The Confederates after Chancellorsville forgot the structural odds against them. Is Ukraine making the same mistake?
Optimism has been surging that Ukraine will be able to win its war against Russia. At a minimum, the expectation is that Kiev can expel Russian troops from all Ukrainian territory captured since the start of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. More optimistic types believe that it may be possible to retake Crimea and the Donbas lands that Russia seized in 2014. Whatever the specifics, the underlying goal of Ukraine’s NATO sponsors is to compel Russian president Vladimir Putin to accept a humiliating peace agreement that prevents him from achieving any of his original objectives. There is even growing speculation in Ukraine and the West that a bonus to an impending Ukrainian military victory might be Putin’s removal from power.
The United States and NATO are doubling down on their strategy of military assistance to Kiev, believing that Ukraine can win the war. Both the level of optimism and the extent of aid have noticeably increased since the surprising success of Ukraine’s autumn military offensives in both northeastern and southern Ukraine that regained control of significant swaths of territory from Russian occupation forces.
Even though such reversals certainly came as the latest unpleasant surprise to Putin and his inner circle, a Ukrainian victory in the overall war remains improbable. Absent massive, direct NATO military intervention on behalf of its client, the conflict is more likely to follow the pattern of America’s Civil War, with a Russian victory coming at the end of a long, grinding, extremely bloody conflict.
Western optimism about Ukraine’s prospects has been on the rise for months. As soon as Russian forces failed to take Kiev and became bogged down on other fronts during the spring of 2022, Western expectations about a favorable outcome to the war grew. Even in early March, barely two weeks into the fighting, Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the “extraordinary resilience” of the Ukrainian people and expressed confidence that Ukraine ultimately would be victorious. “Of course they can win this,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a news briefing on April 6. “The proof is literally in the outcomes that you’re seeing every day.”
Such upbeat assessments were not confined to Biden administration officials. Congenitally hawkish American Enterprise Institute analyst Frederick W. Kagan wrote that “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.” In early May, top diplomats from NATO members met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Berlin and gleefully concluded that the war “is not going as Moscow had planned.” Stoltenberg stated flatly, “Ukraine can win this war,” adding that the alliance must continue its military support.
That confidence among Western opinion leaders became even more pronounced when Ukrainian forces scored their major territorial gains in the autumn of 2022. Daniel L. Davis, a former military officer and currently a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, documents how so many of America’s retired generals became wildly positive about Ukraine’s chances of victory.
Retired Army general Ben Hodges said that Ukraine had already “achieved irreversible momentum” and that there were “no bright spots on the horizon for Russia.” Former general David Petraeus said Russia can’t win and that there is “nothing (Putin) can do” to stop Ukraine from winning. Former general and national security advisor H.R. McMaster went so far as to starkly claim that Putin was at the precipice of facing “really the collapse of the Russian army in Ukraine.”
A few voices within the U.S. foreign policy establishment expressed less exuberance about Kiev’s chances for victory in the long run. The most significant example was a January 7, 2023, op-ed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in the Washington Post. The title of the piece, “Time Is Not on Ukraine’s Side,” conveyed their concern.
Both of us have dealt with Putin on a number of occasions, and we are convinced he believes time is on his side: that he can wear down the Ukrainians and that U.S. and European unity and support for Ukraine will eventually erode and fracture. To be sure, the Russian economy and people will suffer as the war continues, but Russians have endured far worse.
The two former officials noted that
although Ukraine’s response to the invasion has been heroic and its military has performed brilliantly, the country’s economy is in a shambles, millions of its people have fled, its infrastructure is being destroyed, and much of its mineral wealth, industrial capacity and considerable agricultural land are under Russian control. Ukraine’s military capability and economy are now dependent almost entirely on lifelines from the West—primarily, the United States.
Alas, Rice and Gates prove again that even on those rare occasions when members of the foreign policy blob get the diagnosis right, they invariably get the prescription wrong. Their “solution” to Ukraine’s looming strategic and logistical plight is not to press Kiev to accept a ceasefire and negotiate a realistic peace. Such a course correction would mean abandoning NATO’s cynical proxy war to bleed and humiliate Russia. Instead, they conclude that the only way to salvage the situation “is for the United States and its allies to urgently provide Ukraine with a dramatic increase in military supplies and capability—sufficient to deter a renewed Russian offensive and to enable Ukraine to push back Russian forces in the east and south.” Like so many of their pro-war colleagues, Rice and Gates remain strangely oblivious to the danger that escalating NATO’s meddling in the Russia-Ukraine conflict increases the risk of an outright military clash between the Alliance and Russia—with possible nuclear implications.
Although no episode in world affairs ever fully replicates an earlier one, developments in the Russia–Ukraine war have had multiple eerie parallels to America’s Civil War. If that pattern continues, and there is every reason to believe that it will, Rice and Gates are correct that time is not on Ukraine’s side.
