Some thoughts on where the war in Ukraine is headed
And some perspective on what's happened already.
No matter how it ends, the Israel-Gaza war was a massive strategic victory for Vladimir Putin. It distracted the United States from the conflict in Ukraine, threatening to divert resources and making it harder for U.S. policymakers to stay focused. And it divided Joe Biden’s coalition, angering many left-leaning young people and raising the specter of a Trump victory in 2024.
But even though it’s been largely pushed out of the headlines, the Ukraine war is still the most geopolitically important war in the world right now. So with Ukrainian President Zelensky in Washington asking for more aid, I thought I should write something about how I see the situation right now, and where I see it going in the future. Remember that I don’t style myself as a specialist on military or international affairs — as always, if you’re looking for those, I recommend Michael Kofman, Phillips O’Brien, and the other people on my list of Ukraine analysts, as well as the Institute for the Study of War and the Royal United Services Institute. So what I’m writing here is just an overview, along with what I think is some helpful perspective.
Where the war stands right now
Currently, Russia controls about 18% of Ukraine’s territory. A bit less than half of that is territory they seized prior to 2022 — Crimea and parts of the eastern Donbas region. The rest — a long, curved strip of territory running from the south of the country to the northeast — is territory seized in the invasion of 2022.
This battle line has been basically static since late 2022. In summer and fall of 2023, Ukraine tried to take back some of this territory, using tanks, mine-clearing vehicles, and other weapons provided by Western countries. This effort completely failed.
The reason it failed is a change in the technology of war. Modern-day weapons — drones, portable long-range anti-tank missiles, precision artillery, etc. — are able to destroy armored vehicles very easily. When combined with dense minefields laid by artillery launchers, these anti-armor weapons have made it extremely difficult for armored vehicles to advance rapidly. The kind of rapid, tank-led blitzkriegs that defined World War 2 are mostly a thing of the past, at least without overwhelming airpower. Land war has sort of gone back to what it was in WW1 — a slow grinding fight for small bits of territory where firepower and resources matter more than brilliant maneuvers.
Unfortunately, that means it’ll be very hard for Ukraine to take back the 18% of its territory that Russia controls. But on the plus side, it makes it a lot harder for Russia to grab more territory from Ukraine. Russia has launched some of its own offensives, and these have ended much as the Ukrainian ones did — with a lot of twisted, smoking metal and very little change on the map.
In a war like this, resources matter a lot, which is why Zelensky is in Washington asking for more aid. Biden and Congress may eventually come up with a last-minute deal to provide more, but they face three big hurdles.
First, thanks to the efforts of pro-Russia media figures like Tucker Carlson, the Trumpist (or “MAGA”) faction of the Republican party has become resolutely opposed to Ukraine aid, to the point where it’s almost a wedge issue or culture war.
This makes it very difficult for GOP politicians to sign off on more aid, even if they personally want to.
The second problem is that Western war production hasn’t really ramped up nearly as much as it needs to. Russia has increased its ammunition production to 1 million shells a year, and may eventually be able to make it to 2 million; they’ve figured out ways to evade Western sanctions by routing imports through third countries like Kazakhstan, and they’re getting significant help from China. The U.S. plans to increase shell production to a similar amount, but not until 2025.
Meanwhile, the Europeans are still floundering, unwilling to spend the required money and saddled with a defense procurement process even more dysfunctional than America’s. Thus, for the next year or two, Russia — a country with a GDP only the size of Italy’s — will be singlehandedly outproducing the entire West in terms of some of the most essential weapons of war.
(Side note: Imagine what a war with China would look like.)
Ukraine’s third and final hurdle is manpower. Russia has more than four times as many people as Ukraine. Even though Russia’s mobilization has been chaotic and haphazard and Russians are less motivated to fight in the war, it’s a lot easier for Russia to come up with bodies to throw into the meatgrinder, simply because of the country’s sheer size.
So Ukraine is in trouble. But that doesn’t mean Russia is about to win, or has already won, or any of the things that the pro-Russia people love to scream on Twitter. Before we believe their propaganda, we should think carefully about why this war is happening, what Russia hoped to accomplish, and what Ukraine has won so far.
