Beginning last December, Russia’s government and media were abuzz with claims of a massive Russian winter offensive. So were Western intelligence sources. As it turned out, either the Russians chose to withhold their striking power or they frittered it away piecemeal along the 1,000-km front. In more recent months, the Ukrainian side is the one hinting at a major looming counteroffensive. But if Ukraine does launch an attack, it is just as unlikely to produce any breakthroughs.
Seeking an American Strategy on Ukraine
In the coming months, this conflict is likely to either sink into an indeterminate stalemate or continue as a war of attrition. Regardless of which way the conflict tilts, however, America’s current policy will not produce a beneficial outcome for the United States. For the good of our national interest and our country itself, Washington must quickly adjust to emerging realities and shape a new strategy that has a reasonable chance of success.
In early February, Ukrainian intelligence warned that Putin was on the verge of launching his winter offensive and was “massing 1,800 tanks, 3,950 armored vehicles, 400 fighter jets and 300 helicopters for the attack.” Yet month after month, Russia attempted no major attacks. Russian armed forces instead applied constant pressure across the 1,000-km front, focusing most efforts on the Soledar-Bakhmut, Vuledar, and Avdiivka fronts.
It is impossible to ascertain at this point what Russia did with the 300,000 troops it mobilized last fall. Perhaps they chose from the outset to bolster the entire frontline, never intending to launch a broad, high-risk attack. Alternatively, the Kremlin may have changed tactics before launching an offensive, calculating it would be better to withhold Russia’s primary striking power and use it for a counter-attack to follow Ukraine’s much-anticipated spring offensive. Based on other actions Russia has taken, such a decision would be militarily plausible.
American military officials privately warn that if Ukraine does launch an offensive this spring or early summer, Kyiv will incur significant risk. According to numerous reports, the United States, Germany, the UK, and Poland have trained more than 30,000 Ukrainian troops in NATO-style offensive operations and have equipped them with a modest amount of modern tanks, artillery, rocket launchers, personnel carriers, and air defense systems.
The danger to Kyiv, however, will come in what happens after their offensive.
Though the frontlines have moved little since last October, both sides have suffered egregious numbers of casualties in static frontline battles, especially in Vuledar, Soledar, and most infamously, in Bakhmut. For almost two months, Ukraine has diverted reserves to Bakhmut that were originally intended for its spring offensive. They have been successful in preventing full Russian capture of the town, but at the cost of weakening Kyiv’s offensive striking power.
Further, learning from its rout in Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive last September, Russia has now spent many months digging in and building elaborate defensive positions throughout the territory it occupies. Complicating matters, Ukraine will have to launch an offensive with insufficient artillery ammunition, little-to-no air support, and insufficient tactical air defense. The military task facing the Ukraine Armed Forces is as daunting as can be imagined.
Finding a Path to Peace
Any territory Ukraine captures in its offensive will be very expensive in manpower and equipment lost. It has taken the better part of a year for the West to provide the thousands of combat vehicles, millions of rounds of artillery and small arms ammunition, and air defense launchers and rockets. It has likewise taken many months to provide even the limited training it has given the UAF. Once this offensive is completed, it could take another six months to a year to rebuild that level of striking power again, and that assumes the West will be able to provide more than 1,000 additional armored vehicles and millions of rounds of ammo.
Russia has millions more men than Ukraine from which to draw for future mobilizations. Its military industrial complex is well on its way to achieving large-scale wartime production of arms and munitions. Given these conditions, there is no reasonable path in the near or medium term for Ukraine to accomplish its objective: the expulsion of Russian troops from Ukraine’s 1991 borders.
The most likely outcome of Ukraine’s offensive will be an inconclusive stalemate. If the war simply degrades into a conflict of attrition, it could go on for years. Russia’s vastly larger pool of human and physical resources would most likely grind Ukraine down over time. America’s stated policy of giving Ukraine what it needs “for as long as it takes” is not sustainable as a strategy and almost certainly will not produce an outcome beneficial to either the United States or Ukraine. A course correction is therefore required.
Given our actions over the past 14 months, there is no change that would be easy, desirable, or palatable. Unless we want to deepen our failure, however, change is nevertheless compulsory.
It is clear that many in Europe already recognize that Ukraine cannot win the war in a practical time frame at a reasonable cost. Poland and the Baltics appear to be stalwart in their desire to continue all actions to help Ukraine fight Russia, but much of the rest of Europe would likely support a move to find a negotiated settlement. The U.S. should take the diplomatic initiative by first privately conferring with Kyiv and Brussels — as well as Moscow — to begin the process of finding a settlement.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is loath to agree to any deal that leaves Ukrainian territory in Russian hands. The reality, however, is that he does not have what it takes to fully force Moscow off his territory. The most realistic choice he faces is between negotiating an end to the fighting that allows Ukraine to hold what it has, or to continue fighting and lose even more ground. That decision is Zelensky’s alone to make, but America also has agency and must look out for its own interests.
What Washington cannot do is continue, possibly for years, to provide thousands of combat vehicles to Ukraine and millions more artillery shells, rockets, and small arms — along with the billions of dollars per month needed to keep Ukraine’s government and economy afloat. Working with all the relevant players, Washington could help them find a deal that ends the war, ends the killing and destruction, and stops the open-ended loss of American resources.
As horrible as it would be for us to accept ending the war on undesirable terms, it would be even worse to ignore reality and continue pursuing an unattainable military objective. The cost for the former is unpleasant. The cost to the latter could be infinitely worse.
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.