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U.S. Generals Have Been Wrong on Ukraine. We Shouldn’t Be Shocked

Russian tank firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Frederick B. Hodges, former commanding general of U.S. Army-Europe, claimed last month that Ukraine’s forces would soon slow Russia’s advance and, the New York Times reported, begin “to roll back its gains by late summer.” Hodges said his confidence was based on his belief that “the Ukrainian logistical situation getting better each week while the Russian logistical situation will slowly degrade.”

Such claims, however, are in contradiction to observable reality on the battlefield – and continue a disturbing, decades-long trend of poor and misleading advice given by America’s top military officers.

Listening over the past four months to what America’s retired generals and admirals have said on TV, one would be forgiven for believing that Ukraine is winning its war with Russia, that Putin’s troops and leaders are incompetent, and that soon Ukrainian troops will begin rolling the Russians back.

Such belief, however, would be badly misplaced, as substantial evidence indicates virtually the opposite.

A Rosy Look at the Brutal Battle in Ukraine

Rosy, optimistic – and inaccurate – assessments from U.S. flag officers have unfortunately become the norm over the past few decades. While some current and former generals give excellent and accurate assessments, there are far too many that don’t. The consequence to American policy has often been severe. It is time to reassess how much credibility we should place with American generals and admirals.

As I have chronicled on these pages, the conditions and military fundamentals clearly evident for years have strongly suggested that Ukraine could not win a war with Russia, and that both Kyiv and Washington should have made different policy choices based on that reality, both before and since Russia’s illegal invasion. But as graphically detailed below, active and retired flag officers have continually claimed that – ignoring clear evidence to the contrary – Ukraine has a chance to win the war.

Encouraging Ukraine to Keep Up the Fight

Such unwarranted assertions have led policymakers and the American public to believe, improperly, that we should continue encouraging Ukraine to maintain its fight against Russia. American official policy has been to provide Kyiv with substantial armaments to defend itself and overwhelming emotional support. 

If the generals were right, if Ukraine were indeed close to winning the war, and if the aid we have offered could tip the scales in Kyiv’s favor, then our policy might make sense. But it doesn’t. Ukraine isn’t winning the war and isn’t even close to parity, much less superiority, to Russian forces.

In my most recent piece at 19FortyFive, I detail many of the practical, military reasons Ukraine is losing the war and is likely to continue losing. In my assessment, if Kyiv continues refusing to seek a negotiated settlement with Russia – something that is understandably repugnant to many Ukrainian citizens and government – they are in danger not merely of sliding into a long-term stalemate, but of outright losing the war.

I do not hesitate to admit that I can’t guarantee an outcome in this war. There are too many variables and information I don’t have, and do not have access to the secret council of either the Russian or Ukrainian general staff, or that of the western NATO leaders. A number of things could change the dynamics and trajectory of the war, which are not publicly known. Of course events that have yet to happen could result in major course changes.

But as I have laid out in detail, the current trends and military fundamentals reveal Ukraine is unquestionably losing this war. For the conditions to change dramatically enough to make an eventual Ukrainian military victory possible, as many generals continue to claim, would require a radical shift from today’s realities. Beyond mere rhetoric, there is no evidence such a radical shift is forthcoming. It is therefore irresponsible, I argue, to tell the American people that the desired outcome is possible when all evidence screams that it’s not – and downright cruel to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and civilian population, to foster a belief that they have a chance.

Should Washington Change Course?

To have the best chance to protect America’s vital national interests and save as many Ukrainian people as possible from being killed, Washington must change course and begin to form policy based on a frank and honest assessment of the combat, economic, and diplomatic realities of this war. It will be hard to get to that rational place, however, unless we first recognize the consistently rosy pictures painted by America’s flag officers over the past few decades have been atrocious.

My 21 years of active service in the U.S. Army, including four combat deployments, has put me in a position to personally observe many of the mistakes and bad judgments of both active and retired generals. The cumulative result of their frequently flawed advice has been uniformly bad for our country, resulting in some of the worst military and foreign policy decisions our country has made.

Whether it was routine claims, made over a 20-year period, of success in the Afghan War when events conclusively proved it was always a disastrous failure, or perpetual claims of success during and after the 2003 Iraq war – before the Iraqi Security Forces the U.S. trained melted away at the first contact with the Islamic State – senior American military leaders have consistently misled the American public on the true state of affairs. 

Since virtually the beginning of the Ukraine-Russian war, American active and retired generals have consistently claimed that Russian troops were incompetent, that their troops were ill-disciplined, arrogant, unmotivated, and sometimes rebelled against their leaders and refused to fight. The Russians, many generals claimed, could not win, with Gen. Hodges claiming that Ukraine would begin rolling back Putin’s troops before the end of this summer.

Yet Russia controls more than 20 percent of Ukrainian territory and continues conquering urban center after urban center in the Donbas, killing upwards of 200 troops per day, wounding another 500 in the process. 

Russia outguns Ukraine 20-1 in howitzers, 40-1 in artillery shells and Rockets, and has a significant advantage in air power. There is no rational basis upon which to claim that Ukraine can stop the Russians, much less roll them back.

It is appropriate, in light of the awful record active and retired general officers have amassed over the past few decades, that both the media and public should give more scrutiny to future claims made by generals. It is understandable why many would give blanket trust to the word of a senior commander: they typically have 30-plus years of experience and have served at the highest levels. But evidence confirms that this trust has been misplaced and it is up to the generals to earn that trust back. Telling the truth and giving honest assessments would be a good place to start. 

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.