Vladimir Putin clearly underestimated the extent and effectiveness of Ukrainian resistance when he launched the February 2022 invasion. U.S. intelligence agencies leaked reports to the press that the Russian military’s high command believed that their troops would enter Kiev within days—a belief U.S. analysts shared.
Abraham Lincoln’s administration likewise expected that the Southern bid for secession could be suppressed in short order. Following the Confederacy’s bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to help quash the rebellion. That modest initial mobilization of troops only contemplated 90 days of service. In late July, civilians in and around Washington were so confident that government forces would rout the upstart rebels that they drove their buggies out to see the impending clash at Manassas (Bull Run) in northern Virginia. Some even brought along picnic baskets as part of a sightseeing outing. Most sightseers were soon fleeing away from the battlefield as the Confederate forces proved to be far more tenacious than anticipated.
Within weeks, it was clear that the rebellion would not be over any time soon. The Lincoln government, the Union military command, and populations in the North began to dig in for a longer war. That mobilization came in stages, however. Within days of the setback at Manassas, the president issued a call for 500,000 volunteers. This time, the enlistment period would be three years. Another escalation of the war effort took place soon after when the administration assigned a quota of military volunteers from each state. The subsequent Militia Act of 1862 mandated a military draft within each state that did not meet its quota of volunteers. The Union’s military mobilization continued to escalate. On March 3, 1863, just weeks after the Union Army’s stunning defeat at the battle of Fredericksburg, Lincoln signed a new conscription law, known as the Civil War Military Draft Act. This new measure replaced the Militia Act of 1862 and called all males between the ages of 20 to 45 for service, instead of merely assigning recruitment quotas to each state.
A similar pattern of escalation is taking place in Russia. Putin’s September 21, 2022, order for a partial military mobilization confirmed that Russia’s leaders finally grasped the reality that the initial force level in Ukraine would not be sufficient to achieve Moscow’s objectives. Putin’s nationwide address at the beginning of 2023 was even more clearly designed to prepare the Russian people for an extended conflict.
Russian leaders obviously were far too confident about their chances of success. However, the optimism in the United States and throughout NATO about Ukraine’s ultimate victory is misplaced. Again, some parallels with the Civil War are striking.
One key measure that should be extremely worrisome to Ukraine is military casualties. An assessment by Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in early November 2022 concluded that Russian forces had suffered more than 100,000 dead and wounded since the war began. U.S. news media highlighted that number in their headlines. What received far less attention was Milley’s admission that Ukrainian forces also had suffered more than 100,000 casualties. That point is significant because Russia’s military is much larger than Ukraine’s, and Russia’s overall population is more than three times larger than Ukraine’s. In other words, Russia can absorb such gruesome losses easier and longer than Ukraine can.
As America’s internecine conflict dragged into its third and then fourth year, the North’s inherent advantages became more significant. States remaining loyal to the Union were both more populous and industrialized than the states that joined the Confederacy. The North’s population in 1861 was 22 million, while the South had a mere 8 million people, nearly a third of whom were slaves. In addition, the North had a far more extensive railroad system to move troops and supplies. Such factors would ultimately translate into insurmountable military superiority.
During the early stages of the war, however, those advantages were neither obvious nor crucial. Confederate forces, with their more competent officer corps, were able to outgeneral and outmaneuver their adversaries and score major victories on the battlefield. That was true of the war’s first engagement at Manassas and especially true of the decisive Confederate victories at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Chancellorsville in May 1863. Even the stalemate at Sharpsburg (Antietam) in September 1862 was viewed in the South as a Union setback and helped foster the illusion that the Confederacy would ultimately triumph.
Chancellorsville would be the high point of the South’s military success. General Robert E. Lee’s bid to score a decisive victory in the North and menace the seat of government in Washington failed at Gettysburg in July 1863. Thereafter, Southern forces were slowly ground to bits by their numerically superior and better equipped adversary. The Confederacy’s principal initial advantage, better military commanders, also began to dissipate. Lincoln gradually replaced the overly cautious George B. McClellan and the incompetents Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker with far better and more ruthless commanders.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was rewarded for his victory at Vicksburg in July 1863, which disrupted the South’s control of the vital Mississippi River, by being given command of Union forces on the war’s main front in Virginia. His strategy soon exploited the North’s main advantage—a big edge in military hardware and personnel—by waging a war of attrition against the fading Confederate forces. Farther west, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman led another Union army on a scorched-earth march through Georgia and South Carolina, devastating the South’s infrastructure and capturing key cities and manufacturing centers such as Atlanta, Savannah, and Columbia. Just as Grant’s earlier campaign had effectively severed the Confederacy along the Mississippi, Sherman’s effectively cut the eastern remnant of the Confederacy in two.
