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Ukraine War: Three Paths It Could Take in 2023 (And What America Should Do)

Old Russian T-62 Tank Fighting in Ukraine. Image Credit: Twitter.

The Russia-Ukraine War: How to Guarantee American Interests No Matter the War’s Outcome – Though there are many possible ways battlefield conditions may develop in the first half of 2023, especially given conditions are so fluid and subject to change, I see three primary outcomes as having the most realistic possibility.

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The following is based on the prevailing conditions described in earlier portions of this year-end assessment, especially as it relates to the military, economic, and political dynamics involved on the battlefield, in the respective countries, and regarding the external nations that help each side. The three general outcomes are:

Russia Launches a Winter Offensive and Captures all of Donbas

Putin mobilized at least 300,000 troops in September. Half of them have been deployed to various fronts of the war in Ukraine, but 150,000 of them continue to train for future operations. Ukrainian leadership fully expects a major Russian offensive this winter.

In this scenario, the current number of Russian troops in Ukraine (potentially upwards of 250,000) continue to successfully hold the lines, and then sometime in late January or early February a sudden flood of newly formed Russian units storms weak points in the Ukrainian lines and breaks through into the rear, forcing large numbers of Ukrainian troops to either withdraw further to the west or risk encirclement and destruction.

(Note: This Is Part III of a three-part series. You can read parts I and II here and here.) 

Lavrov reiterated on Wednesday that Russia still intends to liberate all four regions it “annexed” in September. Russian troops would seek to fulfill that objective in their winter offensive, driving Ukraine back beyond the Dnipro River in the south, back to Kharkiv in the north, and out of the Donbas in the center. Once attained, Putin would then declare victory, build a new “iron curtain” along the new border, and seek a negotiated settlement with Kyiv.

Russia Launches a Winter Offensive but Ukraine Blunts Putin’s Troops and Largely Holds the Line

In this scenario, in the same way as depicted above (and with the same objectives), Russia launches a winter offensive. But in this case, owing to experienced and tough Ukrainian fighters – bolstered by considerable defensive weaponry provided by the West – gave some ground in some areas but resisted the Russians in others, turning the war into a stalemate.

Russia Doesn’t Launch a Winter Offensive and Uses its Mobilized Reserves to Hold Current Positions

In this scenario, Putin chooses not to take risk, and opts for solidifying the current line of contact, using the additional 150,000 troops to backstop the troops in the north, east, and south to prevent any further Ukrainian advances. The Russians in the frontlines expand and strengthen their defensive works to make any future penetration by UAF too costly to consider, and begins to play for a negotiated settlement, making the case for his domestic audience that this somehow represents a victory for Russia, and again, the war becomes a stalemate.

American Policy Responses

In the foregoing section a couple things should stand out. First, there is no scenario that projects a Ukrainian military victory. This is because the plain military reality is that the UAF is not equipped or staffed with the necessary tools to conduct a major offensive operation of sufficient power to drive the hundreds of thousands of Russian troops out of Ukraine, especially given that they’ve been building extensive defensive fortifications throughout their zone of occupation. Ukraine can and will conduct local offensives, but they are presently equipped only to defend the current lines.

Secondly, in none of the three options was there any description involving a “winner” or an outcome that could lead to the end of the war. As previously noted, war is at its core a test of wills. It is difficult to imagine any outcome in the coming six months that would make the people of either Russia or Ukraine change from their current defiant position to being sufficiently humbled to accept a negotiated settlement on terms unfavorable to itself. It is therefore nearly certain that regardless of how things play out on the battlefield in the first half of 2023, the war will continue.

It is, therefore, of paramount importance that the United States form policies that ensure our national security and economic prosperity regardless of how the war progresses. 

American Interests in Various Russia-Ukraine War Scenarios

First, it is useful to delineate what American objectives should be, almost irrespective of the foreign or military policy one examines. At the strategic level, there are roughly three main priorities that should serve as the foundation for any foreign policy a president might pursue. They are, in order: 1) to keep the United States out of any unnecessary wars; 2) ensure the U.S. fields and maintains a strong military that can deter any would-be aggressor from launching a pre-emptive attack against America or our treaty allies (or defeat the adversary if they try); and 3) safeguard the ability of the American people to prosper, financially and otherwise.

