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A strategy for success in Ukraine

A Ukrainian solder walks down a road
Associated Press/Kostiantyn Liberov
Ukrainian soldiers stand on the road in the freed territory of the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Sept. 12, 2022.

With Ukraine’s battlefield successes in the northeast and south and the routing of part of the Russian army, the tactical balance has shifted in Kyiv’s favor. Whether or not this success can be translated into strategic leverage is the coming test for Ukraine. After nearly seven months of war,  the terms “winning” and “victory” are no longer unheard.

But winning and victory have not been well defined, and there are reasons for that. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a vote. For the time being, no matter how badly his army is being battered, Putin shows no sign of looking for a Ukrainian equivalent of the Friendship Bridge over which the Red Army retreated from Afghanistan some 30 years ago. Second, it is unclear what Putin’s goals are and what he would accept or reject in any negotiation or ceasefire.

Third, Crimea and parts of the Donbas where Russophiles live may not wish to return to Ukrainian sovereignty. Fourth, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has declared the goals to be complete control over all of Ukraine; Russian reparations; and guarantees for its future independence and security. Thus, for Ukraine winning is a maximalist position. 

Fifth, the Biden administration’s strategy is three “no’s”: no to transferring arms beyond allowing Ukraine to defend itself but not a full combined arms capability to drive Russia from Ukraine; no to provoking Russia to escalate; and a big no to allowing the war to become nuclear.  Barring an extraordinary event, or events, some form of stalemate seems the most likely outcome.

Yes, Putin could mobilize and draft a larger military. He could use nuclear weapons to “shock and awe” Kyiv into surrender. But those and other options have the most severe consequences. So, a Putin who has shown timidity after committing military force in Georgia, Syria and Crimea and then not following up is likely to seek other options.

Under these conditions, what might be a successful strategy? Based on his extensive experience in the Balkans Wars, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Army General Wesley K. Clark makes a powerful argument for diplomacy now to leverage and exploit the military gains Ukraine has made and may continue to make. The general is absolutely correct.

But a third leg for this strategy is needed. This leg would have three purposes.  

The first and most important is to give Ukraine more than only a defensive capability to protect itself. To deter future Russian aggression, it must have the capacity to retake lost territory. This is called combined arms. Second, as it will take time to build these capabilities, that may induce Russia to realize Ukraine has long-term viability. Last, this will reinforce diplomacy.

combined arms capability for Ukraine would require advanced tactical aviation; more tanks and fighting vehicles; longer range missiles, notably ATACMs that have the range to strike Russia; more command, control, communications and especially intelligence; more naval strike systems; training; and, what makes this work, extensive logistics for maintenance, fuel, ammunition, water, rations, medical and replacements.  

To put this into play, the U.S. would begin training Ukrainian F-16 pilots; putting prospective M-1 tank and M-2 Bradley infantry fighting  crews, infantry and artillery personnel through the National Training Center; and funding these costs as well as equipment transfers.

NATO states should be providing similar support. The British army is already training 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers. NATO can and must do, more realizing that this effort is also intended to reinforce the diplomatic effort.

Obtaining this level of capability cannot be accomplished quickly. It will take six-to-eight months at a minimum. That would correspond to the beginning of good weather next year in Ukraine.  

Meanwhile, a strong, persistent diplomatic effort must start now. That effort need not be limited to Western states. India and China made interesting comments about Russia at last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Samarkand. And the United Nations could play a role.

What is needed then is a strategy. As noted, it is unclear what the White House’s strategy is beyond the three no’s. If successful, the war could be ended sooner rather than later. If diplomacy fails, Ukraine has the means to keep Russia at bay.  

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags Kyiv Moscow NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Ukraine United Nations Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Volodymyr Zelensky

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