four decades prior to the war, and continued external pressures will only exacerbate the problem.

Then there’s energy. With the near-total European ban on Russian petroleum products, the price of oil continues at a decade-high – above $120 a barrel on Thursday – with no end in sight. Europe has spent months storing gas and oil, and can weather the cutoff in the near term. But this fall and winter when storage bins run out, the European economy could take a severe hit.

The worst problem this war may inflict on the world, however, may be in something more fundamental: food security. Russia and Ukraine combined to provide more than 30% of the global supply of wheat and barley before the war. The vast majority of Ukraine’s harvest has been blocked by Russia from being exported and considerable portions of Russia’s harvest have been sanctioned. The result is a major shortage of these vital foodstuffs on the global market. The effects are being felt especially acutely in Africa, where the war in Ukraine is putting literally millions of households at risk of starvation.

Neither is the United States immune to these cascading costs. Gasoline prices have been soaring since the war began – passing an average of $5 gallon on Thursday – and there is little the government can do to reduce the cost to consumers on a sustained basis. An already fragile economy is under enormous pressure, as industry stalwarts such as J.P. Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon warns of an approaching economic “hurricane.” Even American grocery prices are on a sustained hike.

As I explained in a new military analysis published on Thursday, the balance of power between the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces continues to tilt in Moscow’s favor. The Kremlin’s advantages in manpower, artillery, air defense, rocket forces, and air power continue to grow.

This imbalance is resulting in more and more territorial gains by Putin’s troops in the Donbas fight, which may soon see yet another major city fall, Sievierodonetsk. The UAF cannot continue to suffer losses of men, material, and territory at this rate and continue to put up a successful defense. It is time that American policy on the war shift to reflect these emerging realities.

If there were a legitimate chance that American military support could turn the tide of the war in Ukraine’s favor, at a reasonable cost, and without the risk of conflict escalation, it might make sense to continue arming Ukraine. Conditions on the ground in Ukraine, however, make it clear that the chances of Kyiv defeating Moscow’s troops are now approaching zero. It is now appropriate for Washington to consider shifting its focus from providing blanket military support to one that prioritizes seeking a negotiated settlement.

No doubt most in the West and all in Ukraine find that prospect to be unthinkable, but realities on the ground demand such consideration. Failure to seek a negotiated settlement now while continuing to fight for a full military victory significantly increases the risk that Kyiv will lose yet more cities, suffer the deaths of potentially tens of thousands more civilians (and an equal number of troops), and in the end have to negotiate a worse deal than is presently possible.

Today, Kyiv still fully controls Kharkiv and Odesa. If the fighting continues into the summer, it’s not certain they’ll keep either. Likewise, the economic pressure the war continues to place on the U.S. and European economies, the threat to food security for hundreds of millions in Africa, and the ever-present risk of military escalation all demand a change in our approach to the war.

Every week we ignore the worsening situation for Ukraine in its war with Russia deepens the cost to us all.

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.