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What the West Must Do Now to Help Ukraine Win the War

17 minute read
Clark is a Senior Analyst and the Russia Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War.

Ukraine’s heroic resistance against the first year of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine and Russian defeats continue to stun the world, but the outcome of the war remains in doubt. Ukraine achieved striking successes in 2022 through smart operational planning, the effective use of large-scale Western support, and the enduring will of the Ukrainian people. Ukraine has defeated Russia’s initial invasion, conducted several successful counteroffensives, and inflicted devastating losses on the Russian military. When Putin launched his full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, few predicted the magnitude of Ukraine’s successes one year on.

We cannot yet assume a Ukrainian victory, however, and do not know how this war will end. We cannot say that Putin has lost strategically (despite endemic Russian tactical incompetence and repeated operational failures) simply because he has not yet won. Ukraine has inflicted devastating battlefield defeats on Russian forces. The Russian military will struggle to replace its substantial losses for years to come. Ukraine is poised to conduct further counteroffensives in 2023 after the ongoing Russian offensive in Luhansk Oblast culminates. Western unity behind Ukraine remains high, and Putin has lost ground in the global information space. Nonetheless, the Russian military remains dangerous, Putin’s objectives have not changed, and even a partial Russian victory would be crippling for Ukraine.

Putin is unlikely to ever change his maximalist intent to secure control over Ukraine. Putin has long rejected Ukrainian sovereignty and the existence of an independent Ukrainian nation, repeatedly claiming that Russia “created” Ukraine, and only Russia can be the “single real guarantee of Ukrainian sovereignty.” As ISW fellow Nataliya Bugayova argues, Putin has tried to gain control over Ukraine in increasingly extreme ways for two decades—first seeking to dominate Ukraine’s politics in the 2000s and early 2010s; through military intervention in 2014 and manipulating the Minsk II peace framework afterwards; and finally resorting to a full-scale and likely genocidal invasion in 2022. Putin has only abandoned each of these efforts to control Ukraine after being defeated and will not abandon his current invasion easily—but Ukraine can and must defeat him again.

Read More: Why the People of Ukraine Will Triumph

Ukraine is fully capable of defeating Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression and eliminating Russia’s military ability to conquer Ukraine, however, and the U.S. and its partners must help Ukraine do so. Russian forces did not withdraw from Kyiv, right bank Kherson Oblast, or Kharkiv Oblast because the Kremlin changed its objectives—they withdrew because Ukrainian forces forced them out. In 2014, the Kremlin intended to capture six regions in Ukraine as part of the Novorossiya project and failed not because Putin’s goals changed, but because Ukraine stopped Russia. The West will not be able to change Putin’s intent, but it can enable Ukraine to further curtail his capability to wage war against Ukraine. A satisfactory end to the war—a lasting conclusion that will secure Ukrainian territory and sovereignty and harden Ukraine against future Russian aggression—is achievable with sustained and substantial Western support.

Enabling Ukraine to defeat Russia’s invasion is both a moral imperative and an essential U.S. national security interest.

At the core of the issue, Ukraine is simply in the moral and legal right. Putin is waging an unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, and Kyiv’s insistence on regaining control of its internationally recognized borders is the normal position of a state defending itself against a war of conquest, not an absolutist demand. Vice President Kamala Harris stated on February 18 that the US assesses Russia has committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine, as ISW has long assessed. Russian forces seek to implement Putin’s bogus order to “denazify” Ukraine through the process of “filtration” – in practice, the targeted killing of anyone Russian forces perceive as a threat. The massacres in Bucha and the discovery of mass graves in Izyum are the most notable examples but are not outliers.

Enabling a decisive Ukrainian victory is furthermore an essential U.S. national interest from every angle, as is increasingly broadly accepted in the US. America’s vital economic interdependence with Europe and obligations through the NATO alliance—which are essential to U.S. national security and prosperity—necessitate defeating threats to European security such as the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine must additionally retake specific areas under Russian occupation to ensure its long-term security and economic viability—both of which are in U.S. interests. NATO’s security would be materially enhanced by Ukrainian forces liberating Crimea. Further Russian military losses in Ukraine will diminish Russia’s already severely depleted ability to conventionally threaten NATO or project power internationally.