The tactics that the two generals embraced were extraordinarily brutal on Southern civilians as well as the Confederate military, and extremely costly in terms of Union casualties as well, but they got the job done. As gruesome as the strategy was, Union forces could absorb the loss of weaponry and personnel; Confederate forces could not. The Union’s extensive blockade of Southern ports, the “Anaconda plan” that Gen. Winfield Scott devised early in the war, also proved devastating over the long term. The blockade disrupted the Confederacy’s ability to export its goods to European markets, thereby depriving the insurgents of badly needed revenues. The rebels also found it increasingly difficult to import some important military hardware. Adequately supplying its beleaguered troops eventually became impossible. Put bluntly, the Confederacy gradually ran out of cash, military supplies, and troops.
Ukraine is likely to face similar difficulties. Indeed, there are signs that it is already doing so. After Kiev’s autumn offensive, Russia’s primary goal shifted from conquering additional territory to smashing Ukraine’s infrastructure, especially the country’s power grid and communications networks, with a surge of air and missile strikes. That approach has had a noticeable impact in just a matter of a few months.
The other element of Moscow’s revised strategy is to fortify defense positions and make it extremely costly in terms of casualties for Ukrainian forces to attack, much less overrun those positions. Despite little attention in the Western news media about Ukrainian military setbacks (or anything else that might undermine the prevailing narrative and cast doubt on the likelihood of Kiev’s ultimate triumph in the war), reports are leaking out that indicate a high level of casualties is occurring.
Despite the significant number of parallels between America’s Civil War and the increasingly bloody Russia–Ukraine war, there are two important differences that give Ukraine a faint hope of at least salvaging a stalemate. One is that Russia has yet to find truly effective commanders to run its war effort. Russian versions of Grant and Sherman have yet to emerge. Putin’s January 2023 decision to replace Gen. Sergei Serovikin with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff and the initial commander of the February invasion, is not comparable to Lincoln’s belated but ultimately successful personnel moves. Serovikin, appointed in October 2022 after the initial successes of Ukraine’s offensive, had at least managed to stem that advance. The dismal performance of Russian forces during Gerasimov’s first stint as battlefield commander suggests that his re-appointment had more to do with his status as a close Putin confidant than with his (questionable) military skills.
Another major difference is the level of foreign support given to the weaker party in the armed conflict. There was considerable sentiment for the Confederate cause within the higher echelons of the British and French governments, for multiple reasons, but leaders were wary about getting deeply involved in America’s war. A misstep could lead to direct fight with Union naval forces, perhaps even an invasion of British-held Canada, as had occurred during the War of 1812. In addition, the two European governments were under considerable public pressure not to support the slave-holding Confederacy. Revulsion at that institution was already permeating public opinion in both Britain and France.
The United States and its NATO allies have shown no similar hesitation about providing massive assistance to Ukraine, despite the danger that such involvement could lead to a direct military clash with Russia. By late December 2022, the United States had already given Kiev $113 billion in weaponry and financial aid. There was also strong evidence that U.S. and British intelligence agencies were giving Ukrainian forces vital battlefield information.
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In early 2023, much heavier offensive Western weapons, including tanks and longer-range missiles, were on their way to Kiev. The Biden administration also appeared to contemplate giving Ukraine Patriot air defense systems, while Poland and other NATO members expressed a desire to transfer F-16 fighters. Extreme hawks prodded the administration and NATO to push the envelope regarding military assistance to Ukraine. Washington Post columnist George F. Will epitomized such thinking in his January 18, 2023, article, “Why Germany Must Not Hesitate Sending Tanks to Ukraine—Lots of Them.”
Despite such continuing manifestations of bellicose unity, some fissures are beginning to emerge within the Western bloc regarding unquestioned support for Ukraine. Key NATO members, especially Hungary and Turkey, are openly expressing disagreement with that approach. Similar dissent is surfacing in the United States, especially among congressional Republicans who are concerned about the rapidly mounting costs and rising dangers of the Biden administration’s proxy war against Russia. Although that perspective was still a minority view in early 2023, pro-war types have reason to worry about the trend.
A significant improvement in the skill level of Russian battlefield commanders or a reduction in the level of Western military aid to Kiev would doom Ukraine’s structurally frail hopes of victory. At that point, the full weight of Russia’s greater manpower and weaponry would come to bear, just as the North’s superiority in those two areas did in America’s Civil War. Instead of gloating over Ukraine’s temporary battlefield victories, Volodymyr Zelensky’s government and its friends in the West should be seizing the opportunity for productive negotiations to end the war and guarantee Ukraine’s neutral status, lest that country eventually suffer a crushing defeat, as did the overly optimistic Confederacy.