Some important perspective on the war so far
Russia started this war with an attempt to capture the entire country of Ukraine, not just a strip of territory along the edge. Remember, in early 2022, most of the fighting was Russia trying to capture Kyiv in the north, along with Kharkiv in the northeast and Odesa in the southwest. Here’s what the war looked like in March of 2022:
Ukraine completely defeated this assault, expelling Russia from the entire area around Kyiv. In follow-up counteroffensives later in 2022, it expelled Russia from around Kharkiv, and from the city of Kherson in the south, ending the danger to Odesa. Russia, for its part, was only able to seize a few more small towns in the Donbas region.
This was an incredible feat on Ukraine’s part. At the time, Russia was ranked as the world’s 2nd most powerful military, with Ukraine far down the list. And yet Ukraine was able to defeat Russia’s offensive in a stand-up conventional fight, rather than a guerrilla war (which is usually how small countries defeat more powerful ones). That is an incredible accomplishment. Remember that Ukraine wasn’t just much smaller and less militarized than Russia in 2022 — it was also much poorer.
Part of Ukraine’s success was due to the changing nature of warfare, favoring the defense. Part was due to sloppy Russian preparation. And of course it couldn’t have been done without the weapons donated by the U.S. and other NATO countries. But it’s still an incredibly impressive accomplishment.
In the year since Ukraine took Kherson, the war has become a static one. But Russia has continued to take massive casualties. According to recently declassified U.S. intelligence estimates, Putin’s military has taken 315,000 casualties (dead and wounded). That’s almost half again as many as the 218,000 casualties that the U.S. took in the entire Vietnam War. Of course that includes Wagner mercenaries and conscripted militia forces from the captured Donbas regions, so it doesn’t mean that most of Russia’s regular army has been destroyed, as some claim.
But it’s still a staggering number. Only by throwing Russia’s entire economy and society into the effort has Putin managed to maintain battlefield parity with a poor country less than one-fourth Russia’s size. And even more importantly, Russia has lost massive numbers of tanks and other armored vehicles — by some estimates as many as 4000 tanks! — basically running down the huge arsenal bequeathed to them by the Soviets.
Now suppose what would happen if an armistice ended the war tomorrow. Russia would have won this war. Wikipedia will list Russia as the winner of the war, and I, a staunch Ukraine supporter, will declare Russia the victor. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Seizing a modest portion of a much poorer, weaker, smaller country, at the cost of 315,000 casualties and much of your stockpile of armored vehicles, is not a great trade. (Yes, Putin will have established a “land bridge” from the Donbas to Crimea, making Crimea easier to defend in any future war. That’s not nothing. But it’s a pretty thin “bridge”, and supplying Crimea overland via that route in a war will always be tough.)
Even worse, Russia’s strategic position has been weakened by the war. Finland has now joined NATO, and Sweden looks sure to follow. That’s a heavy blow, considering that the old Soviet Union used to pride itself on keeping Finland out of the Western bloc. NATO now basically controls the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile, Russia’s economy has become much more dependent on China, making Russia clearly the subordinate partner in that quasi-alliance.
Ukraine, if all fighting stopped tomorrow, would have lost a significant chunk of its territory — almost a fifth, if you count the 2014 losses. But in return, it would have gained something much more important — its independence as a nation. Ukraine has never really been a fully independent nation before now; this is its war of national self-definition. When it was threatened with conquest, its people united, stood up, and fought for their freedom.
That result would look very much like the Winter War, when the Soviets tried to conquer Finland. The history books (and Wikipedia) say the USSR was the victor, since they made Finland cede a chunk of territory. But because Finland stood up and offered such a ferocious resistance, it was never incorporated into the Soviet Union after World War 2; instead, it stayed an independent country and is now part of both the EU and NATO. For Ukraine to achieve something similar would be monumental.
Even more ridiculous would be the inevitable Russian claim that they defeated the U.S. and NATO in a war. Obviously their propagandists will say it; indeed, they are already saying it, and a few Americans unfortunately believe them. But think about how utterly absurd this is. The U.S. and NATO sent no troops of their own to fight in Ukraine — just money and materiel (most of it old materiel).
Imagine if the U.S. invaded a much smaller, poorer country, and took 315,000 casualties to seize less than a fifth of that country, and Russia simply stood back and send some weapons and money to the plucky defenders, would anyone say that the U.S. had defeated Russia in a war? No, they would not. That would be extremely silly — as the kids say, it would represent “incredible cope”.
People love saying that America loses all its wars. But to say the U.S. lost a war it didn’t even fight would be even sillier.
