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Imagining the Unimaginable: What Happens if Ukraine Can’t Beat Russia?

MLRS like those used in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
MLRS combat firing practice, Republic of Korea Army The 5th Artillery Brigade.

The unchallenged assumption among the majority of senior U.S. and NATO officials is that for as long as the war between Russia and Ukraine continues, one of the West’s most preferred policy outcomes of the war will be perpetually met: weakening Russia. Going unnoticed by most Western leaders, however, there is an emerging risk that the longer the war continues, Russia will grow stronger, not weaker.

It is in no one’s interest – most keenly for European states near Russia’s borders – for Moscow’s military to grow stronger and their conventional capacity become more effective. The West must begin to contemplate the unimaginable, therefore, and evaluate the consequences to the West of a Russian military victory. Reflexively supporting Ukraine with military supplies “for as long as it takes” may at some point have to take a back seat to finding a tolerable diplomatic solution. The long term economic and security interests of the United States and NATO must become the priority.

As bitter a pill as it would be to swallow, such consideration may reveal that pursuing a negotiated end to the war, with the best deal for Kyiv as possible, could be the path that best secures American and NATO interests. Continuing to blindly ignore emerging battlefield realities in pursuit of our preferred outcomes – total victory for Ukraine and defeat for Russia – could perversely foster conditions leading to a Russian win and put our national security at elevated risk.

Above all, we must build guardrails into our policy, beginning immediately, to prevent even the potential that the U.S. Government could get blindsided by the army we support suddenly collapsing, as happened to us in August 2021 with the dissolution of the Afghan National Security Forces. That potential outcome is not as far-fetched as some may believe.

America Establishes Goal of Weakening Russia in Early 2022 – and Initially, it Works

Seeking such a goal, however, would require a sea change in mindset among Western leaders, as their current beliefs remain solidly in the opposite direction. In April 2022, barely two full months into the war, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Polish leaders to form a unified approach to the war. At a press conference, Austin declared one of America’s key objectives was to “see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

From that point through the entirety of 2022, Austin’s objective seemed to be perpetually and progressively accomplished. The Center for Strategic and International Studies warned in late March 2022 that Russia had lost so much of its initial invasion force, it was nearing a “tipping point” to where the Russian army could break “from continuing casualties, physical exhaustion, dwindling supplies and munitions, and sinking morale.”

Russia’s air force, despite its technological and numerical superiority over Ukraine, had suffered loss and was unable to achieve air supremacy over its foe. Moscow’s ground forces continued to make grave tactical blunders that exposed significant weaknesses in the very formation of their army. It’s logistics system was dysfunctional. It suffered two major battlefield losses in Kharkiv and Kherson regions in late 2022, forcing Putin to order an emergency mobilization of 300,000 men – who proved to be of very low quality.

By the end of the summer of 2023, Russia had been reported to have lost half its tanks and a staggering 300,000 troops reported to have been killed and wounded. By any objective measure, Austin’s goal of weakening Russia was being graphically accomplished. And if the war ended today, Russia would remain in a weakened state for years to come, possibly measured in decades. Yet for practical reasons, the longer the war goes on, that dynamic may begin to shift and instead of further weakening Russia, Putin’s armed forces may begin to grow stronger.

Early 2023, the Tide Begins to Turn

As recently as this past Spring, some Western analysts began acknowledging that Russia’s troops had learned hard lessons from its bitter failures and losses, and were now becoming “a more formidable enemy.” Moscow’s military industrial complex shifted into full wartime mobilization of its own, and is beginning to produce growing amounts of ammunition, drones, and new and refurbished armored vehicles.

As British military strategist Sir Michael Howard famously argued, most militaries in the world get it wrong when they try to prepare for the next war. Russia may have set a record with how wrong they were prior to February 2022. Yet the Russians are making rapid wartime adaptation out of sheer necessity and appear to be making meaningful strides.

The Washington Post on Friday published an analysis of Ukraine’s offensive and found that Russia had “learned from its mistakes” and was performing in an improved and professional way in its “well-ordered defense” system. A recent CNBC report found that “Russia’s tactical adaptation” from its disastrous start, have resulted in the emergency of a “coordinated and reactive armed force…and one that’s particularly strong on the defensive.”

The Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) sent the best of their armed forces into the teeth of that defense, and since June 5, have been unable to penetrate more than 12-15km at only a couple points, and they still have 25km to arrive at their intermediate objective of Tokmak and a further 75km road distance to the strategic objective of Melitopol. The UAF have suffered significant losses to its armored fleet and personnel over the past three months and it appears unlikely they will have sufficient strength to continue much further.

While Putin’s troops are reported to have suffered even more casualties than Ukraine, there is a math problem for Kyiv: Russia has millions more military-aged males available to be mobilized than does Ukraine. If Zelensky remains committed to a policy seeking military victory over his opponent and continues fighting no matter what, and if Putin likewise remains immovable in his intention to prosecute the war until he achieves his objectives, one side will eventually buckle. Flatly stated, Russia has more manpower to feed into the meatgrinder of a stalemated war than does Ukraine.

What May Happen Next

War is a fickle and unpredictable thing, it must be acknowledged. Sometimes wars that appear to be going one way can change on a dime and victory can be grasped from the jaws of defeat. It is also true that at present, no one can guarantee that either Putin or Zelensky won’t buckle and lose their political will and could succumb to the other. More often than not, however, the fundamentals that have always determined the winners and losers in war hold fast (the side with the advantage of force ratios and logistics/supplies almost always prevails).

Thus, at this moment nearing the end of the UAF’s summer offensive, after a year and a half of inconclusive war, the war’s outcome cannot be predicted with any certainty. It remains at least conceivable that either Ukraine or Russia could prevail. If it turns out to be the former, then Ukraine, the United States, and Europe will be in good shape. But if the alternative plays out, if the existing fundamentals play out as they most often do in history, Russia could prevail over time. It would be irresponsible for Western leaders to assume the Ukrainian side is going to win and make no provision for the alternative.

The part of the equation few in the West bother to consider is what the pressure to win – or more to the point: what the fear of losing – does to the Russian side. The longer the war goes on, the more the Kremlin will continue engaging in rapid innovation and Russian scientists and military experts design new technologies and doctrines.

We must not be so arrogant to recognize that the life-and-death imperative that drives current Russian advancements is wholly absent in America, and thus our motivation and willingness to rapidly create, test, and apply successful new military technologies or tactics may result in us falling behind Russia on a conventional level. Faced with an existential threat, nuclear-armed Russia, with its vast natural resources, could muster the necessary focus to improve its army to the point Ukraine will eventually be unable to keep pace, and therefore it is not out of the realm of possibility Russia could win this war.

Implications for American and Western Actions

At the very least, Washington must begin to develop a set of criteria for closely tracking the capacity of each side to continue offering effective resistance in this war and vigilantly monitor it. As long as there remains a legitimate chance for Ukraine to obtain a militarily attainable objective, it is reasonable to continue providing Kyiv the means to defend itself. However, the proviso of “for as long as it takes” must be replaced with “as long as there remains a viable chance of success.”

If our policy remains the former, which is applied irrespective of the state of the war or of either side’s ability to wage war, it is possible we may be caught unprepared for the collapse of the Ukraine military. If anyone thinks the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces in August 2021 could not happen here – a collapse for which the United States was wholly unprepared – they are mistaken. It is entirely possible.

It is crucial, therefore, that the Administration establish a set of criteria whereby we would have strong indications, well before a collapse occurs, that an irrevocable point has been reached. If such a point-of-no-return moment is reached, the U.S. will have no choice but to change policies and put as much energy as possible behind finding a diplomatic path to a negotiated end.

Guarding Against an Afghan-War-like Collapse

It should go without saying that no one in the West wants to seek a negotiated settlement with Moscow that results in Russia retaining some territory that it illegally seized. But if we blindly continue seeking such an outcome, even when it becomes possible for an Afghan-style military collapse, we have the possibility where Russia, like the Taliban, could win an outright military victory.

That would be catastrophic for European, NATO, and American national interests and must be avoided at all costs.

Ultimately, the American government’s number one obligation (not merely responsibility) is to the people of the United States. We must not allow the situation to deteriorate to the point we have a repeat of the debacle that we passively watched unfold in Afghanistan for years. The Administration must at least actively prepare and consider the possibility that our preferred outcome may not come to pass, and should take steps to guard against it. A repeat of our failure in 2021 could be child’s play compared to the cost of failing in this war.

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.” 

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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.