Hubris’ Downfall: The Hard Road Ahead for the Russia-Ukraine War

Hubris’ Downfall: The Hard Road Ahead for the Russia-Ukraine War

Official bravado and media bias degrade policy discourseand undermine public support.


Ukraine could be closer to collapse than Russia. There may indeed be an “asymmetrical attrition gradient”—another way of saying that Russia is taking more casualties than Ukraine—but even some Kyiv officials admit that Russia can sustain them better than Ukraine. By late autumn, when weather slows the fighting and campaigns usually end, Ukraine may have clawed back another 100 sq. miles—but at what cost? Looking to 2024, Russia will draw on a manpower base far larger than Ukraine’s. Ukraine will receive more NATO missiles, but they are unlikely to “change the game” any more than HIMARS and Storm Shadows did before them. Kyiv will also receive a few dozen F-16 fighters, but their hastily trained pilots—confronting a dense and sophisticated belt of air defenses—may suffer severe losses with no major impact on the war. 

Faced with an asymmetrical armaments gradient—the inability or unwillingness of NATO states to continue providing Ukraine with sufficient munitions to keep pace with Russia—Ukraine will seek to change the equation. This means more drone strikes on Moscow and other Russian cities, raids on Russian border towns, and a ferocious battle over Crimea. Ukraine will expand attacks on Russia’s Black Sea ships and ports, perhaps finally destroying the Crimean Bridge. And Russia will do likewise, improving its drone and missile force (including reverse engineering of captured NATO weapons) to hit airfields, railroads, ports, and other infrastructure harder than ever. Civilian casualties will soar, as will the danger of chemical or nuclear “accidents.” 


Cheerleading that “Ukraine must win decisively, and with superior NATO armaments, it surely will” supports neither sensible military strategy nor responsible policy debate. Those who argue thus recall Britain’s WWII leader, Winston Churchill, who stiffened a nation’s resolve through its darkest hour and led it to triumph. Rarely do they recall Britain’s WWI commander Douglas Haig, whose insistence that Germany would collapse if only the Allies mounted just one more offensive ultimately prolonged a grueling war of attrition at the cost of a million lives. Hubris is not only our enemy but Ukraine’s too.

Robert English, a former Pentagon policy analyst, is the Director of Central European Studies at the University of Southern California. He is the author of various works on the Cold War’s end and aftermath, including Russia and the Idea of the West.

Image: Shutterstock.