To sum up, if the war ended tomorrow, it would be a technical Russian victory over Ukraine, but a strategic defeat for Russia and a successful independence struggle and nation-defining episode for Ukraine. And the U.S. and NATO would have achieved a strategic success without even fighting. A lot of Ukrainians would be mad that 18% of their country was still occupied by the Russians, of course, and would resolve to get it back at a later date. But when you put it in perspective, it’s clear that this would be an overall Ukrainian triumph.
The real danger is if the West cuts off Ukraine aid, and Putin eventually manages to conquer all of Ukraine.
Russia’s plans for victory, and what Ukraine needs most
In recent months, as America’s internal divisions and Europe’s ineffectuality became more apparent, Russian rhetoric has turned triumphalist and imperialistic once again. Russia watchers believe that if Putin believes that NATO capitulated, it will whet his appetite for more.
The biggest disaster — and Russia’s fondest hope — would be if Donald Trump wins the 2024 election. Trump has often expressed a desire to withdraw from NATO entirely. Republicans, anticipating this, have passed a bill forbidding the President from withdrawing from NATO, but this means little; as commander-in-chief, Trump could (and likely would) simply refuse to order the military to come to the aid of NATO allies in the event of a Russian attack.
So if Trump gets elected and Russia is able to conquer the rest of Ukraine, expect the Baltic states to be next. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are small countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, and would offer Putin access to the Baltic Sea. They have tiny populations, and their only real defense is their NATO membership. With NATO defunct, Putin would roll over them. And NATO’s lack of ability to defend its member states would destroy the alliance forever.
After that, Putin would definitely at least think about attacking Poland. Poland has a population similar to Ukraine, and a bigger manufacturing industry and much higher GDP, so it could put up quite a fight, even without U.S. aid. And in the case of Poland, European countries would be more likely to get involved directly. But if Putin decided to go for Poland anyway — after all, he’s getting old — it would spark a wider European conflagration that might even end up going nuclear.
Thus it’s very important that Ukraine not be conquered. But the U.S. will be an unreliable partner, even if Biden gets reelected. One reason is that the Trumpist faction will remain, agitating against support for Ukriane. But an even bigger reason is that the U.S. faces the real possibility of an even bigger, more world-shattering war in the Pacific, against an opponent that’s far, far more powerful than Russia. Preparing for that war will take every ounce of America’s shrunken military and financial resources. And Biden knows it.
In other words, the task of supporting Ukraine for the long term now falls to Europe. The Royal United Services Institute explains this strategic necessity in a brutally frank piece:
NATO’s European members must ramp up investment in ammunition production…to credibly deter Russia from exploiting a clash between the US and China in the late 2020s…the US military is increasingly facing a threat that it cannot overmatch from Chinese forces in the Indo-Pacific…In the event of a clash with China in the Indo-Pacific that removes the capacity for large-scale US military reinforcement and support elsewhere, Europe will be left vulnerable to concurrent military aggression by Russia…
Europe has failed to make the necessary investments in increased industrial production capacity and defence spending. With the notable exception of Poland, many national commitments to significant additional defence spending have…not yet materialised…[W]ithout major increases in European defence production and a focus on reorganising and training militaries to credibly roll back any future Russian aggression against Alliance territory, Russia will regenerate a capacity to directly threaten NATO…
[T]he only likely scenario in which Russia might directly attack a European NATO country is during a…conflict that leaves US forces largely fixed in the Indo-Pacific…By 2026–2028, Russia’s industry will have been at full-scale military production for years, allowing it to rebuild its increasingly battle-hardened forces…
To deter this…threat, European countries – including the UK – must urgently invest in significantly increasing production capacity for the artillery ammunition, spare parts and air defence missiles required to keep Ukraine in the fight while also refilling their own dangerously depleted stockpiles.
In other words, America helped Ukraine survive Russia’s initial assault, but it’s Europe’s job to make sure Ukraine survives in the long term. Europe has the population and the industrial capacity to hold off any Russian threat short of a full-scale nuclear attack; if it refuses to do so, and leaves itself open to Russian attack, Europe will have only its own ineffectuality to blame. If this happens, Europe will have proven itself to be a defunct civilization — a “garden” without walls, a region rich on paper and pleasant to look at, but capable of neither industry nor self-defense. Such non-powers can survive for a while, but eventually a conqueror will arrive, and the garden will burn.
So Europe — most of all Germany — really needs to step up here. If Germany and France and the UK continue to talk big but let their militaries decay into nothingness, the future of Europe will likely be written in Moscow, despite all of Russia’s stumbles so far.