All three of those priorities should inform Biden’s responses to events in the war between Russia and Ukraine. While it is both understandable and appropriate for the United States to help a European nation that has been invaded by a hostile power, every action taken by either the White House or Congress must conform to those three priorities. All 193 governments recognized by the United Nations have as their primary obligation, to look after the security and needs of its own people. The U.S. government is no exception, especially in regard to the Russia-Ukraine War.

Under any scenario for how this war is conducted or concluded, the unambiguous number one priority of the U.S. Government is to avoid being drawn into the war as a direct participant. Flatly stated, the security of our country is not at risk, regardless of how the war unfolds. Our air, land, sea, and space forces are of a global nature that allows us to project power to a degree no nation on earth can, and our strategic nuclear forces ensure that no nation dare use nuclear weapons on us in the certain knowledge they will receive a powerful and equivalent response.

U.S. conventional and nuclear power is unquestioned, whether Ukraine wins, whether there is a stalemate, or even in the unpalatable event that Russia ekes out some sort of military victory. We successfully deterred the much more powerful USSR for decades, preserving our national security, and we will continue that streak into the foreseeable future, regardless of how this war eventually concludes – so long as we don’t allow ourselves to be drawn into a direct confrontation with Russia.

The U.S. Armed Forces should not be thrust into a major war unless there is a direct or imminent threat to our national security or that of a treaty ally – and even then, only if Congress formally authorizes it or declares war. Allowing our military to be drawn into a war against Russia when we have not been directly attacked would violate the first pillar of a good foreign policy and put at risk the second and third: our Armed Forces would be weakened in any war as a result of combat losses and our economy would be put in serious jeopardy.

Current & Future Policies

Since February 2022, it has been the general policy of the White House to help Ukraine “defend itself over the long term” by providing material and financial support. This policy is not without risk, but it has the net effect of weakening Russia and in any case does not directly violate any of the three foundational priorities. Thus far, Biden has been willing to give Kyiv enough weapons to allow them to defend their country but has withheld the massive support that might enable Ukraine to genuinely threaten to defeat Russian forces in Ukraine.

Some American pundits, like retired Gen. Keith Kellogg, suggest Biden should expand his policy to explicitly state that America will give Ukraine offensive weapons to, as Kellogg put it, “defeat the Russian army in the field; to have them leave Ukraine.” Such a policy would risk the first pillar – potentially drawing ourselves into direct confrontation (possibly nuclear) with Moscow – and violate the second and third priorities (by giving Kyiv the quantity and type of weapons and ammunition it would need would seriously deplete our own arsenals, putting our national security at risk, and cost hundreds of billions).

If Ukraine were to eventually win on its own, then the U.S. national security would be as secure then as it already is today (Russia has exposed how weak its conventional military power always was, and it presently poses no risk to attack or invade any of our European treaty partners). But even if Russia were to one day come out on top militarily, those same three principles would apply and our security would still be assured.

We know how weak Russia’s conventional military is today. Even if eventually successful, the cumulative losses suffered by Putin’s army in both manpower and equipment will take literally decades to replace. Meanwhile, the United States would help European members of NATO using those same decades to strengthen the alliances’ eastern flank, making it clear any future thought of westward ground attack would be futile.

What Happens? 

The point should by now be clear: as long as the United States does not allow itself to get drawn into a direct conflict with Moscow, our national and economic security will be maintained no matter how this war is eventually brought to a conclusion.

It is a vital national interest of Ukraine to win its war with Russia. For the U.S., that is a desirable outcome, but not a vital national interest for which we would risk fighting a war. Our government exists first and foremost to ensure our country is safe from all external aggression, has a strong military that can deter any nation from attacking us (or defeat any foe that tries), and safeguards our ability to prosper as a nation. Anything that detracts from those prime functions must be rejected, no matter how much our heart may prefer a different outcome.

A 19FortyFive 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

Written By

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.