According to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Miley, after a year of fighting to take over Ukraine, Russia has “strategically, operationally, and tactically lost.” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s National Security Advisor, also asserts that “Russia has already lost this war.”
But the Biden Administration’s assertion relies on an incomplete narrative focusing on Putin’s failure to win the war quickly. Putin assumed that a highly trained Russian military would win a quick and decisive victory over an isolated and weak Ukraine, an assumption shared by many Western pundits.
When Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the consensus was that Ukraine’s armed forces would be quickly defeated, and that Kyiv would fall to the Russian invaders in a few days. However, determined Ukrainian resistance, a resolute Ukrainian war leadership under President Volodymyr Zelensky, and large quantities of Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-air missiles provided by the United States and NATO resulted in significant Russian losses in men and material. So Putin lost the opportunity to win the war in one swift military campaign.
Since then, the prevailing narrative remains one of emphasizing the Russian military’s underperformance, its crisis in morale, equipment and leadership, and that Russia is now an isolated global pariah facing a unified NATO Alliance.
However, we should ask ourselves if the narrative of Russia’s defeat is premature. If Russia’s war is lost, what explains the concerns over a renewed Russian spring offensive with the 300,000 conscripts Putin has trained and deployed in Ukraine, or Ukraine’s impending ammunition shortage?
What about the Belarusian threat from the north of Kyiv, of China potentially supplying Russia with lethal weaponry, or talks of a Ukrainian counteroffensive to, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says, “establish or create momentum and establish conditions on the battlefield that continue to be in its favor.” Russia can still win, or at least not lose this war.
Although Putin faces stiff Ukrainian resistance, a rejuvenated NATO alliance, which is generous in its supply of weapons and economic assistance to Ukraine, especially by the United States, Russia maintains several advantages for successfully prosecuting a long war in Ukraine to acquire territory and keep Ukraine out of NATO.
First, the Ukraine War is a war of attrition, whereby the side with the largest reserves of manpower has the advantage, and with Russia’s population being three times that of Ukraine, Russia has this advantage. Russia used the winter to raise and train 300,000 soldiers now deployed on the front lines and who may already be participating in the opening stages of a Russian spring offensive in Eastern Ukraine.
The supply of western weapons including American M1A1, British Challenger, and German Leopard II tanks, HIMARS rocket launchers, and Stryker fighting vehicles may offset Russia’s numerical advantage in manpower, but it will take time to deliver and train Ukrainians in the use of these weapons, giving Putin a window to achieve his objectives.
Second, Ukraine lacks the industrial capability to sustain its armed forces, and its war economy depends entirely on the West and particularly the United States. Since 2022, The Biden Administration has provided $46.6 billion in military assistance to Ukraine. This dependency on outside nations for its weapons and munitions, as Ukraine’s ammunition shortage shows, is a fundamental weakness for Ukraine giving Putin another advantage.
Third, there is no agreement among the Ukraine’s allies on the war objectives. Zelensky says he will not negotiate away any Ukrainian territory, including the Crimea, Donetsk, or Luhansk — an unrealistic position. Furthermore, recent polls indicate a diminishing support for open-ended financial and military assistance to Ukraine.
In The United States, only 48% of Americans approve supplying Ukraine with weapons. A looming debt crisis, a $31 trillion deficit, a continuing sense of economic malaise, a newly elected Republican House of Representatives, concerns over whether the suppling Ukraine with munitions and weapons will undermine American military preparedness by exhausting existing stockpiles, and a concern about the potential for the war to escalate beyond Ukraine or even see the use of nuclear weapons by Russia will make it more difficult for the Biden administration to pursue a policy of arming and financing Ukraine. That’s another advantage for Putin.
As Ukraine enters its second year of war, the Biden administration and Western leaders must be conscientious in conveying what lies ahead. Specifically, that Ukraine faces a weakened but still powerful Russian military and a long war which Russia can still win. Western leaders must set clear and achievable political and military objectives and communicate these, and they must not succumb to the dangerous disease of gradually shifting policies and unending commitments known as mission creep.
Dr. Ricardo A. Crespo is a tenure-track instructor in the Department of Political Economy
at Grossmont College.