A Successful Offensive Could End the War With Russia
By Rajan Menon
April 12, 2023
Before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the prevailing view was that Ukrainian resistance would crumble quickly. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency thought so, as did Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reportedly predicted that Kyiv could fall in 72 hours. Yet more than a year later, Ukraine’s army fights on, having achieved remarkable advances on the battlefield. In March, it repelled Russia’s attack on Kyiv and areas north of the city. It had retaken Kharkiv Province by mid-September and has subsequently attacked the main Russian defense line between Svatove and Kreminna in adjacent Luhansk Province. In November, it forced Russia to withdraw from the part of Kherson Province that lies on the Dnieper River’s right bank. Ukraine has now regained about half the land Russia seized after the invasion.
The initial pessimism about Ukraine’s chances was, however, scarcely unreasonable. Russia had overwhelming superiority in the standard measures of military power, such as the number of soldiers and the quantity and quality of major armaments. Moreover, Putin had initiated a megabucks military modernization drive in 2008 that was widely considered by experts to have made the Russian armed forces substantially stronger. For these reasons I, too, believed that Russia would prevail and not end up mired in a protracted war.
In the event, stronger morale, superior generalship, and Russia’s overconfidence (and consequent expectation of a rapid victory) proved of outsize importance. By now Ukraine has amply demonstrated just how significant these and other, often intangible elements can be. And Russia’s many military shortcomings have become evident to the point that even ardent pro-war Russian nationalists openly acknowledge them, recognizing that the winter offensive has failed to push the frontline forward substantially, and questioning the prospects for success. Yet many Western assessments of the war’s likely course and outcome still assume that none of this will matter very much and that Russia will prevail because it will learn from its mistakes and has material resources that far exceed Ukraine’s.
The Ukrainian army is now preparing for a spring offensive. Based on the lessons of the past 13 months (which I’ve explored over two trips to wartime Ukraine, including to places near the frontlines), a Ukrainian path to victory is entirely plausible—although not as complete a victory as Kyiv and its supporters want. As the war continues, the United States in particular, given its pivotal role in arming Ukraine, will face increasingly hard decisions about costs, sustainability, and risks. That makes it especially important to consider more limited definitions of victory. A less-than-perfect outcome can still amount to a remarkable achievement—and it is within Ukraine’s reach.
NUMBERS AREN’T EVERYTHING
As the war extends into its second year and the battle lines have become more fixed, some observers hold fast to the belief that a prolonged war will ultimately play to Russia’s advantage. One element of this argument—that time favors Russia because it has a far larger population than Ukraine and hence many more troops—cannot be dismissed lightly. Putin’s call-up of 300,000 reservists in September illustrated this numerical advantage. So have the waves of soldiers Russia used with abandon in Donetsk Province to take the town of Soledar and surrounding areas and in the long-drawn battle for Bakhmut.
Yet this assessment misses some of the most important ingredients of battlefield success, as well as key lessons provided by this particular conflict. Numbers can be misleading. For one thing, they say nothing about combat readiness, which has been a problem for Russia in part because many of the Russian army’s noncommissioned officers and other personnel dedicated to training have been sent to the front or to staff hollowed-out battalions. Those problems will worsen the longer the war continues. As the casualties mount, Russian reservists—who, unlike their American counterparts, are not required to train regularly—may be rushed to the front to replace their killed or wounded comrades. And even with Russia’s large military-age population, these casualties, estimated to be between 180,000 and 250,000, are taking a heavy toll.
Causalities are devilishly difficult to tally and therefore inevitably imprecise, and some observers have dismissed the numbers publicized by Western governments as vast exaggerations, just as they rejected Ukraine’s official tally of its own casualties as implausibly low. But even if Russia’s actual losses are only a third of the lower number, they far exceed the Red Army’s total during its decadelong war in Afghanistan. And there are signs that they have created a shortfall in troops. Russian authorities have tried to remedy the situation with steps such as offering signing bonuses that are multiples of local average incomes, raising the age limit for contractual military service, and discussing a similar step for conscription. Whatever the extent of the shortage, Russia will still nevertheless have more troops than Ukraine. As the attacker it needs a hefty margin of superiority at points of contact, the rule of thumb being three to one.
