A Year’s Turning Tide
An initially modest effort to help Ukraine defend itself morphed into a quest to inflict crushing defeat on Moscow.
The war in Ukraine is fast approaching its one-year anniversary. There are credible reports that the sordid milestone this Friday will be accompanied by a massive escalation of Russia’s ongoing winter offensive.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described the situation on the front lines as “tough,” noting that the Russians are attacking on multiple axes in the east and south. Oleksiy Arestovych, who until recently served as one of Zelensky’s top advisors, was more blunt: “I’m an unofficial person already, I can say what I want. If everyone thinks we’re guaranteed to win the war, it’s very unlikely,” he said in an interview.
These grim tidings may come as a surprise to most Western publics, which were told in no uncertain terms for the last eleven months that Ukraine is winning. One could hardly browse the news without coming across yet another article, often reposted from Ukrainian media or sourced from claims made by Ukrainian officials, positing that Russian forces are falling apart at the seams and collapsing on every front, mobilized soldiers are surrendering in droves and being given guns that can’t even shoot, Moscow has been or is on the verge of being crushed by sanctions, and, more recently, that time is on Ukraine’s side.
Yet those who have studied this conflict since its inception can clearly see that something has changed. The cavalier proclamations of 2022 have suddenly started to give way to more anxious, even pessimistic rhetoric.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conceded in a January conference at Ramstein Air Base that Ukraine only has a small window to stage an effective counteroffensive. “We have a window of opportunity here, you know, between now and the spring when they commence their operation, their counteroffensive. That’s not a long time, and we have to pull together the right capabilities," he said.
The Western coalition arrayed against Russia faces steep challenges in its effort to scrape together sufficient capabilities to keep the Ukrainian war effort afloat, as revealed by the increasingly panicked statements of top politicians. “If we don’t send military equipment to Ukraine in the coming weeks, Putin may win. He may win, and we don’t know where he’ll stop," Polish President Andrzej Duda told Le Figaro.
At the risk of stating the obvious: This does not sound like the public messaging of people who are confident in the prospect of imminent Ukrainian victory. Not only is time apparently not on Ukraine's side after all, but we are now being told that Kiev could lose in a matter of weeks if drastic measures are not taken.
It is difficult to understate how drastic the tonal change in Western commentary has been from just four months ago. How did we get here and where could this lead? As with the other ill-conceived foreign policy ventures of the past several decades, the disaster unfolding in Ukraine was entirely predictable.
The initial Western response to the February 24, 2022, invasion was to bleed Russia, both through sanctions and on the battlefield, in an effort to secure the best possible terms at the negotiating table. But this aim was almost immediately upended by gross mission creep.
Emboldened by Russia’s blunders in the war’s opening stages, some policymakers and commentators in Western capitals concluded that Ukraine could win outright. "Of course they can win this," said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby in April. "The proof is literally in the outcomes that you're seeing everyday...absolutely they can win." Ukraine was poised to win so decisively, they continued, that the result could be not only regime change in Moscow but the dissolution of the Russian state.
And so it is that an initially modest effort to help Ukraine defend itself morphed into an ill-conceived quest to use Ukraine to inflict a crushing defeat on Moscow.
One year in, what does the White House have to show for its Ukraine policy? Premature proclamations of Russian financial collapse have not materialized, and the long-term impact of the Western sanctions regime remains ambiguous at best.
There is no question that Russian forces are taking considerable losses in Ukraine, but it is not obvious that Russia’s latent military power has been irretrievably degraded since February 24. The Russian war machine has rapidly ramped up production of key weapons and is taking steps to expand its already-considerable manpower pool. Though it is too early to assess the impact of these efforts over the long term, Russia has already repeatedly defied Ukrainian and Western predictions of imminent materiel shortages.
Western capitals mistook Ukraine’s tactical victories near Kiev, in the Kharkiv region, and in Kherson city for a lasting strategic advantage. They misread the reasons for Russia’s poor performance in the war’s early stages, which had more to do with Moscow’s flawed political assumptions than its capacity for waging war, and they badly underestimated Russia’s sustained military-industrial output.
The Ukrainian people are bearing the brunt of these severe lapses in judgment. Ukraine’s armed forces have suffered steep losses relative to their manpower pool, the Ukrainian economy shrank by more than 30 percent last year alone, and the country is facing a depopulation crisis of “catastrophic” proportions. It is only possible to argue that this is what winning looks like if one elides the war’s horrific human toll on the very people that our involvement was supposed to save. Just how many more months of “winning” can Ukraine take?
Gen. Mark Milley assessed in November that Ukraine’s relative advantage over Russia has peaked and urged the administration to seize the initiative in pursuing a diplomatic solution. The Russians, too, were signaling in late 2022 that they are open to comprehensive negotiations. Predictably, Milley was publicly rebuffed by Kiev and overruled by White House officials intent on staying the course.
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Moscow, like Milley, knows that settlements must reflect the facts on the ground. The Kremlin is unlikely to seriously entertain negotiations while its winter offensive is ongoing. The chance to end this war on the best possible terms for Ukraine and the West may very well have come and gone, as Russian forces appear poised to make significant gains in coming months with no clear prospect for a strategically decisive Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Washington’s hopes of achieving something that can reasonably be called a victory or securing anything approaching a return on the colossal U.S. investment in Ukraine grow dimmer with each passing month. It is becoming readily apparent to our allies and adversaries alike that the White House, bound by an dangerously ill-defined concept of total victory over Russia, is backing itself into a corner.
As the war slowly reaches its ugly denouement, the Biden administration will face increasingly painful choices in defining a Ukraine strategy. It must seek what little can be realistically accomplished without pushing the growing risk of catastrophic escalation past the tipping point.