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How Ukraine’s Heroic Stand Against Russia Could Collapse Into Failure

If both Zelensky and Putin decide to continue fighting, there is no rational basis to suggest Ukraine can come out on top.

An M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank with 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, fires its 120 mm smoothbore cannon during a live-fire event as part of Exercise Eager Lion 2015 in Jordan, May 9, 2015. Eager Lion is a recurring multinational exercise designed to strengthen military-to-military relationships, increase interoperability between partner nations, and enhance regional security and stability. This is similar to U.S. tanks given to Ukriane. Image: Creative Commons.
An M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank with 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, fires its 120 mm smoothbore cannon during a live-fire event as part of Exercise Eager Lion 2015 in Jordan, May 9, 2015. Eager Lion is a recurring multinational exercise designed to strengthen military-to-military relationships, increase interoperability between partner nations, and enhance regional security and stability. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Devin Nichols/Released)

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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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.



  1. Stephen

    September 6, 2023 at 8:46 am

    Recycling has become all the rage and Davis provides the evidence almost daily.

    Other commentators have noted the Russian reliance on tanks made in the 50s and 60s. The absence of any reserve formations. The widespread dependence on untrained troops, troops without adequate supplies. The hobbling of the Russian Navy and Air Force. And so on and on.

    Yes the Ukraine war is an atritional war and yes the Russians started out in the better place to win such a war. But that was when the Russians thought the war would take a week to win; and that then was many lost battles ago.

  2. Brett

    September 6, 2023 at 9:09 am

    Daniel Davis errs again. He argues that ‘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’, but he never proves his case.

    Just relying on the last ~50 years, it seems clear that the United States had the fundamentals of combat power in the war in Vietnam and in Afghanistan. Why didn’t the United States win in those cases?

    Perhaps more appropriate to consider is why the Soviet Union failed to conquer Afghanistan. Did the Afghanis have more ‘fundamental combat power’? I’ve never seen anyone argue that they have.

    Ukraine faces an existential threat. Russia has made it clear that they believe that the existence of Ukraine is a historical tragedy based entirely on a fiction. Their actions up to this point constitute a genocide of the Ukrainian people. SURRENDER will not save lives in the long run. If Ukraine doesn’t win now, decisively, it is possible that Russia will achieve in increments what it failed to achieve at once.

    Providing additional support NOW saves Ukrainian lives both NOW and in the LONG TERM.

    Daniel Davis previously assessed that Ukraine required THREE MIRACLES to reclaim Kherson. The fact that he now says ‘I assess, with a high degree of confidence, that the chances Ukraine will attain Zelensky’s objectives are so remote as to be unrealistic’ are in the same vein as his prior predictions.

    Even if he was fundamentally correct in his assessment – that the side with more tanks and artillery wins – he would be incorrect in ascribing the long-term advantage to Russia. Western manufacturing exceeds Russia’s Defense Industrial Base. Perhaps it was a mistake to accept the ‘peace dividend’ and reduce industrial capacity in this regard, but factories in Europe and the United States are roaring back to life. If one thing has become clear in this conflict it is that the ability to stay in the fight owes a lot to industrial resilience.

    The trend is clear – Ukraine is receiving more weapons faster than Russia. Russia is losing more weapons faster than Ukraine. If Ukraine doesn’t already have the advantage (and I have seen well-researched articles indicating that they may over the last three months) at current rates they certainly will, soon.

    It doesn’t make sense to demand that ‘both sides agree to negotiate’ when neither side is willing to do so. Russia has not abandoned their maximalist goals; they seek to gain by negotiation what they cannot obtain by armed conflict. Ukraine, on the other hand, is reclaiming territory and making it progressively more difficult for Russia to hold seized territory.

    It is very clear by watching a map of occupation by Russian forces that Ukraine has succeeded in reclaiming a significant amount of territory since February 2022. It would have been a bad decision to ‘accept territorial realties’ at that point (which Davis has never acknowledged), and it seems likely to me that it remains a bad decision. Ukraine is STILL reclaiming territory. This conflict may be approaching a stalemate, but that is not certain, and it is certainly not a stalemate at THIS POINT.

    Ukraine is willing to continue the fight. The believe they can achieve their objectives. I believe that additional continuing support makes that true. I applaud our leaders who have pledged to stand by Ukraine ‘as long as it takes’. That is the right position from a strategic as well as moral standpoint.