Graves of Ukrainian soldiers who died in the first year of the Russian-Ukrainian war at the cemetery in Kyiv
A view of the graves of Ukrainian soldiers who died in the Russian-Ukrainian war on the first year of the war at a cemetery in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 23, 2023.Oleksii Chumachenko/Anadolu Agency

The Kremlin’s objectives in Ukraine will not change, and Russian forces will use any territory secured before a premature ceasefire as starting points for further aggression against Ukraine. Any Russian invasion of Ukraine, now or in the future, will inevitably harm Europe, endanger NATO, and entail the risk of a conventional or nuclear escalation. The U.S. must not kick the problem down the road by accepting or worse pushing for a temporary ceasefire that would stop the current fighting while raising the risks of a renewed Russian invasion. The U.S. should instead enable Ukraine to comprehensively defeat the current Russian invasion and harden itself against further Russian aggression.

The current Russian invasion of Ukraine could conceivably end in one of three ways in the medium-term of 2023 or 2024:

1) Putin achieves his maximalist objective of controlling Ukraine through some combination of direct territorial conquest and/or imposing regime change on a rump Ukrainian state. This outcome is incredibly unlikely in 2023 or 2024 unless something surprising and catastrophic occurs.

2) Ukraine successfully convinces Putin to abandon his current invasion by liberating occupied territory and further degrading the Russian conventional military. Ukraine intends to and can win a complete victory, and the West can—and should—assist Ukraine in doing so through timely, sustained, and lasting support. This victory and the reclamation of Ukraine’s international borders would not permanently end the Russian threat to Ukraine, but would defeat the greatest Russian threat to date and cripple Russian military power, enabling Ukraine to harden itself against any renewed Russian aggression in the coming decades.

3) Russia and Ukraine sign a ceasefire agreement, enabling the Kremlin to secure a significant but indecisive victory and returning the conflict in Ukraine to a static phase like that from 2015 to 2022, though on terms far more advantageous to Russia. The frontlines established by any ceasefire would set conditions for not only negotiations and reconstruction, but more importantly for any renewed Russian invasion, as ISW has repeatedly argued. The Kremlin has repeatedly violated ceasefires in Syria and Ukraine and uses temporary ceasefires as a deliberate tool. Any forecasts or policy recommendations that claim to focus on strictly the “final” outcome of a ceasefire or armistice, ignoring any intermediate violations of the ceasefire, ignore the Kremlin’s likely course of action – wherein pauses to reconstitute Russian forces and divide the Kremlin’s opponents are a deliberate part of Russian campaign design. Furthermore, stopping large scale fighting by forcing Ukraine into concessions would (temporarily) halt large scale fighting but would not stop the killing, leaving Ukrainians trapped behind enemy lines unable to defend themselves and likely enabling Russian forces to concentrate on filtration and further occupation measures.

The war could alternatively—and most likely without timely and sustained Western support to Ukraine—protract for several years, an outcome not in Ukrainian or U.S. interests and only advantageous to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin is belatedly preparing Russia’s defense industrial base for a protracted, large scale war. Putin explicitly stated on December 7 that the “special military operation” in Ukraine will be “lengthy,” and reiterated his commitment to a long war in Ukraine during his February 21 speech to Russian parliament. The Kremlin began taking steps in December 2022 to belatedly mobilize the Russian defense industrial base to support a prolonged war, centralizing control of production and increasing desired output. Western intelligence agencies have recently noted the Kremlin increasingly recognizes that Russia’s low industrial output is a ”critical weakness,” and while Russia can likely produce large quantities of small arms, missiles and tanks, it will struggle to replace high-end equipment and offset the effects of Western sanctions. Russia remains unable to increase its industrial capacity quickly, certainly not in time to affect the outcome of the current Russian offensive or the likely Ukrainian spring counteroffensive, but the Kremlin can and will begin to rectify its mobilization and industrial challenges over the coming years.

Read More: How Ukraine Turned the Tide Against Russia

The Russian Ministry of Defense announced several intended sweeping changes to Russian force structure in January 2023 to prepare the Russian military for large scale, sustained conventional warfare. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on January 17 that he will implement sweeping reforms (first publicly proposed in late December 2022) from 2023-2026. These intended changes include increasing the size of the Russian military from 1.35 to 1.5 million; forming 12 new maneuver divisions (almost certainly based on existing brigades); and increasing the number of training grounds and specialists. Russia can nominally form new divisions, but it remains unclear if Russia can generate enough personnel to fully staff them to their on-paper end strengths amid an ongoing war. However, the Russian military could generate large-scale rapid change in military capacity if Putin is willing to put Russia on a war footing for several years and redirect large portions of the federal budget—which he is likely willing to do. These reforms and expansions will not affect the war in Ukraine materially for many months but could change the correlation of forces going into 2024 and could establish conditions for a much more formidable Russian military threat to its neighbors, including NATO states, in the coming years.

