In Washington, Brussels, and Kyiv, a never-ending stream of government officials, military officers, and opinion leaders often and defiantly declare they will support Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s illegal invasion “for as long as it takes.” The war’s objective, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is to drive every Russian out of Ukrainian territory. In the face of overwhelming and mounting evidence that there is no viable military path to a Ukrainian victory, such defiance and confidence is more likely to cause harm than to help.
Far from enabling Ukraine to win the war, the most likely outcome of continuing to resolutely fight is to doom Kyiv’s most valuable asset — its people — to ever deeper levels of loss. Providing blanket support to a country so it can continue fighting a war it is very likely to lose is, in my view, immoral.
If we truly care about the people of Ukraine, it is time to chart a new path forward — and before tens or scores of thousands more Ukrainians needlessly pay the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of a militarily unattainable objective.
Most of my adult life has been spent preparing for war, engaged in high intensity combat, or analyzing ongoing conflicts. During my four combat deployments I was shot at, bombed, or rocketed numerous times. And I have seen, on far too many occasions, the devastation and sorrow — the so-called collateral damage — imposed on the men, women, and children helplessly caught between warring parties. It is an egregious waste of human life.
I will concede up front that while any war is being actively fought, there are no guarantees of any outcome. It is theoretically possible Kyiv could win, Moscow could win, or that the conflict degenerates into a bloody stalemate of indefinite duration. Yet based on my personal experience with both peacetime training and active combat operations, I assess, with a high degree of confidence, that the chances Ukraine will attain Zelensky’s objectives are so remote as to be unrealistic.
At the moment, there is no appetite in either Kyiv or Moscow to even contemplate active negotiations to end the war. Both Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin are hardened into their corners, each apparently believing that with enough time, their side can amass sufficient numbers of trained personnel, armored platforms, air power, and ammunition to prevail on the battlefield. Odds are strong that neither is correct.
Whether Ukraine and Russia come to a settlement now, a year from now, or five years from now, the ultimate outcome will likely be the same: a negotiated end in which neither side gets everything it wants. Every delay in reaching that point condemns untold thousands to unnecessary deaths.
My colleague Rajon Menon, who has made three trips to Ukraine since the war began, has met with civilians, government officials, and combat troops at the frontlines. The citizenry of a nation that has been invaded will endure remarkable lengths to resist, he told me in a recent email, “enduring losses that outsiders may deem irrational.”
Wars only end, he continued, when one side comes to the point where they conclude “it’s better to compromise than to suffer additional losses.
“Not one person, soldier or civilian I’ve ever met on any of my wartime visits to Ukraine,” he somberly observed, “has said that the death and destruction had gotten so bad that it was time for talks and a settlement involving territorial concessions.”
Based on a number of Russian Telegram channels I have read, the opinion of many in Russia would seem to mirror such views. It is virtually certain, therefore, that without something changing the dynamics from the outside, the war will slog on mindlessly for the foreseeable future.
If a rational, unemotional analysis of the balance of power between Russia (with its few supporters) and Ukraine (with the support of 50 nations) suggested a valid path for Ukraine to achieve Zelensky’s objectives via military means, it would be reasonable for the United States to continue supporting the Ukrainian Armed Forces “for as long as it takes.” Not that there would need to be a guarantee of success. Perhaps as little as a 25% chance of success would be enough. Fully committed nations and soldiers have sometimes succeeded against great odds.
But those cases are rare.
The vast majority of major wars have predictably been won by the side that holds the most fundamentals of combat power on its side. In this case, that means Russia.
Cathal J. Nolan, author of the 2017 book The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars have been Won and Lost, argues that his research of studying wars over many centuries reveals that most major state-on-state conflicts are not decided by which side is in the moral right, which has the highest morale, or even which side employs the best commanders. “Wars are won by grinding, not by genius,” Nolan explained.
“Celebration of genius generals encourages the delusion that modern wars will be short and won quickly,” he explained, “when they are most often long wars of attrition. Most people believe attrition is immoral. Yet it’s how most major wars are won.”
Similarly, a 2015 Naval Postgraduate study analyzed more than 600 battles around the world from the 15th through the 20th centuries. The researchers found that force ratios — the side with more troops and equipment — were one of the biggest factors in determining the winner. The study also found that in the latter centuries, the side with more artillery, and in the 20th century the side with more tanks, tended to win. Russia has more available troops, more tanks, and more artillery than Ukraine can likely ever field (not to mention an enduring advantage in air power and air defense).
Based on historical precedent, then, the longer this war continues, the greater will be the chance that Russia wins. This owes nothing to brilliance or superiority in fighting ability. Rather, the conclusion rests on the banal calculation of the vast superiority of Russia’s natural and human resources over those of Ukraine. Russia has a population that is now five to seven times greater than Ukraine’s (owing to lost territories and to people who have fled Ukraine). Though sanctions have had a limiting effect on Moscow’s ability to produce weapons and ammunition, Russia still has a robust military industrial capacity that is likely to grow over time.
If this war simply grinds into an attrition contest, and if both Zelensky and Putin decide to continue fighting, there is no rational basis to suggest Ukraine can come out on top. Put bluntly, to continue supporting Ukraine in a war of attrition against Russia is likely to condemn tens or even hundreds of thousands of more Ukrainian lives, invite the destruction of yet more Ukrainian cities, and in the ultimate end, yield a military victory to Putin.
If nothing more, the West should be highly motivated to bring this conflict to an end in a negotiated settlement in which Putin will have to settle for less than his maximalist demands. But morally, the West should not continue to press forward in a vain attempt to accomplish the militarily unattainable objective of a Ukraine victory — especially when such support will most likely result only in the pointless loss of Ukrainian lives and territories.
We will either admit the unpalatable realities of how wars are fought and won and seek to engage in a diplomatic effort to gain all we can for Ukraine, or we will ignore the evidence we dislike and blindly press for a victory that will likely never come.
I fear I know what we will choose.
Author Biography and 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 a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.
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