  3. Roger colman

    September 6, 2023 at 9:28 am

    Unbelievable. Daniel sees ukrainian defeat everyday.evrn today as Russian troops disintegrate in the southern axis.
    He needs better glasses.

  4. Michael Droy

    September 6, 2023 at 9:44 am

    Ukraine has lost by May 2022.
    Everything since has just been throwing more bodies on the fire – it is a dreadful war crime by Kiev and Washington (and London).

    Why bother pretending then, or now.

  5. Jim

    September 6, 2023 at 11:42 am

    The author speaks to the immorality of “forever” war which ends up destroying not just soldiers, but civilians and civilian physical assets… the fabric of a civil society comes unraveled.

    What will be left?

    The author speaks to both sides being unwilling to negotiate as both sides have maximalist war aims.

    But Russia has always stated they are willing to negotiate, but only upon a basis of recognizing physical reality (territorial control gained by force of arms). This is important because the author is wrong suggesting Russia is isolated… they are not… and, worse, it’s misleading… and demonstrably wrong… if they were isolated as the author writes, then the U. S. strategy of causing Russia’s economic collapse would have worked… but it didn’t because it turned out Russia was not isolated. (The author will always be wrong about the conflict’s political ramifications and calculations as long as he holds this disproven view.)

    Russia is playing to neutral, non-aligned nations… that’s who they care about because that’s who they are trying to woo in their quest to setup a Multi Polar World… not dependent on the so-called “rules based international order” claimed by the United States and its allies.

    Beyond Ukraine, itself, this is where the real game is being played.

    Why point this out?

    Because, while Davis is correct in his military analysis & assessment, his political analysis has always been wrong on this conflict and because war is politics by other means… his failure to understand the underlying political dynamics at play blinds him and renders his various assessments weaker than they could be.

    And leaves him in the dark… turn on the light and you will see a whole lot better… even if what you see is unpleasant and doesn’t jive with what the powers that be (the “gatekeepers”) want to be the consensus view.

  6. Jon

    September 6, 2023 at 12:15 pm

    Shorter Davis: “One, two, many Buchas!”

    Ukrainians will fight Russia with pointy sticks and rocks, if that is what they must, should every Western and democratic nation abandons them, because they know full well what awaits them, and what has already befallen their compatriots who have fallen under Russian occupation.

    Russia may have a larger landmass and a larger population, but they continue to squander both, to little effect. Meanwhile, Ukraine is employing its artillery with accuracy, and getting results. Ukraine is not wasting its missiles in attacks on civilian Russian targets, but blowing up Russian ammo dumps, and its drones in blowing up Russian bombers, rather than apartment buildings and grain elevators.

    I eagerly await your post, critiquing the Ukrainian victory and driving Russian from all Ukrainian territory, as Ukraine’s deepest and most tragic mistake.

  7. Scottfs

    September 6, 2023 at 1:11 pm

    DD: For God’s Sake Ukraine! Just lose, dammit!
    You’re embarrassing me!!!

  8. PubliusNaso

    September 6, 2023 at 1:22 pm

    If it was Ukraine fighting by itself, Mr. Davis would be right. But Ukraine is supported by a lot of countries. It is even possible to keep fighting if Trump is elected and cuts off all help for Ukraine. In that case the Europeans will pick up the slack – at least all countries nearby Ukraine and Russia, from Norway to Romania.

    There is this myth floating around about Russian military prowess. It is true that they conquered a lot from central asian peoples, but this is mostly due to the fact that they had some modern weaponry and were facing horse archers in the Siberian sultanates.

    Facing European or Japanese armies Russia has a long string of defeats in the last 200 years. In WW2 they benefited from massive support. This is now going to Ukraine.

  9. joe

    September 6, 2023 at 2:43 pm

    I think Russia will continue attriting Ukraine until Kiev falls apart. I don’t think Russia will make a massive maneuver for at least six months. continue degrading Kiev’s capacity to wage war. long range fires. continue expanding the force. Russia is wary of Biden going in. Russia would prefer a simple change in government.

