Many pundits (this author included) feared the Russian army would have subdued the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) within a few months of Moscow’s February 2022 invasion. Instead, the Ukrainian troops demonstrated a fearlessness, heroic, and tenacious fighting spirit that not only prevented defeat, but inflicted severe wounds on Putin’s forces throughout 2022.
The question that must be answered, however, is whether that heroism and tenacity can power Kyiv’s troops to victory.
An honest and sober assessment of the military, economic, and political realities indicates the answer is no.
A couple weeks ago I published a four-part series examining the good, the bad, and the ugly of Russia’s military performance over the first year and a half of war. It was crucial, I argued, to form an accurate picture of what Russia had done and could do in order for Washington to form a policy that had a solid chance of success. Highlighting Russia’s many and legitimate weaknesses and failures while ignoring their successes and future capacity risked the formation of an inaccurate picture of Russian capacity and thus setting unachievable policy goals.
Conversely, the U.S. and West in general has had the opposite propensity regarding Ukraine: to highlight their many and legitimate strengths while ignoring their failures and limited future potential. Doing so similarly increases the risk that American policymakers form plans based on an inaccurate picture of Ukrainian capacity. What is necessary to the formation of effective policy is an accurate and sober assessment of both Russian and Ukrainian capacities.
We do Kyiv no favors by emphasizing Russian weaknesses and Ukrainian strengths as a basis for setting national policy, as that produces a skewed understanding of ground-truth reality and will almost certainly result in policy failure. Aspiring to see Kyiv win and Moscow lose is entirely understandable.
The question for Washington, however, should be to determine how likely that outcome is and what it would cost to achieve it. What this short series will reveal, unfortunately, is that Ukrainian victory is not achievable at an acceptable cost and therefore a change of strategy for the United States and NATO is necessary. First, though, let us consider what Ukraine did right and how it earned its reputation for fierce fighting.
The Good for Ukraine
In the years prior to Russia’s illegal invasion in February 2022, the Ukrainian Army had received a lot of training and some arms supplies from the West. But the vast majority of their combat experience in the eight years leading up to the war was mainly static, defensive fighting along hundreds of miles of trenches. When Russia stormed into Ukraine in February 2022 along four axes throughout the country, therefore, the expectation was that Ukraine’s years of experience in trench warfare would prove of little value in stopping fast-moving mobile armored thrusts. That was the initial result, as Russia had captured a fifth of Ukraine by the 100th day of war.
Yet the fear of a rapid collapse of the UAF and an outright Russian military victory did not occur. After the initial shock of a tank army invading Ukraine had worn off, Ukrainian troops began fiercely resisting Russian advances, inflicting significant casualties on the invaders. On March 9, 2022, barely two weeks into the war, the Washington Post reported that “Ukraine’s Army, vastly outgunned, inflicts losses on more powerful Russian forces.”
By July 2022, the Ukrainian army had stopped Russia’s advances, forcing them into deadly positional battles all along the line of contact. On July 20, CIA Director William Burns reported estimated the outgunned, outmatched, and outnumbered Ukrainian troops had inflicted upwards of 60,000 total casualties on the Russian invaders. Yet wars cannot be won solely on defense. To defeat Russia, Ukraine would have to send its troops on the offensive and drive Russia out.
Kherson & Kharkiv Offensives
In September of last year, Ukrainian commanding general Valery Zaluzhny formed a plan to secretly assemble a large, armored strike force in north-central Ukraine to launch a major offensive in the Kharkiv region. Russia had myopically focused on the long-awaited offensive in the Kherson region and had massed defensive forces there. Initially, the Russians badly mauled the Ukrainian offensive in Kherson, but Zaluzhny’s men achieved complete tactical surprise in the north and caught the Russians unprepared.
The UAF were fierce in their drive, putting entire Russian units to flight. In the Kharkiv portion of the offensive, the Ukrainians recaptured a stunning 6,000 square kilometers of territory in mere weeks. Moreover, buoyed by the success in the north, the Kherson arm of the Ukrainian offensive found renewed vigor and began capturing more and more territory itself. By early November, the Ukrainian army had closed the gap to the last major Russian defensive position in the region, Kherson city.
Zaluzhny’s men had put Russian Gen. Sergei Surovikin in a no-win situation. It was clear that the Ukrainian troops would be willing to press their offensive into the city of Kherson. The Russian general was uncertain his men could hold the city, but was apparently convinced that the cost of defending Kherson was too high, and on November 9, Surovikin ordered the Russians to abandon Kherson without a fight.
Five days later Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky triumphantly entered Kherson to a throng of newly-liberated citizens. Zelensky told a crowd that the cost to the Ukrainian troops had been high, but that the victory would prove to be “the beginning of the end of the war,” adding that the UAF would continue fighting until it had liberated “all of our territory.”
Victory and its Consequences
By December 2022, Ukrainian optimism was at its zenith and support from NATO and the West would only grow as a result of the demonstrated competence of the Ukrainian troops. After 10 months of war, they had endured an armored invasion by their nuclear-armed neighbor, weathered the storm, limited the damage, and had now inflicted a major operational defeat on Russian troops. By any measure, the UAF had made remarkable progress on the battlefield. But Zelensky was right that the cost to retake so much territory in both the Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts had been high.
The UAF had lost tens of thousands of its most trained and experienced troops to pay for the territorial gains. New troops can be trained to perform basic tasks, but experience cannot be transferred or built up easily. As Zelensky and Zaluzhny consolidated their gains at the end of 2022, they began to build a new offensive force to try and capture yet more territory from Russia in 2023. Unfortunately, it appears some of the successes achieved by Ukraine’s senior leaders went to their heads. Pride would rear its ugly head and produce a bad effect for Ukraine, as we will explore in the next installment.
Author Realworld and Military Expertise
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.” Davis is also a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.