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Why Russia, sadly, remains the favorite in this war

Most observers of Russia’s war in Ukraine recognize that, as the Kremlin shifts strategy and concentrates on the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east and Mariupol in the southeast, things are likely to get tougher for the Ukrainian resistance before they get better. Yet, a certain confidence still permeates much of Western discussion about the war. We collectively marvel at the grit, competence and fortitude of the brave Ukrainians defending their own land, and the ineptitude of the Russian attack to date — and perhaps expect such dynamics to continue.

I am more nervous. Yes, Ukraine has performed amazingly well so far. But the raw numbers favor Russia too much to permit long-term optimism. It is hard to see how Ukraine can fend off the Russian steamroller indefinitely, given the kind of fighting that is taking place. It even seems possible that Moscow will again target Kyiv before the war is out, even if not right away.

The basic correlation of forces, and some other aspects of the military situation, harken back to the American Civil War. Back then, the North had some 20 million inhabitants, about three and a half times the white population of the Confederacy — similar to the population ratio between Russia and Ukraine today. Northern military strength was about twice that of the opponent’s, not unlike the ratio in the current conflict. Like Russia now, the North in the Civil War had much more industry, and easier outlets for trade and commerce. The Union had a certain strategic depth geographically, as does Russia. Indeed, Russia enjoys greater advantages than did the Union in that regard, since Washington was within range of potential Confederate attack, yet Moscow and other major Russian cities are safely positioned far away from combat. 

Just as with the fight in Ukraine since February, many of the early battles of the American Civil War — in places such as Manassas, Seven Pines, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in Virginia — went to the underdog. Confederate forces were adequately armed, better led, and perhaps even more motivated than their northern brethren. And they were defending home territory, for the most part. 

Things would change, albeit in fits and starts, beginning roughly with the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862. By the following fall, the shift in momentum was complete. After Union forces won the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863 — with the Gettysburg and Vicksburg successes also bolstering its confidence — Ulysses S. Grant, recently promoted to commander of the Army of the Cumberland and soon to be President Lincoln’s top overall general, assessed the basic picture of battle as it then stood. His analysis was complex, but as recounted in Bruce Catton’s 1969 classic, “Grant Takes Command,” it boiled down ultimately to a single compelling, if grammatically challenged, observation: “The enemy have not army enough.” 

By attacking doggedly and persistently along multiple axes, but especially against main Confederate armies in Virginia and Georgia, Grant could win the war even without winning many more battles. Fighting to a draw, even suffering higher casualties in many engagements, was acceptable, provided that Grant pressed his materiel and numerical advantages. Starting in the spring of 1864, Union forces began their relentless drive southward, en route to Richmond and then Appomattox, as Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman embarked on his march to Atlanta and then the sea. The Confederacy probably still won more of the battles than it lost — though not all — but not by margin enough to compensate for its disadvantage in size or resources.

Another striking historical analogy comes from the same part of the world where the Ukraine fight is taking place. Adolf Hitler almost took Moscow and St. Petersburg in late 1941, after his cynical surprise attack against erstwhile ally Joseph Stalin in June of that year, and he had some opportunities to prevail in 1942 as well. But by 1943, front lines stabilized and the Soviet war machine began its inexorable buildup, achieving a two-to-one advantage in overall combat power by that summer and increasing it further from there. Defeat of Nazi armies on the eastern front became a matter of time.

All is not lost for Ukraine. Numerical and materiel advantages do not always produce victory in war. If a smaller foe can find a major Achilles’ heel in its enemy forces, or take advantage of terrain and home field advantage, or fight an effective guerrilla campaign, it sometimes can win — or at least outlast its adversary. But the odds are usually against the underdog over time. For example, even when the Finns famously held off the Soviet invasion of their homeland in the 100-day Winter War of 1939-1940, they ultimately were defeated, losing some territory (though thankfully not their whole country) in the ensuing peace deal. 

That is probably the best we can now hope for concerning Ukraine — and even that will require a great deal of effort, luck and skill to achieve. 

Most likely, continued brave fighting by Ukrainians, and ongoing weapons transfers from the West, will not themselves be enough to fend off the Russians in the current fight. We also will need a clever proposal for a ceasefire that grants some conditional lifting of sanctions to Russia if it ends the fighting — and yes, that probably accepts some territorial loss for Ukraine. As unpalatable as that may be, the likely alternative would be much worse.

Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, and author of several books, including “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint” and “Defense 101: Understanding the Military of Today and Tomorrow.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.

Tags Adolf Hitler Civil War Russian invasion of Ukraine Siege of Mariupol Ulysses S. Grant War in Donbas

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