  10. Mark Williams

    September 6, 2023 at 4:25 pm

    Where next for Gog Magog and chums after Ukraine!? 😀

  11. Sofronie the Monk

    September 6, 2023 at 4:30 pm

    “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. ”

    What did that Patrick Henry guy said once, Dan? Ah, yes. Here’s the full closing statement of a particular speech I think you might recall:

    “If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come. It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

    I believe it has worked pretty well for the US. As an American citizen, wouldn’t you say so, Mr. Davis? Or perhaps you would have preferred that your ancestors did not pay “the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of a militarily unattainable objective”?

    Almost ANY independence war was one against overwhelming odds, which, as a military officer, you probably are aware of.

    @Michael Droy: How exactly did Ukraine lose by May 2022? By liberating Kherson and pushing the Russian army away from Kharkov, liberating thousands of square miles and tens of thousands of people from the Russians in the process? Yeah, quite the defeat. Hoping Russia gets a few more victories as those.

  12. Jim

    September 6, 2023 at 4:57 pm

    Look at topographical map of the Robotyne and its associated cul-de-sac, it’s obvious where the Russian lines are; on the heights; Kiev’s forces are in the lowlands, trying to advance.

    The British Challenger tank hit has been geo-located at roughly the center of the cul-de-sac.

    Russia has substantial surveillance capability all the way to the center of the cul-de-sac… essentially all over the cul-de-sac… picked out a Challenger… oh my!

    Kiev’s forces are following a low ‘gully’ like track towards Verebove. Presumably, Verebove is built up with lots of surprises like Robotyne was (tunnel system exposed by incessant bombing).

    Robotyne is still being struggled over in a “passing back & forth” style of warfare with each successive wave of attack from each side.

    Is there anything beyond the cul-de-sac?

    Seems like a dead end.

  13. Churchill

    September 6, 2023 at 7:10 pm

    Russia will continue killing Ukrainians even if the war ends. They are intent on the genocide of Ukraine. I ask the author what he would do if someone invaded his home and wanted to kill his family.

  14. Steve

    September 6, 2023 at 7:19 pm

    Davis claims to be monitoring Russian Telegram channels, but he seems to have missed all the Russians, from common soldiers to high-ranking officers such as General Popov, complaining about their poor training, poor equipment, poor supplies, and poor leadership, as well as Russia’s lack of counter battery artillery capability. Ukraine has the edge in artillery range & precision guidance, which gives them the advantage even if Russia may still have more short range artillery with worn out barrels.

    Ukraine is being resupplied with modern NATO quality equipment; Russia is taking poorly maintained Soviet era stuff out of storage. Advantage Ukraine.

  15. Ben Leucking

    September 6, 2023 at 8:22 pm

    As Oddball said in the mpvie Kelly’s Heroes, cut the negative vibes. You need to harness your questionable expertise to help Ukraine succeed, rather than constantly bloviating about how they are doomed to fail.
    You really are tiresome.

  16. 0Zed

    September 6, 2023 at 9:40 pm


    Your comment about Russia playing to neutral, non-aligned nations is a good one. “Multipolarity” is Russia’s preferred rhetorical device. I would simply note that most of these nations are pragmatic and opportunistic enough to abandon the losing side, whichever side that happens to be. By offering them something of value to them today and demanding little of them in return one can keep them neutral or win them over (if that’s worth doing).

    I’d say that middle and regional powers can be quite important geopolitically. Wooing them is definitely worthwhile. A diminution in the costs of food, fuel and fertilizer, market access, some investment capital, a valuable favor or two, and bilateral assistance will usually do the trick. The US, Canada, Mexico and the EU could readily supply those needs.

    Hopefully we remember that meaningful diplomacy is usually conducted bilaterally by value-maximizing actors who, nonetheless, want to look good in front of others and especially their peers back home and internationally. May we not deceive ourselves with pretty phrases like the “international community” and the “rules-based international order.” As rhetorical devices, they can be useful — like “multipolarity” — but, in the end, it is people who do things and it is people who refuse to do them. Interests and motivations are usually not ethereal but cloathing them in noble dress seems to speak to something within us.

  17. Bryan

    September 7, 2023 at 12:25 am

    To all those saying that “Russia’s army is disintegrating in the Southern axis” or that “Western military industrial potential outstrips that of Russia”, both assertions are false.

    Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and even through the difficult economic period of the 90’s – Russian UralVagonoZavod continued to be the largest tank producer in the world. It recently got retooled, as well as numerous Russian military plants like Izhmash and UzhMash. Russian industrial capabilities are increasing at an exponential rates and it is unlikely (by Western officials admissions) they will be able to catch up between 2027. Moreover, Russian drone production is apparently reaching some of the highest in the world – and the lancet drone has become critically acclaimed as one of the best and cost-efficient solutions in the world.

    As for “Russian tanks are from the 50-60’s”. This is false. Russia is currently employing T72BM tanks as its MBT but the production of T90’s has increased substantially and now they are beginning to flood the front.

    In addition, if we add in the fact that China is covertly supplying Russia (for example a large number of T90’s that are currently flooding the front, have almost all of their electronics supplied by Chinese companies). Russia is also getting Chinese military manufactering and industry to help them produce trucks and shells. This is done covertly, but there have been many indications this is the case.

    As for the Southern direction – Ukraine spent 3 months (longer than the entire Battle for Marioupol) trying to take the village of Robotyno and has failed to decisively do so.

  18. George Gordon Byron

    September 7, 2023 at 3:07 am

    And here is an indisputable fact and result for Ukrainian apologists today:
    Allocation by the United States ONLY of about $45 billion for the needs of the counter-offensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as a result of which, in three months, the Ukrainian army took control of about as many territories in the Zaporozhye region as it lost in the Kharkiv region.
    And no one knows what will happen tomorrow … even the great strategists of the Internet.

  19. Simon Beerstecher

    September 7, 2023 at 8:45 am

    Written on the point of a Ukrainean breakthrough?Davies is now Neville Chamberlain,who on earth is paying this man?How much does a mans soul cost?

  20. Wesser

    September 7, 2023 at 9:33 am

    Things must be worse for Russia than I thought.

    Even D.D. seems to admit Russia won’t win and is falling back on “think of the ukrainian lives lost”.

    I’ll concede Im unsure if pushing to take back Crimea and Donbass is worth it and somehow peace talks need to happen at some point which Will involve Ukraine to make compromizes

    Issue he fails to mention is how to make that peace happen since Ukraine Will need security guarantees involving either NATO-membership or something akin to it (since Russia cant be held to any promise it makes) to it, which probably wont be accepted by Putler.

    But thats a difficult question, so its easier to just Dodge it

  21. Lee Lane

    September 7, 2023 at 3:48 pm

    Mr. Davis’ comments plainly draw upon much relevant experience; they are carefully qualified, and his language relies in the main on evidence rather than on moral invective. With Davis’ critics, the exact opposite is true. The reader is left with a clear sense of who has the stronger case.

    Yet, I can’t help thinking that Mr. Davis’ article still misses the real point; namely, Washington is once again squandering vast amounts of scarce resources on a war that is not grounded on any vital U.S. strategic interest. This is the same grave error that the Uniparty elites have repeated time and again since the end of the First Cold War. And it has contributed massively to our country’s steep decline.

    But what proof is there that Putin’s Russia harbors territorial ambitions beyond Left-Bank Ukraine? In light of Russia’s military performance to date, why believe that it could make good on such ambitions if it does have them? Given that the EU is richer and more populous than Russia, why should it need Washington to deter this hypothetical threat? And, if Europe is unwilling to bear these costs – as it mostly appears to be – why prey tell should the United States, beset by many problems of its own, be willing to do so?

  22. jeff

    September 7, 2023 at 5:07 pm

    This author has a great gig. Write the same article every day and get paid as if it’s a new article each day.

  23. Walker

    September 7, 2023 at 8:40 pm

    It’s funny that DD claims that forcing Ukraine to give up is what is good for Ukraine while he admits this is not what most Ukrainians want for themselves.

    So what is DD’s answer, not to give them the weapons they need to fight their war. What kind of peabrain thinks like this. I’m sure he would have been against US getting support from France in the revolutionary war. I’m sure he would have been against the Union continuing to fight the rebels in the Civil war. I’m sure he would have been against the US participating in WWI and WWII. This guy really is completely unqualified to cover this subject at all.

    When he says “do it for Ukraine” he is being completely dishonest. He is doing it for himself.

  24. James Arness

    September 8, 2023 at 3:28 am

    One of the more idiotic articles I have ever read.

  25. jg

    September 8, 2023 at 10:48 am

    Those “heroic” Nazis who started the war after overthrowing democracy with direct US help in 2014.

    Only Nazis cheer for those mass murdering monsters.

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