Can Ukraine Ever Win?

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

Even a truncated Russian Federation has four times the pre-war population of Ukraine. It enjoys well over 10 times the Ukrainian gross domestic product. Russia covers almost 30 times Ukraine’s area. 

And how does Ukraine expel Russian troops from its borders when its Western allies must put particular restrictions on their life-giving military and financial aid?   

The interests of Europe and the United States are not quite the same as those of a beleaguered Ukraine. NATO also wants Vladimir Putin humiliated, but only if the war can be confined within the borders of Ukraine.

The West seeks a resounding reaffirmation for the supposed “rules-based international order” that prevents aggressive invasions across national borders—but not at the price of a nuclear exchange. 

So to accomplish those grand agendas, the West restricts some of its generous supplies to Ukraine. It sends plenty of lethal weapons—as long as some of them will not provoke a losing Russia into doing something stupid, like resorting to tactical nuclear weapons to save face. 

There are other complications. Time is fickle. In theory, it should favor a resilient Ukraine. 

The longer the war goes on, the more sanctions will hurt the Russian economy and insidiously undermine Russian public support for the war.

On the other hand, the longer the war continues, the greater the Russian losses, and the fewer acceptable off-ramps for Putin, all the more likely he will grow desperate and escalate to Götterdӓmmerung levels. 

Admittedly, Putin is no longer fighting to win over Ukraine and force it back intact into the Russian federation. He is no longer wary of eradicating infrastructure that he once felt would once again become valuable Russian assets. 

Instead, Russia is going full Carthaginian peace in Eastern Ukraine—leveling cities, murdering civilians, and destroying an entire modern society for generations. 

There is as yet still no deterrent force that can stop his bombs and missiles and disrupt Putin’s nihilist strategy. Again, Putin feels liberated by caring nothing about international opinion, and less than nothing about Western outrage over reported Russian war crimes. 

Putin instead believes the stick, of an unpredictable Russia with 7,000 nuclear weapons, and its carrot, of becoming the world’s largest daily producer of oil, cut a lot of lofty talk about humanity. 

So the war has become more complex precisely because Putin failed in his initial shock-and-awe effort to decapitate the Ukrainian government, storm the cities, and install a puppet government.

Putin’s strategy is now paradoxically much simpler—and harder to stop. He will claim victory by institutionalizing Vichy-like Russian states in the Donbass region and Crimea. 

In the meantime his air attacks will render Eastern Ukraine an inert wasteland that will require decades to rebuild.

Even after an armistice, Putin can periodically threaten to expand his devastation to Western Ukraine, should he feel Kyiv is once again growing too close to Europe. 

So can Ukraine ever win? 

Ukraine must stop the airborne wreckage by gaining air supremacy through the use of more sophisticated and larger anti-aircraft batteries and far more SAMs and Stinger smaller systems. Some NATO nations may have to send Ukraine their Soviet-era fighters to replace losses—with conditions that they stay inside Ukrainian air space. 

Second, the supply war must no longer be defined as a larger Russian economy versus tiny Ukraine.

Instead, Putin is now warring against the supply chain of all of Europe and the United States—and all out of his reach. The Ukrainian war machine will only grow—if fueled by allies that combined account for 70 percent of the world’s GDP. 

Putin cannot stop the influx of Western help unless he threatens to use nuclear weapons. 

Ukraine may reach a tipping point soon if it can both stop Russian air attacks and expel Putin’s ground troops from its cities. 

But Kyiv cannot realistically invade Russia to hit its supply depots. It cannot go nuclear to deter future Russian invasions. It cannot shame a bloodthirsty Putin on the world’s humanitarian stage.

And it cannot join NATO to win the direct help of 30 other nations.

But what Ukraine can do is push Russian troops back to the border regions and let the Russian-speaking Ukrainian borderlands work out their own star-crossed relationships with a now blood-soaked and unreliable Putin. 

It can inflict such death and destruction on the conventional Russian military that Putin will fear he will suffer even worse global humiliation that the United States faced after Afghanistan. 

Ukraine can also seek an armistice along the Black Sea coast. It might agree to a plebiscite or some sort of demilitarized zone and small-scale population exchanges to ensure that Crimea does not become a permanent battleground. 

All that is not outright victory, but it is something. And that something was not imaginable when Russia invaded in late February.

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12 thoughts on “Can Ukraine Ever Win?”

  1. Well done! I am so torn up inside seeing the Ukrainians battered terribly (not to mention many of those Russian troops are just cannon fodder to that trash Putin-that breaks my heart too!). And now the Bucha atrocities! I am very thankful the Ukrainians fight like such heroes (they and their 41 Million people will be a great ally to the West once they recover)! If Ukraine can gain “…air supremacy through the use of more sophisticated and larger anti-aircraft batteries and far more SAMs and Stinger smaller systems” then they can switch to mostly a “drone” war of constantly striking any Russian Armor or vehicle…day and night (night vision on overhead munitions) and just wear the Russians out-I am not sure Tanks are have near the prominence in 21st century War. And I don’t believe the Ukrainians have to lean heavily into troop-centric combat either if they focus on drone/overhead, day and night war. Never let those Russian troops sleep…have teams of Ukrainians alternating day and night. Constantly track Russian officers and liquidate many more of them (they are the principal War Criminals). At minimum they must drive the Russians back to the 2014 lines. I believe small teams should go inside Russia and strike supplies that are focused on this War-it would be wonderful if they could sneak 25 or 50 drone munitions into Moscow and strike a military headquarters or a location this is being planned at the highest level…Israeli Entebbe style…totally unexpected.

