Ukrainian leaders insist their country will prevail over Moscow and eventually reclaim much of the eastern territory seized by Russian troops so far in the nearly five-month war.
But military insiders and foreign policy analysts say such rosy predictions don’t reflect the reality on the ground, where Russian forces are making slow but steady gains in their grinding war of attrition in the Donbas. The current amount and structure of Western military aid, they argue, simply isn’t enough to put Kyiv on a path to victory in a conflict that looks increasingly likely to only end at the negotiating table.
The seeming disconnect between Ukrainian optimism and the facts on the ground in the Donbas virtually guarantees more bloody fighting and even higher casualty rates as the war drags on, along with continued fallout for the global economy in the form of record-high fuel prices and food supply disruptions.
That, in turn, could test President Biden’s efforts to keep NATO allies unified as costs and casualties mount, global food stocks suffer and Europe prepares for a winter where Russian gas exports may have been cut off or shut off.
Rather than seek an end to the war at the likely expense of territorial concessions to Russia, top Ukrainian officials insisted this week they believe they can stop Moscow’s advance. What’s more, they suggested their army is capable of a major counter-offensive that pushes Russian troops out of captured cities such as Mariupol, Kherson and others.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Associated Press on Tuesday that Kyiv is “planning and preparing for full liberation” of key cities along the country’s Black Sea coast. He rejected Moscow’s efforts to install its own local leaders in captured territories as part of its broader push to assimilate chunks of Ukraine into Russia and undermine local governments.
Russia has even gone so far as to institute programs offering Ukrainians new Russian passports, effectively eroding their Ukrainian citizenship and chipping away at Ukrainian sovereignty.
“Russia continues to be in the war mood, and they are not seeking negotiations in good faith. They are seeking a way to make us implement their ultimatums, which is not going to happen,” Mr. Kuleba said.
“I’m pretty confident that once these territories are liberated, the vast majority of people will burn their Russian passports quietly in their fireplaces,” he said.
Mr. Kuleba echoed the stance taken by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has insisted since the start of the war that Ukraine will accept nothing less than the full withdrawal of Russian forces from within its internationally recognized borders. Ukrainian officials have even suggested that they expect Russian troops to pull out of Crimea, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014, and the Donbas region, where Ukrainian forces have battled pro-Russian separatist groups for several years leading up to Moscow’s full-scale Feb. 24 invasion.
That optimism has clearly been an inspiration to Ukrainian service members who have fought bravely in the face of steep odds. But specialists say that Russia has revamped and improved its military blueprint, Ukraine faces resource and manpower challenges that grow by the day, and that at some point Mr. Zelenskyy will face no choice but to seek a peace deal short of total victory
He may eventually find a willing partner in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has watched as his once-vaunted military suffers staggering casualties while capturing relatively small swaths of territory. While Ukraine may find it virtually impossible to convincingly defeat Russia on the battlefield, the Kremlin may have its own reasons to seek peace.
“As the months and years go on, Russia and Ukraine will both have suffered a lot to achieve not very much more than what each has already achieved — limited and pyrrhic territorial gains for Russia, and a strong, independent, and sovereign government with control over most of its prewar territory for Ukraine,” Barry Posen, a political science professor at MIT, wrote in a recent piece for Foreign Affairs magazine. “At some point, then, the two countries will likely find it expedient to negotiate. Both sides will have to recognize that these must be true negotiations, in which each must give up something of value.”
And that puts added pressure on the Biden administration and NATO, which have harshly denounced Russia’s invasion as a violation of international norms and repeatedly said they will take their guidance only from Mr. Zelenskyy’s government on an acceptable end to the fighting.
“Ukraine’s allies should continue to provide the resources that the country needs to defend itself from further Russian attacks, but they should not encourage it to expend resources on counter-offensives that will likely prove futile,” Mr. Posen said. “Rather, the West should move toward the negotiating table now. There is only one responsible thing to do: seek a diplomatic end to the war now.”
For now, the U.S. and its NATO allies continue to funnel massive packages of weapons and other military equipment to Ukraine. Some of that equipment — especially U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles and other anti-armor weapons — were crucial in stopping the Russian assault on Kyiv and other major cities in the early weeks of the war. Poor Russian planning also allowed Ukraine’s fleet of small, cheap drones to easily target and destroy Russian armored columns that were left exposed on open highways outside the capital.
But analysts say those dynamics have radically changed. Russia has learned from its mistakes, they say, and the West’s current approach to military aid is no longer sufficient — especially if the underlying goal is to fully defeat Russia and force its troops out of Ukraine.
“Ukraine has the will to achieve the operational defeat of the Russian military. At present, however, several Russian advantages and Ukrainian weaknesses are leading to an attritional conflict that risks a protracted war, eventually favoring Russia,” Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling, researchers with London’s Royal United Service Institute, wrote in a recent analysis.
They cited Russia’s electronic warfare (EW) weapons, its artillery and cruise missiles as capabilities that Moscow is now employing at full capacity in the Donbas. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, are suffering from a shortage of skilled infantry and armored operators, they wrote.
Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Watling said the West could change the dynamics on the ground by shipping new systems to Ukraine, such as anti-radiation seekers for armed drones that could suppress or destroy Russia’s EW capabilities.
Against that backdrop, foreign intelligence officials say Russia is preparing for fresh attacks on key cities in the Donetsk region, one of two provinces that make up the Donbas. Russia already has effectively taken full control of the Luhansk province.
The renewed Russian offensive will likely lead to more of the same: high casualty rates and slow, methodical gains by Russian troops.
“In the Donbas, Russian forces will likely focus on taking several small towns during the coming week, including Siversk and Dolyna on the approaches to [cities of] Slovyansk and Kramatorsk” in Donetsk, the British Ministry of Defense wrote in a Twitter post Wednesday. “The urban areas of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk likely remain the principal objectives for this phase of the operation.”
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.