Back on March 10, I posted “Preparing for Defeat,” in which I argued that Russia might be heading for outright defeat in its invasion of Ukraine. It got a lot of attention at the time and many people thought that I was being wildly optimistic. So far, the broad thrust of that piece has held up pretty well. The Russians were in fact defeated in their effort to conquer Kyiv and by early April were withdrawing from northern Ukraine. They subsequently scaled back their strategic objectives dramatically, and the war has transitioned to a new phase in the east and south, with Moscow seeking to conquer the remaining parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, as well as secure the ruined city of Mariupol (where Ukrainian defenders are incredibly still holding out after more than eight weeks of war).
Conventional wisdom shifted once again to assert that in the more open terrain of southeastern Ukraine the Russians would do better than around Kyiv, since they appointed a unified theater commander and are focusing on a single front rather than four. Many observers continue to maintain that the two sides are heading for a prolonged stalemate that can only be resolved by a negotiated settlement.
I believe this is wrong and that the Ukrainians will succeed in driving the Russians out of the territories they now hold. There are several reasons for this.
· First, the United States and its NATO allies, responding to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pleas for military assistance, are now sending much larger quantities of equipment to Ukraine like long-range artillery, drones, and aircraft that will negate much of the Russian advantages in firepower. Though we do not know what Ukrainian losses have been to date, some speculate that Kyiv may now actually have parity in armored vehicles, leaving Moscow far short of the 3-1 size advantage typically needed for a successful offensive.
· Russian morale is likely to continue to be extremely low. The units withdrawn from northern Ukraine were thrown right back into the Donbas battle without time to rest and regroup. They have taken huge losses in manpower and equipment to date, and apparently lost another couple of generals this past week. The Ukrainians are even more highly motivated to win, now that they have witnessed the atrocities carried out by the Russians in areas they have occupied.
· It is not clear that the Russians are capable of learning lessons and adapting quickly to changed circumstances. In particular, they have not acquired an ability to coordinate a large combined arms operation effectively and continue to rely on brute firepower to advance. The Ukrainians, by contrast, have gotten very good at devolving authority to lower command levels while retaining overall strategic control of their forces.
· Russia simply does not have the manpower or reserve forces they can call up as their army in Donbas is slowly worn down.
What I find rather dismaying is that some of my conservative colleagues have shifted from attacking the Biden administration for not having done enough to support Ukraine prior to the war, to arguing that we are doing too much. According to this line, Ukrainian success in the east will lead Putin to escalate to chemical or biological weapons, or even the use of nuclear weapons. In this they are joining hands with the pacifist Left, which has used the World War III argument from the beginning to caution against providing strong support to Ukraine.
No one should dismiss the possibility of escalation when the potential stakes are as high as they are. One of the arguments against a no-fly zone was that it would involve the United States or NATO directly attacking Russian targets on Russian soil and cross an important red line.
Nonetheless, I think that Russian escalation to WMD remains a low-probability outcome. Chemical or nuclear weapons will simply not do much to rescue the Russians’ deteriorating position, and will trigger an escalation to a much higher level of NATO involvement in the war. This will not likely be symmetric in the use of WMD, but there are plenty of ways that NATO could enter the war with conventional weapons (e.g., by actually imposing a no-fly zone or attacking the bases from which WMD originated) that would do huge damage to Russia’s position. If Russia is losing this badly to the Ukrainians, think of what would happen if a NATO country gets directly involved.
The political consequences of a decisive Russian defeat have not yet been felt in Europe. Viktor Orbán won his election with a substantial margin, as did Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia. Emmanuel Macron succeeded in defeating Marine Le Pen this past weekend by a decent margin. But many observers have pointed out that the anti-Macron vote was a majority of the electorate in the first round, and that Le Pen’s vote share has improved with every passing election. Donald Trump’s sympathy for Russia, which seems to me outright treasonous, has not seemed to hurt his standing in the Republican Party much.
However, the Ukraine war has not yet concluded. If it does end in the coming weeks with Russia being driven out of the territories it occupied after February 24, Putin will have wrecked his shiny new army for no territorial gain whatsoever, and led his country into North Korean-level isolation. Failure on this level would have eventually have consequences, both in Russia itself, and for all of the populists who lined up behind him.
Ukraine’s struggle would not end with this type of Russian defeat, however. The economic blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports must be broken if that country is to have a viable economic future. NATO needs to turn its attention to reopening Ukrainian ports and protecting innocent passage in and out of that country. This would be only the beginning of a massive reconstruction effort that would be necessary.
But there is also opportunity here. Prior to the war, Ukraine’s single biggest weakness was the domination of its economy and political system by oligarchs. The internal balance of power has shifted dramatically since the beginning of the invasion, with the oligarchs fleeing the country at the first instance. Rinat Akhmetov, the Donbas-based oligarch whose former Party of Regions purported to represent the interests of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, has seen his Azovstal steel plant bombed and occupied in a heroic last stand against the Russian invaders. There will be a huge opportunity to solidify Ukrainian national identity around a new set of symbols and power equilibrium, and overcome the corrupt legacies of the country that existed before February 24, 2022.
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