The Tide of Battle – and Mounting Casualties – Turning Against Ukraine – Since it became evident a few weeks into Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine that Moscow’s troops were stopped cold outside of Kyiv, there has been a near-universal belief in the West that Ukraine would eventually win. All that was needed, many pundits claimed, was to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces sufficient numbers of weapons and ammunition. As the war now grinds towards the four-month mark, it is becoming painfully evident that the odds are stacked in Russia’s favor.
Militarily speaking, there is no rational path through which Ukraine will ever win its war. Without a course correction – and soon – Kyiv itself may not ultimately be safe.
After Russian armor suffered a “stunning defeat” by Ukrainian defenders north of Kyiv and Kharkiv during the first few weeks of war, many pundits were writing off the Russian army as “incompetent” and suggested they were incapable of defeating the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF), whose great bravery and skills were widely hailed.
In late April, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv and told Zelensky that the West could provide his troops with “the right equipment” and the “right support” because Austin wanted to help Ukraine win and see “Russia weakened.” In addition to direct battlefield aid, the West concurrently wielded economic tools intended to deprive Putin of the capacity to continue waging war.
In the early days of the war, Biden imposed sanctions that the White House said would be “the most impactful, coordinated, and wide-ranging economic restrictions in history.” On June 3, the European Union enacted the sixth tranche of sanctions, featuring a partial ban on the import of most Russian oil and gas. The intent behind these punitive battlefield and economic measures was to weaken or halt Putin’s ability to continue his war in Ukraine and equip Kyiv to win its war. It is now becoming evident that this strategy is failing on both counts.
Throughout the first three months of the war, there were almost universal positive statements by U.S. and Ukrainian leaders, suggesting Kyiv’s troops would “drive Russia from” Ukrainian soil and that Kyiv would not accept any negotiated settlement that ceded any territory to Russia. Yet earlier this week London’s The Independent revealed portions of a leaked classified intelligence report out of Kyiv that exposed a much harsher battlefield reality than had been admitted publicly.
According to the report, Russia’s relentless bombardment of Ukrainian troops over the first 100+ days of the war had destroyed major portions of their Soviet-era equipment and depleted their stocks of artillery ammunition. The result is that frontline Ukrainian units are outgunned 20-1 in artillery and an eye-popping 40-1 in artillery rounds. Combined with the fact Russia continues to have significant advantages in air power (up to 300 air sorties per day compared with three to five for Ukraine) and manpower, it is not surprising Ukraine is losing its grip on the Donbas.
Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksiy Reznikov confirms upwards of 100 UAF troops are being killed each day (some reports suggest the number is closer to 200 per day) and 500 more wounded. Zelensky concedes that Russia occupies more than 20% of Ukrainian territory – growing by the day. While it is entirely understandable that no Ukrainian leader would ever want to cede any of its country to an invading power, there are other, harsher realities that must be taken into account.
The choice, in other words, may not be a matter of whether Ukraine should give up territory or not, but whether it must give up territory now to limit the damage or continue fighting in the hopes of one day winning it all back – at egregious cost now, and with no guarantee that they would not later lose even more territory. For example, today Ukraine still holds key parts of the Donbas (the Slavyansk/Kramatorsk salient in the north, the Avdiivka area in the center, and large portions of the Donetsk region to the south. Kharkiv and Odessa are still fully under Kyiv’s control. Evidence suggests that as more time passes, that list of Ukraine-controlled cities will continue to shrink.
It would be a near-impossible feat for the West to provide enough heavy weaponry to Ukraine – and the massive volumes of large-caliber artillery ammunition the howitzers need – that would bring back into balance the major disadvantage Ukraine has in firepower. Even the modern rocket launchers the U.S. and UK recently committed will not materially change the negative balance for Kyiv.
Zelensky and the Ukrainian people will soon come face-to-face with the ugly prospect that continuing to fight will only bring more death and destruction to its people, cities, and armed forces – but be insufficient to stave off defeat. The truth is, military fundamentals and simple capacity are in Moscow’s favor. It is unlikely those factors change in time to avoid defeat for Kyiv and its brave people. That is the ugly, bitter reality of war.
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.