As Ukraine’s much-hyped but bitterly disappointing summertime counteroffensive stumbles, with paltry territorial gains and little change in the conflict’s larger dynamic, policymakers in Washington and Kyiv must now confront a difficult reality. The stalled three-month-old offensive has raised hard questions about Ukraine’s strategic direction in the war going forward, ones with profound geopolitical implications in America, Europe, Asia, and beyond.
But with so much hanging in the balance, there’s surprisingly muted discussion about the future of the war itself, particularly with the expansive Western involvement in the conflict, which has become a proxy war in all but name between East and West. It’s a conversation that is as necessary as it is painful.
Should Kyiv abandon its efforts to retake every single inch of its illegally annexed territory, and seek a negotiated peace with Vladimir Putin’s regime? Should Washington concede its efforts to impose a “strategic defeat” on Moscow in a bid to punish Russian aggression in Europe, and dissuade Chinese aggression in Taiwan? As of now, these critical questions lack firm answers, even as the death and destruction Russia has unleashed on Ukraine continues to claim new victims.
Rather, there’s rising pessimism about the ongoing offensive’s likely results, and frank dissatisfaction among American strategists with Kyiv’s tactical decision-making, allocation of forces, and general execution of its war plans. There’s frustration that Ukraine continues to pour its best and most experienced troops into Bakhmut, with little strategic rationale, even as Ukraine’s crucial southern thrust bogs down.
Similarly, American war planners believe Ukraine has become “casualty averse,” and are refusing to concentrate sufficient forces to punch through Russian lines in the south toward Melitopol. There seems to be something of a blame game happening in Washington right now, even as the fog of war prevents a perfect understanding of why the offensive seems to have failed.
What’s clear is that efforts to turn the Ukrainian military into a mini-American army have come up short, even as the Russian military, for all of Moscow’s dire failures, missteps, and internal political maladies, has proven to be a far more durable and formidable foe than was previously accepted, particularly when on the defensive. The New York Times noted that “Russia is keeping with its traditional way of fighting land wars in Europe: performing poorly in the opening months or years before adapting and persevering as the fighting drags on.”
Some argue that if Kyiv had been given F-16 fighter jets or longer-range ATACMS precision guided missiles, Ukraine would have had far more success in this latest counteroffensive, a hypothetical counterfactual that does little to address Ukraine’s current shortfalls, nor clarify future goals. Complicating matters is the fact that a total of 61 F-16’s have now been promised to Kyiv, 42 from the Netherlands and 19 from Denmark, although not in time for this offensive, obviously. Those jets are expected to arrive early next year, even as Ukrainian pilots have been training on the American fighter for several months.
A bleak picture
Ukrainian and Western leaders must begin to reevaluate, and start to game out next steps. First, a frank discussion of whether and how the war should continue is necessary, as opposed to seeking negotiations with Moscow. In the latter case, what does an acceptable negotiated end to this bloody conflict eventually look like, and should Ukraine consider peace talks if its offensive fails?
At this point, it seems clear the Russian military will neither collapse on the battlefield, nor be easily thrown back out of the Donbas or Crimea, and the roughly 20 percent of Ukrainian territory currently occupied by Russian forces and their proxies. For all the well-documented ailments of the Kremlin’s armies on and off the battlefield, the results of this recent offensive paint a grim picture for Kyiv and her allies.
Recent American intelligence estimates assess that more than 500,000 troops from both Russia and Ukraine have perished thus far in the conflict, an astonishing butcher’s bill that will only continue to rise exponentially higher as the war continues. Russian casualties are far higher than Ukrainian casualties, but Russia is fielding far more troops in the first place, by a factor of three to one. Ukraine’s army of about 500,000 faces down a Russian army of 1,330,000, including active-duty, reserve, and paramilitary troops on both sides. Russia’s numerical superiority poses a distinct challenge for Ukraine’s military, simply because Moscow can afford to absorb far more casualties than Kyiv.
In recent days, Ukraine seems to have gained a foothold in the southern town of Robotyne. At the same time, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the Ukrainian military will not reach Melitopol, and will thus be unable to sever the land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the primary goal of this latest offensive. In other words, Ukraine’s counteroffensive will likely fail, if it hasn’t already.
Ukraine’s military leaders have all but abandoned pursuing American-style combined arms frontal assaults on the heavily mined and well-defended Russian lines, instead opting to return to a war of attrition style of long-range fire and artillery-heavy combat that could lock in the basic lines of contact for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, despite more than $75 billion in humanitarian, financial, and military assistance provided by the United States, and tens of billions of the latest offensive Western armor, tanks, artillery, and countless other weapon systems, the conflict remains at an impasse on the battlefield.
Last November, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley came out of pocket a bit, and said publicly that Kyiv should pursue a negotiated settlement with Moscow, on the basis of what had been successful recent counteroffensives in Kherson and Kharkiv. He warned that President Volodomyr Zelensky’s goal to push the Russians entirely out of Ukraine simply wasn’t feasible, but he was mostly criticized or simply ignored.
Now, on the heels of Ukraine’s stalled offensive, his cautionary words seem prophetic. The window to pursue peace talks with Moscow, when Ukraine was still riding high from earlier successful offensives, may have closed somewhat. It’s unclear if the Kremlin would seriously consider peace talks, or simply continue on with its murderous war.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian and Western leaders have an obligation to pursue a policy with a real probability of victory that doesn’t assume a Russian collapse on the battlefield, or yet another coup d’etat unseating what appears to be a remarkably resilient wartime regime in Moscow. If the conceptual framework undergirding this last offensive was so fundamentally flawed, perhaps a larger reevaluation is in order.
It’s in nobody’s interest to have an endless and increasingly escalatory war burning in perpetuity in Europe. As this war enters its 19th month, it may be time to rethink what success and victory looks like, and how best to achieve both. At a bare minimum, it’s a discussion that should be had publicly and thoroughly, no matter how difficult and painful it might be.