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A Counter-Counteroffensive

State of the Union: If Ukraine says it is winning, what does losing look like?

Ukrainian President attends the funeral of helicopter crash victims

“Ukraine is winning,” a June 21 headline from POLITICO read in part. 

The author of the piece was none other than Denys Shmyhal, the prime minister of Ukraine. “More than a year after the big war began, it’s obvious that Russia hasn’t reached its strategic goals,” Shmyhal writes, “which means Ukraine is winning.” 

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Certainly, Russia has had a tougher go of it in Ukraine than expected, but nearly a fifth of Ukrainian territory lies in Russian hands; even when Shmyhal published this piece, it was clear Ukraine’s counteroffensive was failing. The only basis that Shmyhal can claim Ukraine is winning the war is through blatantly misstating Russia’s objectives, which he says is “to destroy Ukraine.” 

Shmyhal’s framing allows Ukraine to proclaim victory as long as it remains on the map, even when settling the conflict with Russia will likely include forking over large portions of Ukrainian territory and the abandonment of any NATO or E.U. ambitions. Clever, but not clever enough, especially in light of the events in the month since.

In the last week, Ukraine has decided to pause its counteroffensive and adjust its tactics. The Ukrainian advance, if one can call it that, has come at the expense of heavy personnel and equipment losses, and has fallen far short of expectations.

American and European officials reportedly told the New York Times that, in the first two weeks of the six-week counteroffensive, a quarter of Ukraine's weaponry was damaged or destroyed. In the weeks that followed, the weaponry loss rate hovered around 10 percent.

Ukraine itself has been hesitant to speak about the losses sustained in the counteroffensive; by no means a surprise, given how they’ve treated releasing casualty numbers. President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, has acknowledged the pause in the counteroffensive. Though Zelensky has not said anything concrete about Ukraine weapons losses, he has blamed the pause on insufficient equipment and munitions (where did it all go?), imploring the West to expedite more aid.

President Joe Biden’s administration has answered the call. This week alone, the U.S. has announced an additional $2.3 billion in aid to Ukraine, with $1.3 billion going towards military equipment and munitions. As part of this package, the Pentagon will fork over four more air-defense missile systems, howitzer munitions, attack drones, and landmine clearing equipment.

If this is winning, what does losing look like?