Yet the larger the army, the greater its needs, which highlights another problem: the deficiencies of Russia’s military supply system. Reports of ill-equipped troops heading into battle persist, as do stories about families’ feverish efforts to provide them with basic necessities such as helmets and vests. Even Russian officialdom has acknowledged the equipment shortages.
Although Russia has far more military hardware than Ukraine, its losses have also been surprisingly high.
What is more, the ability to mobilize more soldiers than the adversary may not prove decisive if they are poorly used. The Russian army’s bullheaded assault on Bakhmut, which began in August and continues despite huge casualties, casts doubt on the claim that it has learned from early mistakes and started fighting more savvily. Ditto the repeated attacks on places such as Kamianka, Vuhledar, and Avdiivka, despite the heavy toll in troops (many newly mobilized) and equipment exacted by Ukrainian forces occupying higher ground. In Vuhledar, the losses
suffered recently by the 40th and 155th Naval Infantry Brigades, the latter an elite “Guards” unit, were so high that their troops refused orders to fight on.
Nationalist supporters of the war have blasted the chaotic management of the September mobilization and the army’s performance in battle. One prominent hard-liner recently went so far as to rail against the “demonstrated blatant incompetence” of the military high command and the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, referring to them as “cretins.” That Putin has appointed the fourth commander of his “special military operation” in under a year and replaced other senior officers suggests that even he recognizes that Russia’s performance isn’t improving.
Although Russia has far more military hardware than Ukraine, its losses have also been surprisingly high. The destruction or capture of some 2,000 tanks may explain the turn to models dating back to the 1960s (T-62s) and even the 1940s (T-54s), as well as the recent decision to rely more on motorized rifle units. Despite the much-vaunted capabilities of Russia’s combat aircraft and attack helicopters, Moscow’s forces have lost 78 of the former and 80 of the latter. The repurposing of air defense and antiship missiles to strike targets on land and the purchases of Iranian drones also point to shortages.
There is also the question of morale, impossible to quantify but critical in war, as a 2018 RAND Corporation report demonstrated. Unlike Russians, Ukrainians are defending their homeland against an invader and believe that losing the war could lead to the loss of their country—a sentiment that visitors to Ukraine hear repeatedly. Because Russian soldiers are not in this predicament, Ukrainian troops have much greater resolve, which they have demonstrated by braving relentless attacks in places such as Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar. Ukraine’s army has also suffered significant losses, but this is precisely where morale matters: in war, the side that has more of it will endure greater suffering and make bigger sacrifices.
Ukraine’s civilians have shown the same tenacity amid their own severe hardships. Indeed, the Russian army’s devastation of Ukraine—evidenced by destroyed cities, millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, and an economic contraction of nearly one-third—has only strengthened that tenacity. Ukrainians seem almost inured to the frequent alerts that serve as reminders of the ever-present danger of air and missile strikes. By the time of my second visit to Ukraine, in December, serial Russian strikes on the power grid, which started in early October, had cut off electricity and heat, even water, in cities, and Ukrainians were noticeably wearier. Yet a common refrain was that they had an obligation to live their lives with as much normality as possible, and without complaint, to honor their soldiers, who were enduring far worse. A September Gallup poll showed that Ukrainians overwhelmingly supported continued resistance, believed it would yield victory, and opposed territorial concessions to end the carnage. A survey in December showed no diminution in determination: only eight percent favored a land-for-peace deal. A February–March poll by the Kyiv International Institute for Sociology revealed that 68 percent favored fighting on to regain all territory lost since 2014, even if that meant enduring a long war and less Western military assistance. Societal sentiments matter: wars are fought at the front, but their outcomes can hinge on what happens in the rear.
That morale among Ukrainians has been matched by a surprisingly sustained and unified commitment from Ukraine’s supporters. Not only did Putin’s soldiers encounter a Ukrainian army that had gained valuable experience fighting the Russian-backed Donbas statelets since 2014, but the following year, Ukraine also started receiving extensive training from the West. By early 2022, the United States had trained 23,000 Ukrainian soldiers; Britain, 2,000; and Canada, 35,000 (in each case, counting security personnel). The United States plans to train 2,500 Ukrainians a month in Germany in 2023; Britain, which trained close to 5,000 last summer, has set its goal at 20,000, and the EU’s new Military Assistance Mission for Ukraine hopes to train 15,000.
