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Senator Vance Mentions the Unmentionable at Munich

State of the Union: Why is no one talking about the Ukrainian attrition rate?
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(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

“If the $61 billion of supplemental aid to Ukraine goes through, I have to be honest to you, that is not going to fundamentally change the reality on the battlefield,” Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio said to a shocked crowd in the Munich Security Conference. “Munitions matter a lot in warfare, but what we haven’t talked about is manpower. And we know the Ukrainians are very limited on that. This will end in a negotiated peace. The question is when and what that looks like.”

The usual crowd at MSC is obviously not used to such assessments. Their traditional scope of analysis ranges from thunderous virtue signaling from small East European protectorates to hagiographic interviews of of the Ukrainian president, without any serious counter-questions. Within that range, Zelensky can blame Ukraine’s failure at Western (i.e., American) lack of support, money, and weapons, without mentioning anything about dwindling manpower in a war of attrition, or his shell ratio deficit. Zelensky does not explain, for example, how he will attempt to use American “air defense” systems to offset the 1:10 artillery shell shortage. 


There are already signs of a concerted effort to blame the debacle of Ukrainian counteroffensive on growing American fatigue and increasing Republican restraint, an attempt to portray that this was due to lack of material, weapons, and cash. Of course, it’s not. It is a coping mechanism at best, and the beginning of a future “stab in the back” myth at worst. 

The real unmentionable is that this was always going to be a war of attrition and manpower. The Ukrainian brigades that collapsed in front of the Russian advance in Avdiivka suffered from “lack of rotation, heavy attrition, shortage of soldiers, difficulty moving at night, chronic health issues, the 40–45 average age of soldiers, and few remaining fortifications.” Their counteroffensive failed because the Ukrainians had around nine Western trained brigades (around 45,000 troopers) deployed in four axes instead of in a single thrust; these went into meat grinder battles like that at Bakhmut against entrenched and fortified Russian defenses with around 320,000 Russian troops. It has only gotten worse since. 

The reality is that Vance is right, there must be a negotiated settlement, and we just don’t know what that will entail; although some have thought about it a bit further ahead than others. No number of magic weapons will change the balance of power in the theatre if the two sides are so unevenly matched in aggregate power and asymmetry of interest, unless NATO actively joins a war against Russia or the Ukrainian foreign legion increases by 15-fold. Anyone advocating helping Ukraine should immediately pack his bags and head east. The Ukrainians need meat more than tweets. 

This is not a war between Gatling guns versus the assegais. This is near-peer weaponry. Russians have 15 times the manpower in the theater, and 10 times the shell advantage. Ukrainians should have listened to General Mark Milley in November 2022 and negotiated. One wonders it is already too late, and that window is lost.