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Ukraine’s Chances of Victory in 2023 are Vanishingly Small

T-90M. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Judging by recent headlines in Western media and quotes from retired U.S. generals, the American public would be forgiven for believing Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive is going well. The cold military reality, however, is the opposite. 

It is now a virtual certainty that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s troops will fail to drive Russian forces from Ukraine. And if Zelensky does not manage the volatile situation very deftly over the remainder of the year, he might lose the war.

The Cornerstone of Counteroffensive Success

Here are a few sample headlines from the past few days: “Ukraine Liberates Eight Settlements As Counteroffensive Pushes On,” “Ukraine Forces carry out successful counteroffensive operations,” and “Ukraine prepares biggest blow.” Famous retired U.S. generals seem to back these positive impressions.

On June 6, the second day of the Ukrainian offensive, former CIA Director and retired four-star general David Petraeus told Germany’s Deutsche Welle, “I think the (Ukrainian) offensive will be much more successful than many of the more pessimistic analysts have been offering.” The reason for his optimism? First, because the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) will be equipped with large amounts of NATO gear and training, and second, Petraeus thinks the Russians “are not well trained, they’re not well equipped, and they’re not well led.”

A week later, retired four-star general Ben Hodges went so far as to say he still believes “that Ukraine can liberate Crimea, the decisive terrain of this war, by the end of this summer, that is to say, by the end of August.” Even last Thursday, Hodges optimistically wrote in the Washington Post that “Ukraine has just taken a decisive step down the path of driving Russian forces from its territory.” Mounting physical evidence on the battlefield, however, makes painfully clear that despite the buoyant optimism, the offensive has gotten off to a disastrous start. Conditions going forward bode ill for Zelensky’s forces.

Historically speaking, making key gains in the first 24 to 48 hours of a major invasion or offensive is essential to success. Consider that Eisenhower believed that for the famous 1944 invasion of Europe at Normandy to be successful, the Allies had to have penetrated beyond the landing beaches in 24 hours. Gen. Douglas MacArthur needed four days to seize the Kimpo airbase in support of the famous Inchon Landing in September 1950. 

Even Hitler’s ultimately unsuccessful counteroffensive in December 1944 in the Ardennes Forest — the Battle of the Bulge — initially penetrated almost 50 miles behind American lines before stalling out. In contrast, Ukraine’s offensive has thus far succeeded in moving a mere seven kilometers forward in one area and virtually none in other locations. According to Deputy Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Maliar, the UAF have actually lost ground in the Liman/Kupyansk part of the front. 

Most Western commentators have argued that it is simply early, and that with time, the Ukrainian offensive will still succeed. Such sentiments are understandable, but for very practical reasons, they are almost certainly wrong.

Russia’s Crushing Advantage

The general plan for Ukraine was to launch a number of diversionary attacks along the 1,000-kilometer front to deceive Russia into believing that the main effort would be centered in the Zaporizhzhia direction. Kyiv’s intent was to penetrate the first lines of Russia’s defense south of the jumping-off point of Orikiv to take the town of Tokmak some 25 kilometers to the south. They would then move on to either Berdyansk or Melitipol on the Azov Sea coast to cut the Russian army in half. After 15 days of fighting in which they have suffered heavy casualties, Ukraine has yet to reach even the first belt of Russia’s main defense areas. The reasons for Ukraine’s failures are clear, systemic, and troubling.

First, Russia had nine months to prepare some areas of the defensive belts and thus had time to make them very thorough and survivable. Second, as this war has routinely shown, attacking is much more complex than defending. Third, Russia has a number of critical military advantages over Ukraine that are very nearly impossible to overcome. 

Moscow has near air supremacy in the tactical front over Ukraine; a significant edge in air defense systems; an advantage in the density of artillery rounds; superiority in electronic warfare capacity, which shows most clearly in Russia’s ability to deploy attack and reconnaissance drones while severely degrading Ukraine’s attempts to do likewise; a near-limitless supply of anti-tank mines; advantages in the number of armored personnel carriers and tanks; and the ability to launch sustained missile barrages against Ukrainian cities and fuel and ammunition depots near the front. 

Critically, when needing to penetrate deep minefields in multiple belts, Ukraine appears to have grossly insufficient mine-clearing equipment. And perhaps above all, Russia has millions more men from whom to draw replacements, and a fully functioning military industrial capacity to keep the weapons of war rolling indefinitely.

These advantages are enduring and fundamental to determining who wins and loses wars, and there is nothing that will change them in the foreseeable future. Ukraine has been unable to advance to the main line of Russian defense in two weeks, yet the most difficult defensive fortifications are still to come: tank ditches, dragon’s teeth, massive minefields, and mobile counterattack formations in depth. 

Converting Offense to Defense

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said last week that there are “several hundred thousand Russian troops dug in in prepared positions all along the front line” in Ukraine. Russia will not likely run out of men before Ukraine’s offensive potential is spent. If Kyiv refuses to acknowledge their insufficient progress in this offensive and to recognize the fundamental reasons why future success is unlikely, they may lose the majority of their offensive striking power and become vulnerable to a Russian counterattack.

In the best of circumstances, it would take Ukraine another nine to 12 months to rebuild a force of similar capacity to the one they spent the past nine months assembling. It would be unwise to count on Russia’s not having a large strike force with which it can launch a major counterattack. If Putin does have enough troops, and Zelensky sacrifices his offensive potential with the current operation, Ukraine might find itself facing a Russian offensive this summer that Kyiv may not have the capacity to resist.

Given the performance of the UAF offensive to date, and the fundamentals that still prevail all along the front, the most prudent course of action for Kyiv would be to suspend its offensive, convert to positional battles along the line of contact to ensure Russia can’t attack in force anywhere, and begin building their own line of elaborate defensive fortifications. There is likely still time to build a strong defense, and Ukraine still has strength enough to man a powerful defense of their own.

Concurrently, the most realistic course diplomatically and politically would be to begin laying the groundwork, now, to seek a negotiated settlement on the best terms possible, both with the domestic audience in Ukraine and with the Russian government. Such a course would, without question, be odious and repulsive to even contemplate at the moment. The danger in refusing to take such action, however, is that by continuing to fight when the fundamentals are so firmly arrayed against Kyiv — however valiantly and courageously — might leave Ukraine subject to a battlefield loss of such severity that they lose even more territory than they presently have.

Nothing is guaranteed, and no choice is without great risk. I don’t shy from admitting that it is relatively easy for me to argue that the most prudent course is to turn to the defensive now and start negotiating an end to the war. This would be excruciatingly difficult for Kyiv’s political leadership. Only they can make the choice. And only they will reap the rewards, or suffer the consequences, of their decisions.

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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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.