The West’s commitment to Ukraine may well flag as costs and risks increase and military stocks run low.
Western arms deliveries have also increased, in value and sophistication. Kiel University’s Ukraine Support Tracker reckons that between January 24, 2022, and January 15, 2023, the United States committed over $47 billion in military assistance; Britain, Canada, and various European countries, more than $20 billion; and the EU’s European Peace Facility, over $3 billion. The armaments include shoulder-fired antitank missiles and antiaircraft systems, armored recovery vehicles, armored personnel carriers, artillery, self-propelled howitzers, counterbattery radars, air defense systems, drones, and, courtesy of NATO countries that were once part of the Warsaw Pact, Soviet-era tanks.
Now that the handwringing over supplying Western tanks to Ukraine is past, Kyiv has begun to receive British Challenger 2s and German-made Leopard 2s (from Germany and several other European countries) and will eventually receive American Abrams M1A1s. As for airpower, Slovakia has pledged to send 13 Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets and Poland, four, with the promise of more to come. Although the supply of Western warplanes remains uncertain, the Dutch government has said it will “keep an open mind” on Ukraine’s requests for U.S.-made F-16 fighter planes, and French President Emmanuel Macron has stated that he has not ruled out sending French combat aircraft.
The West’s commitment to Ukraine may well flag as costs and risks increase and military stocks run low, but that has yet to happen, doubtless to Putin’s surprise. Vast quantities of Western weaponry are headed Ukraine’s way as it gears up for its spring offensive. The tanks and infantry fighting vehicles will boost its prowess in armored warfare: the former will help punch through Russian defenses, and the latter will provide infantry better protection and greater speed. Mobile artillery and air defenses will make the tandem even more powerful. It will take months for all the committed armaments to arrive, and Kyiv continues to worry about a shortage of artillery and shells. Yet for now, having paid a heavy price for a winter offensive that failed to yield commensurate gains and facing shortages of troops, ammunition, and equipment, the Russian army will be hard-pressed to launch another in short order and may already be shifting to a defensive stance.
THE NEXT OFFENSIVE
A lot is riding on the success of Ukraine’s coming offensive. Among other things, the country’s supporters will be watching carefully, assessing whether the victory that Kyiv seeks is feasible. But there is good reason to think that it could succeed beyond what skeptics believe. Ukraine’s military leaders have proved wily, agile, and resourceful to a degree that their Russian counterparts have not, and the cumulative effect of incoming Western armaments will increase the firepower at their disposal in multiple ways.
The recent deployment patterns of Ukrainian and Russian troops and the construction of Russian defense lines suggest that Ukraine’s offensive may focus on driving south into the Russian-held parts of Zaporizhzhia Province to cut Russia’s land corridor to Crimea. To that end, Ukraine will step up its strikes on Russian bases and supply depots as well as rail-based supply lines, the mainstay of Russian military logistics, that run through Tokmak (a major hub in Zaporizhzhia) south to Melitopol and onward to Kherson and Crimea. The strikes on the Melitopol region will also intensify. If Ukrainian forces reach Berdiansk or Mariupol, key ports on the Azov Sea coast, they will cut Russian forces in left-bank Kherson and in Zaporizhzhia off from each other, increasing their vulnerability to encirclement and making the supply and defense of Crimea harder—even if the Kerch Strait Bridge is fully repaired by July as planned. An alternative vector of attack could be from Kherson toward Crimea itself, although that would require a difficult crossing of the Dnieper River. Yet Russia’s decision to increase deployments and build trench lines in the peninsula’s north suggests that it has not ruled out that move. Either way, a southward advance could also place the Kerch Strait Bridge, damaged severely by a truck bomb in October, within range of Ukrainian missiles.