Ukraine war - Before anniversary start of war
Soldiers of the Ukrainian National Guard are being trained for combat at a military training ground outside the capital. The training lasts about six to eight weeks. February 24, 2023 marks the first anniversary of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine.Kay Nietfeld-dpa

Ukraine’s currently advantageous correlation of forces against Russia will diminish in a protracted war as the Kremlin rebuilds its military capabilities. Ukraine is on aggregate less able to replace combat losses due to its smaller manpower base. Ukraine’s current leverage is driven by full Ukrainian mobilization on one hand, and Putin’s failure to fully mobilize on the other. As the Kremlin belatedly and with great difficulty moves to a wartime footing, however, the Russian military can begin to reconstitute itself as Ukrainian forces take further losses. Ukrainian national will remains high, and the Ukrainian military maintains universal support. However, this support could diminish over time as the immediate threat of full defeat further recedes. Western support for Ukraine will drop off over the long term, as Western unity drifts and other future crises take up international attention and resources. While we should not take this forecast as a given and the West should sustain support for Ukraine as long as necessary to ensure a Ukrainian victory, the relative correlation of forces will very likely shift in Russia’s favor during a protracted war—raising not only Russia’s chances of victory in Ukraine, but reviving Russia’s ability to conventionally threaten NATO.

The U.S. has seemingly decided on a policy in part optimized to avoid the least likely scenario—a near-term Russian conventional escalation against NATO or the use of nuclear weapons—which ignores the long-term, more dangerous risk of allowing the Kremlin to reconstitute its forces and fight a protracted war.

The risk of a Russian conventional escalation against NATO or a regional expansion of the war is currently near its lowest point—which was likely October 2022, immediately following Ukraine’s successfully counteroffensives and before Russia began reconstituting its forces. The scale of the Kremlin’s conventional threats against NATO do not correspond with Russia’s current capabilities. Inside Ukraine, the Kremlin has a vital interest in preventing Western aid shipments to Ukraine and has repeatedly stated it views Western aid as a military target. However, we have not observed a consistent and lasting Kremlin ability—or intent—to strike Western military aid. If the Kremlin were capable of and truly intended to disrupt Western aid shipments, it almost certainly would have done so earlier in the war, before suffering devastating losses enabled by Western weapons and supplies. U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace estimated on February 15 that Russia may have committed up to 97 percent of its army to the fight in Ukraine and that its combat effectiveness has decreased by 40 percent due to substantial losses. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) further reported that Russia has lost about 50 percent of its T-72B and T-72B3M tanks and many T-80 tanks, forcing Russian forces to rely on older equipment. Russian forces are struggling to conduct an offensive in Luhansk Oblast, much less threaten Poland or the Baltic States, and Russia does not currently have a conventional means to escalate against NATO directly.

The Kremlin additionally remains extraordinarily unlikely to use nuclear weapons either in Ukraine or against NATO. Putin’s implicit and explicit nuclear threats (and withdrawal from the New START treaty) are aimed at intimidating both Ukraine and the West and are highly unlikely to presage the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine or NATO. As ISW has assessed previously, Putin remains extremely unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Russian forces are likely too degraded to use tactical nuclear weapons offensively by advancing through the immediate aftermath of a nuclear strike (as intended in Russian doctrine), and a nuclear terror strike on a Ukrainian population center would be highly unlikely to compel Ukraine to surrender. Putin would likely need to use multiple tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine to achieve even the defensive operational effect of freezing the front lines and halting Ukrainian counteroffensives. Putin would need to assess that the use of nuclear weapons would halt Ukrainian counteroffensives; that the damage to Ukrainian forces would outweigh the likely catastrophic losses Russian forces in Ukraine would suffer from a conventional US or NATO response; and the effects would be worth the substantial international costs of breaking the nuclear taboo—a highly unlikely convergence of events. Finally, if Putin were to use nukes in Ukraine and not end the war decisively, he would have removed one of Russia’s greatest remaining sources of leverage—the threat of its nuclear arsenal.

Read More: Will Russia Go Nuclear?

