The military and economic balance in war has shifted strongly against Ukraine, and it is very hard to see how this tendency can now be reversed. There is still time for Ukraine to win a qualified victory against Russia; but only if the United States commits itself strongly to a compromise peace.
Russia’s population is at least four times that of Ukraine, and its GDP is 14 times greater. Western attempts to cripple Russia through economic sanctions have failed. The Russian economy grew by around three percent in 2023, as a result of increased energy exports to non-Western countries and a massive and successful effort to invest in military industrial production. Ukraine is making desperate attempts to boost its own military production, but from a far lower industrial base coupled with an acute shortage of skilled labor.
The Biden administration is therefore correct to warn that without continued and massive U.S. military aid to Ukraine, Russia will quickly win. It is however equally clear that U.S. aid — still less at the levels sustained to date — cannot be guaranteed even in the medium term. Partly due to the new U.S. commitment to Israel created by the Gaza war and the threat of it spreading, the United States is also failing adequately to replenish Ukraine’s dwindling stocks of air-defense missiles, which are crucially important both on the battlefield and in the protection of Ukrainian infrastructure and industry. Both the United States and Europe are failing to meet their targets for increased production of artillery shells, which Russia is firing at some three to five times the Ukrainian rate.
And even if the West could vastly increase its military production (highly doubtful given the pressure on Western budgets, supply chain problems, and skilled labor shortages), we cannot provide Ukraine with more soldiers. Ukrainian manpower shortages are becoming increasingly acute, and are leading to increasingly draconian conscription measures and bitter disputes within the Ukrainian government over how to enforce conscription, which is faltering in the face of growing public resistance.
Following the failure of last year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Biden administration and the Ukrainian government and military have all shifted to a defensive strategy, including trying to fortify Ukraine’s long northern border with Russia and Belarus. This region has been quiet since Moscow withdrew its troops in the spring for 2022, after the failure of its initial invasion from the north. However, Russia’s growing advantage in numbers means that at some point in future, its army may be able to attack again along this front.
While smart, and even if successful in the short term, a strategy of standing indefinitely on the defensive has two colossal disadvantages for Ukraine. Politically, it brings with it the obvious implication that Russia will go on holding the areas it now controls. This being so, more and more Ukrainians and Westerners will obviously begin to call for a compromise peace. The danger is that if we leave this too long, the balance will have shifted so decisively against Ukraine that Russia will have few incentives left to compromise.
For militarily, a permanent defensive strategy commits Ukraine to an indefinite war of attrition in which Russia has huge long-term advantages. It is quite true that as in the First World War, recent developments in military technology strongly favor the defensive. This was shown in the defeat of the Russian offensive of 2022 and the Ukrainian offensive of 2023, and the very slow progress that Russia has made in its effort to capture small towns like Avdiivka in the Donbas. However, we should also remember that in the First World War, great superiority in numbers, munitions and economic strength did eventually lead to victory for the Allies.
Faced with this reality, the Ukrainian government and Western backers of complete Ukrainian victory are resorting to a set of optimistic stories, which might be unkindly described as stretching from the doubtful to the magical. One of these is to take the highest possible estimate of Russian casualties in its recent offensives, and on this basis to argue that through repeated failed offensives, the Russian army will exhaust itself to the point where Moscow seeks peace on Western terms. However, unless the Ukrainian army could attack successfully in turn, this would still leave the territories now occupied by Russia in Russian hands.
It is also not at all clear on what basis Western analysis is making these “estimates.” In some cases, they come straight from the Ukrainian military. According to Ukrainian military veterans with whom I spoke last year, the belief that in the Donbas, Russia is launching mass “human wave” attacks in the style of World War II appears to be largely wrong. Rather, the Russian army has sought to force the Ukrainians to fight in relatively small, clearly defined areas where they can be pounded incessantly by Russian artillery.
The goal at present seems not to rapidly seize large amounts of territory, but to rely on Russia’s advantage in artillery to kill large numbers of Ukrainian soldiers, while trying to keep Russian casualties as low as possible. If this picture is correct, then while Russia’s approach will take time, in the long run Ukraine’s shortage of troops means that it will simply not have enough left to cover its entire front.
The other hope of the Ukrainian government and pro-war Westerners rests in long-range missiles. If the West can be persuaded to provide many more of them, then it is argued firstly that by knocking out the Kerch bridge and driving off the Russian navy, Ukraine can isolate Crimea and force Russia to sue for peace. This hope is empty. The one major success of the Russian invasion of 2022 was to conquer the land between Russia and Crimea. It was this “land bridge” that last year’s Ukrainian offensive was intended to break — but failed to do so.
The other Ukrainian plan — as demonstrated by the latest Ukrainian attacks on the Russian city of Belgorod — seems to be missile strikes on targets in Russia in an effort to put pressure on the Kremlin. As a military strategy, this is also hopeless. The vast size of Russia means that in terms of damage to Russia’s economic capacity, even greatly expanded Ukrainian attacks would be mere pinpricks. In terms of civilian casualties, they will anger ordinary Russians without killing anything like enough to produce a mass movement for peace.
It may be however that angering Russians is precisely the Ukrainian intention. A strike by a Western-supplied missile that caused very large civilian casualties or destroyed a high profile target could lead to massive pressure on the Kremlin to retaliate against the West, whether by hitting Western targets in Ukraine or by providing its own missiles and satellite technology to enemies of America in the Middle East. This could in turn provoke much more direct Western involvement in the conflict — which Kyiv desires but the Biden administration and European governments have been anxious to avoid, and which the United States can desperately ill afford given the dangers it is facing elsewhere in the world.
If this picture is correct, then Washington and Kyiv both have a strong incentive to open peace talks while we still retain significant leverage; for if we wait, the terms that we will get in the future are likely to be much worse for Ukraine and much more humiliating for the West. In terms of Putin’s goals when he invaded Ukraine, and of the past 300 years of Russian domination of Ukraine, a war that ended today with 80 percent of Ukraine independent and free to seek membership of the European Union should be seen as a very important victory for Ukraine. It would not be a complete victory — but complete victory is simply no longer possible.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Avdiivka and awarded the defenders of the city, in Ukraine, on December 29, 2023. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM via Reuters
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.