  2. Harry Mitchell

    Even if the war ends soon in leaving Ukraine in circumstances along what Dr Hanson suggests, what remains of Ukraine faces a future spent walking on eggshells around Putin. It might make them want to develop their own nuclear weapons.

  3. Denecker Robert

    G,”day Victor
    That’s definitely a historical battle plan that went wrong worth writingabout..
    Or he still has another objective in mind …whatever the outcome they outside the Western Civilisation for a long time to come or something will end Putins power and leadership and start hopefully a new democratic Russia .
    RCD France

  4. David Tambornino

    The cold hard chapters of history come cascading down like chilling curtains on clouded collective conscience with crystal clarity.

  5. I would be very interested to learn the source of information underlying the statement “Instead, Russia is going full Carthaginian peace in Eastern Ukraine—leveling cities, murdering civilians, and destroying an entire modern society for generations.” I am not aware of sources that are not either uninformed or compromised. Further, isn’t the eastern section pro-Russian? Why would Russia then destroy the region occupied by allies?

  6. Reginald Beardsley

    You have got to be kidding!

    Putin has made a miscalculation on the scale of Operation Barbarossa, but most of your post is just unsupported rhetoric such as you rightly dismiss in “Angry Reader” posts.

    According to Oryx (https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/attack-on-europe-documenting-equipment.html) Russia has lost roughly an entire BTG per day! At this point that is around 25% of total operational Russian land forces at a *minimum*. And this is not the B team.

    The advance from Izyum to Slovansk is across terrain ideally suited to farmers in TDF units with ATGMs. If there is heavy rain the day before the start of the Russian offensive the Russians are toast. The farmers know the roads and how to navigate them in wet weather. It’s a routine part of being a farmer.

    The Ukrainians do face a difficult logistics task. It’s roughly 700 miles from Poland to the Slovansk region. But it doesn’t take a lot of ATGMs to block the paved roads with destroyed Russian armour. Nor many small vehicles to transport them. Though not fuel efficient, the Russians simply do not have the ability to stop all of them. They are almost completely out of cruise missiles and other standoff weapons and lack air supremacy.

    If the TDF continues to fight as well as they have, Russia will be forced to concede defeat after they have lost over 1/2 of their land forces. I don’t think the generals will support further efforts. Losing over 10 first line tanks a day is not a path to victory.

  7. shawn bahrami

    Greetings Dr.Hanson. Isn’t it true that Ukraine crisis has united the Neocons and neo liberals in the U.S. ? It seems too me establishment Republicans are more than happy to unite with Davos globalist neo-liberals for a few more military contracts and sales regardless of the long term geopolitical ramifications. Please don’t get on the band wagon. We need the real conservatives to stand up to this war hysteria.

    1. Establishment Republicans united with Davos globalist neo-liberals decades ago. That’s what precipitated this whole mess. They chose to poke the Russian bear through the Ukraine. I believe their goal was to precipitate this war in order to mire Russia in it. They really hoped to destabilize Russia so that they could swoop in and profit when the Russian state fails.

      This is more of an existential struggle for Russia than most people realize, but Russia realizes it. Which is why they are so willing to press on ahead, once they started down this road. It’s the Russian oligarchs and mafia fighting to keep control of Russia, rather than cede control of it over to the Davos oligarchs and western NATO/WEF mafia. There are no good guys here, but make no mistake, this war was intended by the western powers. Ukraine is just the bait-goat used to lure the Russian bear.

  8. Hannah Blazewick

    wouldn’t have said this before the war started.
    but Russia is starting to look like the Arabs.
    and Ukraine starting to look like Israel in this war.
    the Arabs always outnumber Israel in everything.
    but who always wins?

  9. Reginald Beardsley

    As an alternative to another rather fact free opinion piece I’d like to point out that *verified* Russian losses are running ~2/3 of a BTG per day. They have lost already 1/3 of the men and material they committed to the invasion. At the average loss rate since the start, Russia is on track to have lost 1/2 of forces committed and 1/3 of *all* first line forces in the next few weeks.

    There is a vast amount of information available from these sources among others.

    A concise history:

    https://www.forgottenweapons.com/the-crimea-catalyst

    Western culpability:

    https://www.zerohedge.com/geopolitical/rand-report-prescribed-us-provocations-against-russia-predicted-kremlin-retaliation

    https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB10014.html

    https://www.mearsheimer.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Why-the-Ukraine-Crisis-Is.pdf

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sq_q7WsiCWs

    An excellent cost-benefit analysis:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrMiSQAGOS4

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJkmcNjh_bg

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1_t2VisYnY

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUyAPQEb01Q

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3fZQmMZ4kY

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MH0xWWSJL00

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEpk_yGjn0E

    There is a running tally of verified losses here:

    https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/

    Regular military summaries:

    https://www.understandingwar.org/

    Useful articles on military topics:

    https://www.strategypage.com/default.aspx

  10. Reginald Beardsley

    Perun has two excellent videos with detailed analysis with lots of factual information:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MH0xWWSJL00

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEpk_yGjn0E

    Russia cannot occupy even the part of Ukraine it currently holds. All the blown up infrastructure provides an overwhelming number of places for small units to hide and stage ambushes. The Russians have no ability to keep properly trained and equipped units from entering and leaving occupied urban areas at will. A few snipers and some Switchblade UAV operators can systematically destroy what is left of the Russian land forces.

    Another 30 days at average loss rates and Russia will no longer have a credible land army.

    The 2nd video above explains very clearly why the West can afford the cost of the war in Ukraine, but Russia cannot.

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