The Kremlin is even less likely to directly use nuclear weapons against the U.S. and NATO. This risk will always exist if nuclear weapons exist, but there is no reason to believe that strategic deterrence has failed. Putin’s stated red lines for nuclear weapons use have already been crossed several times over without any Russian nuclear escalation, and Putin remains a cautious decision maker, as ISW has previously argued. Putin remains dedicated to fighting a conventional war in Ukraine and we have observed no indications that Putin would directly escalate to striking NATO with a nuclear weapon.

Basing U.S. policy on the assumption that the U.S. can never run the risk of nuclear escalation with any actor makes the U.S. fully self-deterring and subordinates national security policy to any actor with nuclear weapons, with disastrous ramifications for global security. Arguments that the West should coerce Ukraine into negotiations with the Kremlin to avoid the risk of Putin using nuclear weapons to stave off defeat ignore the endpoint of their own logic. The assumption that Putin would rather end the world than concede defeat in his conventional war in Ukraine presupposes he is an insane, suicidal leader. If that is the case, how does Ukraine (and the West) negotiate a durable peace with a madman? The argument that the U.S. should not help Ukraine regain its territory as it might lead to nuclear annihilation means that there is nothing to do but surrender Ukraine and anything else Putin wants—not to mention the ramifications for relations with China. Furthermore, this policy would encourage every predator and revisionist state without nuclear weapons to obtain them as rapidly as possible. A world in which any nuclear armed power is empowered to secure, without resistance, their objectives due to a self-deterring U.S. foreign policy is not preferrable to accepting the extraordinarily small risk that Putin will engage in nuclear suicide.

It is therefore in the interests of the U.S. to enable Ukraine to secure a lasting defeat of Russia’s invasion—and possible to do so with timely and decisive aid.

The West has reason to be satisfied with many aspects of its support for Ukraine. Western support to Ukraine has inarguably been essential to Ukraine’s survival. Western advising and support in the years leading up to Russia’s 2022 invasion helped the Ukrainian military resist Russia’s initial offensive. Western systems such as the Javelin antitank missile help repulse the Russian drive on Kyiv, and the coalition provision of Soviet-era weapons systems and munitions kept Ukraine fighting throughout the spring and summer. The delivery of more advanced system, most notably HIMARS, facilitated Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kherson and Kharkiv Oblasts, and the provision of armored vehicles will enable future counteroffensives. The Western unity that has enabled this support is striking, and Putin fundamentally underestimated the scale of international support for Ukraine his invasion would provoke.

However, the West cannot be complacent or self-congratulatory. Western reluctance to provide substantial and reliable streams of higher end systems to Ukraine has limited Ukraine’s ability to conduct large-scale counteroffensives. The West’s ebb-and-flow support—providing aid reactively and in response to perceived Russian actions—was sufficient (though far from optimal) for the initial Ukrainian defense in the early months of the invasion. This approach has not been and never will be sufficient for Ukrainian forces to conduct the major counter-offensive operations necessary both for Ukraine to liberate its territory and for the U.S. to secure its national security interests. Western forecasts that the war is entering a period of “stalemate” ignore the fact that the West’s piecemeal support for Ukraine is a key factor in delaying Ukrainian counteroffensives. The U.S. and NATO would never supply their own forces in this manner, and Ukraine is likely struggling to plan for further counteroffensive operations due to delays and oscillations in Western support. Kyiv is understandably cautious about planning for and conducting major operations before knowing it will have the munitions, equipment, and replacements necessary to not only begin but sustain them as well. Recent Western commitments to provide tanks and other armored vehicles to Ukraine for further counteroffensive operations are important, but the delays in providing such systems likely cost Ukraine a window of opportunity for a counteroffensive this winter.

One year on, Ukraine needs further timely and sustained support to win this war. Enabling Ukraine to defeat Russia is essential for Ukrainian security, European prosperity, and global stability. Ukraine can win this war, but time is of the essence. The longer Russia has to reconstitute its forces and wear down Western unity, the greater the risks of escalation become. A Kremlin favorable ceasefire would only temporarily pause Russia’s attacks, and reduce the chances of Ukraine hardening itself against lasting Russian aggression. The U.S. and its partners cannot slow roll further aid to Ukraine and must ensure Ukraine receives timely and lasting support to enable the Ukrainian counteroffensives necessary to liberate Ukraine’s territory and destroy Russia’s military power. Ukraine’s spirited defense has inspired the world—we must not self-deter from enabling Ukraine to finish the job and defeat Putin’s invasion.

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