Ukraine Can Achieve a Strategic Win, and It Matters to the West that It Does: A few days ago, CIA Director William Burns said in a CBS News interview that the next six months in the war in Ukraine would be critical. According to Burns, Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting that the West will grow weary of supporting Ukraine, and that time is on Russia’s side. Stopping Putin and showing him that he will not achieve his objectives – “puncturing his hubris,” as Burns put it – will be key to how this war unfolds.
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Ukraine War: What Happens Next?
Russia will likely try to launch its anticipated offensive soon—before much-delayed Western tanks and other new equipment begins to trickle into Ukraine. Some analysts have argued that the fierce battles in and around the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut are already part of that offensive, or at the very least its preparatory stage.
Keep in mind that if Ukraine continues in this fashion, meeting the enemy head-on in a 21st century replay of World War I attrition warfare, then the sheer logic of the two countries’ disparity in population and resources will define the outcome. In the wake of the mass destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure and the flight of its citizens (an estimated 9 million Ukrainian refugees have passed through Poland alone), a fight with an enemy commanding approximately four times Ukraine’s population can only end one way.
So Ukraine needs forces to allow it to break out of the current stalemate, check the Russian advance, and maneuver to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield. It needs to fight on its own terms. To do this it needs modern Western main battle tanks and long-range fires – in greater numbers than promised so far, and, most importantly, aircraft.
The United States and its allies have, in each instance, met Ukraine’s requests for ever-more sophisticated weapons systems – most recently with several countries’ decisions to supply Leopard 2s and other main battle tanks – but the process is painfully slow. Negotiations have dragged on, delaying the training of Ukrainian crews on the new equipment, and ultimately risking that the moment of decision may be missed if new military hardware is not brought into action during the phase in the war when it is needed most.
Putin surely hopes that the approaching U.S. presidential campaign will throw sand into the gears of the United States’ military support for Ukraine. He may be right—because, regrettably, the issue of aiding Ukraine has become politicized. It is likely to become even more contentious as the presidential primaries approach. Should the United States cut Ukraine off, the country could not sustain its defense against Russia for long, regardless of what European NATO members and other supporters of Ukraine would do. Although Poland, Estonia, Finland, and other countries close to Russia have been emptying their stocks to aid Ukraine, their remaining spare supplies are much too little to sustain Ukraine on their own.
An Inflection Point
This war is approaching a decision point that will be defined by two variables: First, how long Western support will last; and second, how long the Russians can endure before they run out of stocks themselves. Considering the sheer amount of Cold War-era equipment stocks that Putin can still field, he is betting that he can outlast the West in this regard—and that’s not even considering ramped-up Iranian and other deliveries. Another factor to consider is that the West’s ability to supply Ukraine is not solely dependent on political will; it is first and foremost a numbers game.
Unless the United States and its European allies make urgently needed decisions to invest in their defense industry, it may become impossible to supply Ukraine in the long run—even if the political will remains. Simply put, looking at the rates at which weapons and munitions are being consumed in this war, the West needs to move its defense industry away from the “just-in-time,” low-volume paradigm of the past thirty years to a “just-in-case” approach, whereby it amasses the quantities of weapons and munitions needed to sustain a protracted fight with a near-peer adversary.
This means that most European NATO allies need to dramatically rethink their procurement system. Above all, they need to spend real cash on rearmament. There is no indication, unfortunately, that any of these decisions have been made—or even seriously discussed in Europe except for countries along the Eastern flank, especially Poland Finland, Sweden and the Baltic States. At the same time the U.S. has moved to increase the production of 155mm howitzer ammunition fivefold, and to increase HIMARS production. Meanwhile, Russia is slowly but inexorably moving its industry to a war footing.
Analysts and scholars speculate that the war in Ukraine could drag on for years. Even if the West were to tire of supplying Ukraine and if the Russians were to break through Ukrainian defenses, there is no chance that the Ukrainian people would accept defeat. Guerrilla warfare would replace conventional military engagements.
But the West should consider another possibility: Given the right equipment, the Ukrainian army could defeat the Russian military within the next six months, setting in motion forces in Russia that could implode Putin’s regime. In Russian history, military defeats have usually been accompanied by internal fracturing—including the 1905 revolution that followed Russia’s defeat by Japan, the February and Bolshevik revolutions in 1917 in the wake of Russia’s defeat by Germany, and the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union following its rout in Afghanistan.
But even if Russia’s defeat in Ukraine fails to set loose the centrifugal forces needed to break Putin’s kleptocratic empire, the West must help Ukraine win a strategic victory on the battlefield. Such a victory would erode and hopefully significantly delay Russia’s ability to regenerate its military and attack again—either in Ukraine or elsewhere in the neighborhood. It should be understood in both Washington and European capitals that if Russia were to defeat Ukraine, it would be poised in a few years to move against NATO’s frontier states, with the Baltic States being the most vulnerable, and possibly other targets after that.
The West Needs to Step Up
By now, it should be abundantly clear that the Ukrainians are buying the rest of Europe time to undo the damage inflicted on their militaries by three decades of disarmament. Ukraine is fighting for European and transatlantic security, and it’s hard to overstate the implications of what is riding on the war’s outcome. This is a system-transforming war. Should Ukraine lose, not only would Russia and China be emboldened to press their advantage. Recriminations over the failure to adequately support Ukraine between countries on NATO’s eastern flank and their allies further West could also put a severe strain on the alliance—and possibly fracture it. The consequences of this war thus reach far beyond the question of who wins in Ukraine.
For its own sake and not just the Ukrainians’, the West should therefore give Ukraine what it needs to stop the Russian military and expel it from its territory.
Author Expertise and Experience
A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Andrew A. Michta is Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.