Buoyed by its battlefield successes, Kyiv seeks to recover all territories lost since 2014, including Crimea and all of eastern Ukraine, a definition of victory that President Volodymr Zelensky has repeatedly articulated and will not renounce lightly. Yet military circumstances may force Ukraine’s leaders to yield: despite its best efforts, their army may be unable to evict Russia from all lost territories. The West, having realized that, may press Kyiv to make hard choices because it wants to avoid endless and even costlier war—the more so if Western economies start encountering even stronger economic headwinds and fatigue takes hold in Ukraine. This scenario, while not inevitable, cannot be dismissed outright. Any end to the war short of outright Russian defeat would require Ukraine’s leaders to make painful concessions that would be deeply unpopular. Yet the course of the war, together with political and economic trends in the West, may require them to accept that continued fighting will not produce victory on the terms they want.
No matter the precise territorial configuration of a postwar Ukraine, Kyiv will insist on NATO membership and may well achieve it.
There are different ways to imagine the less-than-ideal outcomes, but consider two. In the first, Russia would retreat to pre-invasion battle lines, retaining Crimea and the land in the Donbas that the two pro-Moscow statelets occupied before the war. In the second, Ukraine would recover all of Zaporizhzhia, and therefore the Azov Sea littoral, and Kherson, including the Russian-occupied segment of the Black Sea coast. Russia would retain Crimea and much of the Donbas—Luhansk Province and the part of Donetsk Province that it controls—but relinquish the land corridor to the peninsula it now has through the southern parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia Provinces.
Even the latter scenario would amount to a significant Ukrainian victory. Putin’s plan to install a quisling government in Kyiv and partition Ukraine by annexing its north, east, and south, including the Black and Azov Sea coastlines, would have failed. So would his bogus attempt last September to annex Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia Provinces, three of which he only partly controlled at the time. Ukraine would retain approximately 93 percent of its pre-invasion land area and about 89 percent of its pre-2014 territory. Although a settlement along these lines would fall well short of Kyiv’s ideal denouement, it would spare Ukraine further death and destruction, allow it to proceed with the mammoth task of postwar reconstruction, and enable millions of refugees and internally displaced people (together, nearly 14 million) to return home.
What is more, Putin would not just have failed to stop Ukraine’s alignment with the West, a long-standing goal, but would also have guaranteed and even accelerated it. No matter the precise territorial configuration of a postwar Ukraine, Kyiv will insist on NATO membership and may well achieve it. Even if the alliance cannot muster the unanimity needed to admit Ukraine, it could gain a security guarantee from the United States, Britain, Poland, and the Baltic countries, seen by Ukrainians as their most stalwart supporters, and other willing NATO states. If a security guarantee doesn’t materialize, Ukraine will have to settle for a long-term commitment by the West to provide military training and armaments. Ukrainians would see this outcome as tantamount to a betrayal, but it is not one they can rule out. Even in this circumstance, the enduring Western military assistance, the experience gained from this war, and Russia’s realization that Ukrainians will fight and fight well would provide Kyiv with a robust capacity for self-defense.
THE PERFECT AND THE GOOD
The West should have no illusions about what will be required of it on the military and economic fronts, even after the war. Although Kyiv has been grateful for Western weaponry, it has stressed repeatedly that much more is needed soon and indefinitely. If a Ukrainian victory seems nigh, U.S. and European policymakers will face urgent demands to boost their already substantial military support (even at the cost of diminishing their own military preparedness) to ensure that Kyiv clinches it.
In the economic realm, the war has produced staggering destruction in Ukraine as well as massive budget deficits. The latter, nearly $25 billion in 2022, could reach $38 billion this year. Kyiv’s needs for economic and humanitarian aid will increase as the war grinds on but will also persist once it ends. The World Bank estimates the cost of postwar reconstruction at $411 billion, while Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has put it at $750 billion.
These challenges should, however, be seen in the context of what has happened since February 24. Not only has Ukraine averted defeat and subjugation, but its army has pushed Russia out of large parts of the country with a blend of grit, savvy military commanders, and abundant Western training and arms. Even if Kyiv ultimately has to settle for a political settlement that
requires concessions, Putin will have failed to subordinate Ukraine, shear off vast tracts of its territory, including its coasts, and attach them to a Greater Russia. When the war began, it seemed as though he would succeed in achieving all this and perhaps more. Now, a Ukrainian victory, even if it does not match Kyiv’s ideal, has become not just imaginable but also probable.