The argument that Ukraine cannot win the war against Russia based solely on numerical superiority—more soldiers, weapons, tanks, and aircraft—is challenged by historical and contemporary examples where numbers were not decisive in determining the outcome of conflicts.

by Alexander J. Motyl

Feb 29, 2024

The National Interest


Who says Ukraine can’t win the war with Russia? If numbers are all that matters, Ukraine doesn’t stand a chance against Russia. Vladimir Putin’s kingdom has more of everything: more soldiers, more weapons, more ammunition, more tanks, more aircraft, and so on. It’s also some 28 times larger than Ukraine, and its population dwarfs Ukraine’s.

But if numbers are all that matters, Ukraine shouldn’t have survived the invasion of 2014 and the all-out war of 2022. Indeed, Ukraine should have gone belly up every single day since then. And yet, mysteriously and inexplicably, it didn’t.

Things get more inexplicable if we expand our focus. If numbers are all that matters, the United States should have prevailed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan; the Soviet Union should have easily conquered Afghanistan; the British, French, Spaniards, Dutch, and Portuguese should never have succeeded in establishing overseas empires; the Greeks should have lost to the Persians; Alexander the Great should never have reached the Indus River; the Mongols should never have approached the Adriatic; and Julius Caesar should never have conquered the Gauls.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that numbers alone are a poor predictor of military outcomes. That’s not to say that numbers don’t matter. They obviously do. But so do other things, such as leadership, economies, technology, tactics, strategies, grit, faith, morale, and many other tangible and intangible factors that play a role in determining the outcomes of wars. The world is annoyingly complex, and analysts have no choice but to try to encompass at least some of that complexity in their predictions.

That’s easier said than done, with the result that the business of prediction usually entails invoking the ceteris paribus clause and “freezing” most of reality in the hope of approximating laboratory conditions and thereby zeroing in on the isolated cause and effect, in this case, numbers and victory. If everything except for numbers and outcomes is held constant, Russia wins easily.

But “holding other things equal” cuts several ways. One can focus only on grit—an equally plausible move—and conclude that the Ukrainians win hands down. And if courageous leadership were all that mattered, then, once again, the Ukrainians would win. Ceteris paribus makes for elegant theories—such as neo-realism—but it also makes for poor policy advice, precisely because policymakers inhabit a complex world in which everything seems to matter.

In sum, all analysts simplify, because more or less accurate prediction is impossible in an all-too-complex reality, but simplification also means that no one prediction can stand for the whole: pars pro toto does not apply. Grasping the whole, however, is devilishly difficult, and ordering the parts of the whole into something resembling a theoretically grounded, yet policy-relevant, prediction is even harder.

One consequence of these limitations is that the temptation to resort to ex cathedra assertions of the Truth is hard to resist precisely because it’s so easy and so definite. Consider the following statement: “In short, Russia is winning the war and there is little to suggest that any foreseeable political, economic, tactical or technological developments are likely to alter that fundamental reality.”

The first part of that claim, that Russia is winning, can be tested empirically and is not a prediction. The evidence is at best ambiguous. Yes, Russia has gained some territory in the last few weeks, but no, its losses are massive. At best, its victory seems to be Pyrrhic and, thus, unsustainable. Despite claims that the Kremlin can draw on a virtually bottomless pool of potential conscripts, the reality is that it’s resorted to private military companies, hardened criminals, and foreign mercenaries to do the fighting, and dying. So, is Russia winning or losing?

The second part of the claim, about foreseeable developments, is categorically predictive—and wrong. One can easily foresee Putin’s overthrow, illness, or death (he is mortal, after all, and he’s alienated significant elements within the political and economic elites), accelerated economic decline, tactical incompetence, and technological backwardness. In fact, many Russian, Ukrainian, and Western analysts see these developments today, and not just in some distant future.

Suppose one adopts a complex, multifaceted approach to Russia and its war against Ukraine. In that case, the simple predictions of imminent Russian victory made by numbers fetishists appear profoundly simplistic and, thus, useless. Russia has numbers on its side, but the regime is brittle, its supreme leader is cognitively challenged and prone to blunder, its armed forces are being ripped to shreds, its non-Russian nations are growing restive, its consumer economy is shrinking, inflation is high—and Ukraine’s partners in Europe and North America are increasingly aware of the existential danger that Putin poses to them.

Can a state with such weaknesses win a brutal war of attrition with Ukraine? Is time really on Russia’s side? At the very least, an appreciation of complexity may lead one to conclude that the answers are not self-evident.

Alternatively, one can stick to numbers, but then it’s important to take the argument to its logical conclusion by turning the tables on the number of fetishists. Ukraine did well as long as the West provided it with the requisite number of weapons and ammunition. Ukraine began struggling when those supplies were reduced to a trickle. If numbers are all that matters, Russia is certain to lose as long as the West “outnumbers” Russia. The West surely can do so. The only question is whether it wants to—or, more precisely, whether House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson wants to.


Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.” The author’s opinions are his own.