Ukraine Can't Win the War with Russia – But That Doesn’t Mean Kyiv Has to Lose

November 21, 2023 Topic: military Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaUkraineWar In UkrainePutinRussian Military

Ukraine Can't Win the War with Russia – But That Doesn’t Mean Kyiv Has to Lose

It’s time to face the harsh, ground-truth reality: Ukraine cannot militarily defeat Russia. But that does not mean disaster. 

It’s time to face the harsh, ground-truth reality: Ukraine cannot militarily defeat Russia.

Ignoring this reality and trying to pretend otherwise carries a great risk of getting more Ukrainian troops killed, more of their cities destroyed, and more land lost to Russia. That doesn’t mean Kyiv needs to surrender, however.

Far from it.

As I explained in detail on my show Daniel Davis Deep Dive last week, some in the United States have an understandably difficult time believing the war is unwinnable. Difficult, perhaps, or “challenging,” but not a lost cause. First, Americans cheer for the underdog and love to pull for the Davids to defeat the Goliaths. Second, they’ve been fed a steady diet from the beginning by pundits and TV generals who have routinely and relentlessly claimed Ukraine was winning, that they were getting the upper hand, and that the Russian side was anemic.

When audiences see a confident pundit on television with the words on-screen such as “retired four-star general” or “former admiral”, its entirely understandable they would ascribe credibility to whatever that former flag officer said. Sadly, however, few television channels bother to go back and assess the track record such famous people have when making claims. For example, below are three examples – very common over the past 21 months of the war in Ukraine – of retired flag officers making bold and confident claims that evidence later exposed as wrong:

In March 2022, barely a two weeks into the war, retired Admiral William McRaven told a CNN audience that “the longer this fight goes on, the better chance the Ukrainians have of winning it.”

In January of this year, retired 3-star general Ben Hodges told the UK’s Times Radio that he believed “Ukraine is going to liberate Crimea by the end of August, the end of this summer.”

In May, just days before Ukraine launched what would become a tactical failure of a counteroffensive, retired four-star general David Petraeus told the BBC that Ukraine would perform brilliantly, that Russia might crumble, and that Ukraine had drawn Russia into “a mousetrap” in Bakhmut – which in reality was a major loss for Ukraine.

Here’s the truth, graphically depicted on maps produced by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. If one compares the map of the frontlines on November 22, 2022 and the map one year later, on November 15, it is impossible to refute the obvious: the front line has hardly budged. After a full year of war, after a winter campaign season and a full spring/summer offensive, the Ukrainian Armed Forces did not change the front line. 

The New York Times put it more starkly in an interactive map it published. In the first nine months of 2023, the Times reported that when “both sides’ gains are added up, Russia now controls nearly 200 square miles more territory in Ukraine compared with the start of the year.” Consider the sobering ramifications of that fact. 

According to the Department of Defense, as of September, the United States had given Ukraine over 5,000 military vehicles of various types, over two million artillery rounds, and tens of thousands of anti-tank and anti-air missiles – part of the total aid amounting to $113 billion to Kyiv. We also provided intelligence support, training of their troops, and advising of Ukraine’s senior leaders. For all of this effort and expense, the line did not move in the past full year of combat.

No matter what any general or so-called expert might say, the die has been cast. Overwhelming evidence supports the contention that Ukraine cannot win this war. If Kyiv does not take action soon, however, it may end up losing the war.

Before giving one more dollar to Ukraine, the Administration and Congress should make clear that we will only provide defensive weapons henceforth and encourage Kyiv to seek the best negotiated end to the war it can get. True enough, no one can make that decision except the leadership in Kyiv. But Washington can make a decision on what it does with its money. It would be folly to send more weapons, ammunition, and aid to Ukraine without strings and expect success.

The Ukrainian people have outperformed everyone’s expectation, especially in the first six months of this war, and their troops have fought with courage, tenacity, and ferocity. But courage alone will not win wars, and this one is highly unlikely to ever turn in Ukraine’s favor. Refusing to acknowledge battlefield realities and seeking a negotiated settlement now increases the odds that Ukraine eventually loses yet more territory and will have to sue for peace in the future under even worse conditions. That is just the evident, ugly, and painful truth.

About the Author

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and host of the Daniel Davis Deep Dive show on YouTube. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.