Ukraine can defeat Russia — but the West must help

A Ukrainian soldier stands atop a destroyed Russian APC after recent battle in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 26, 2022.
Associated Press/Efrem Lukatsky
A Ukrainian soldier stands atop a destroyed Russian APC after recent battle in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 26, 2022.

Ukraine can win this war against Russia. Ukrainian forces may be able to drive Russian troops back from Ukraine’s cities toward the Russian borders. They may be able to establish ground and air defenses strong enough to preclude renewed Russian attacks for a long time. They may be able to show the Russian military, if not Russian President Vladimir Putin, that Russia’s military conquest of Ukraine is off the table.

There can be no better outcome of this war for the U.S., NATO and free peoples everywhere than such a Ukrainian victory. But the West must do what’s needed, short of intervening in the fight directly, to help Ukraine win.

The idea that Ukraine’s military might defeat Russia’s invasion would have seemed preposterous to Western analysts only two weeks ago. And it might still be wrong: The Russian military is theoretically large enough to make good its losses and wear down the Ukrainians. Putin might be able to destroy Ukrainian cities with conventional weapons; he might use weapons of mass destruction to break Ukraine’s will to fight. But the Ukrainians have fought so well that those have become the most plausible ways Putin could achieve his aims by force in coming months, if the West continues to give Ukraine the money, materiel and support it needs.

The risk that the war will settle into a protracted, bloody stalemate is much higher than the risk that Putin will win it outright at this point. Such a stalemate could erode the will of Ukrainians and their Western supporters to continue the fight, and lead to political concessions that give Putin a victory which his military could not obtain. Stalemate is becoming the most dangerous course that events in Ukraine could take, short of Russian use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The West must, therefore, focus on helping Ukrainians avoid stalemate by winning militarily if they possibly can while deterring Putin from using WMD.

This war has shown what a free people fighting for their lives can do against a kleptocratic autocracy whose dictator specializes in lying. The Russian military, it turns out, is a shambles. Its officers didn’t know how to plan a coherent invasion; its soldiers are proving that looking good in small-scale maneuvers says little about one’s ability to perform large-scale combat operations. And the kleptocracy that is the Russian economy apparently has infected the Russian military, where reserves — both human and materiel — that were supposed to power the Russian Armed Forces to victory turn out to exist mainly on paper.

NATO officials report that Russia may have lost as many as 40,000 troops killed, wounded and missing, or roughly 20 percent of the force that invaded Ukraine. Losses are likely much higher among combat units, perhaps reaching levels that render units incapable of fighting. The Russians have withdrawn some units to Russia to rebuild them; many others are digging in, laying mines and going over to the defensive. Few appear willing or able to continue attacking.

The weakness of Russian units around Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, is allowing Ukrainian forces to launch successful counterattacks. Ukrainian troops have regained important positions west of Kyiv, where the most dangerous Russian advance stalled within a week of the invasion’s beginning; these counterattacks are driving Russian troops out of artillery range of downtown Kyiv — most importantly, depriving Putin of one option for leveling the city. Ukrainian defenses and counterattacks also have stopped the Russian drive from Crimea toward the port city of Odesa at least for now, stalled the Russian offensive north from Crimea toward Zaporizhiya, and stopped Russian efforts to take or encircle Kharkiv. Ukrainian defenders encircled in Mariupol are fighting ferociously; they may not be able to hold out, but they are inflicting such losses on the Russians that even the city’s fall is unlikely to change the course of the war.

Ukrainian air force pilots and ground-based air defenders have prevented Russia’s air force from achieving air superiority, to the surprise of many. Ukrainians are shooting down Russian aircraft and missiles while flying their own combat missions against Russian ground forces with both manned aircraft and drones.

The Russian military, on paper, has enough uncommitted battalions and aircraft to make good these losses and continue the fight, to be sure. Why has Putin not committed them? It seems increasingly likely that he cannot because they don’t exist or aren’t usable. Operational readiness rates determine how many of its aircraft a country can use at any given time. It seems that the Russian rates are low. It could be that planes are not in good repair, that the Russian air force lacks enough quality pilots, or that some other bottleneck is preventing Putin from flooding Ukraine’s skies with the Russian red star. It is apparent, however, that he cannot do so in any short period of time. 

Where, then, are the uncommitted Russian battalions? Where are the Russian reserves? It seems they also exist mainly on paper. The Russian military is partly a cadre-and-reserve force in which most combat units have only a small proportion of their soldiers in garrison during peacetime. Putin called up Russian reserves to fill out the conscript units he hurled into Ukraine a month ago. It is increasingly apparent that there are few ready reserves available to fill out the rest.

Elite Russian units, such as the airborne divisions and brigades and the naval infantry, are manned mostly by professional soldiers and, thus, more able to fight without a large influx of reserves. But most of those units have already engaged in Ukraine, and many have suffered serious losses. The desperation with which Putin is recruiting mercenaries in Syria, Libya and elsewhere bespeaks the reality that his reservist cupboard is likely getting bare.

None of these factors means that Ukraine will be able to drive off the Russians or even prevent the Russians from grinding them down. Ukraine’s hopes of surviving continue to rest on increasing lethal and non-lethal aid from the West, including advanced air defense systems, combat aircraft, armored vehicles, artillery, and other systems that the U.S. and NATO have so far been reluctant to provide. Russia’s problems do mean, though, that Ukraine actually has a chance to win this war if the West leans into helping. 

The U.S., its allies, and all free peoples must recognize how important such a Ukrainian victory would be. It would show the world that freedom can defeat tyranny; it would impose a devastating defeat on Putin, finally checking his decades-long relentless advances. It might even give China’s Xi Jinping pause in contemplating hurling his own untested, unfree troops against Taiwan.

If there is any chance at all that Ukraine on its own, helped only by the provision of weapons and money, can defeat Putin — and there is — then the U.S. and the world must do everything in their power short of intervening directly to help Ukraine win.

Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He also advises the Russia team at the Institute for the Study of War.

Tags Civilian casualties countering Putin countering Russia Europe In Ukraine military aid to Ukraine NATO Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Ukraine Ukrainian resistance Vladimir Putin War crimes

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