The Ukrainian Verdun

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

Ukraine has ossified into something like the modern version of the horrific Battle of Verdun, fought 108 years ago on the 1916 Western Front of World War I. That meat grinder cost France and Germany some 700,000 dead and wounded.

The nightmare ended ten months later, after the heroic French defense stopped the final German push. But the respective armies ended up in the same position as when the battle started.

After the failed preemptive Russia attack on Kyiv in February 2022 and the subsequent collapsed Ukrainian 6-month-long “spring” counter-offensive of spring 2023, the Ukrainian war has now similarly deadlocked.

Russia has failed to annex Ukraine. It has not expanded much beyond occupied Crimea and Donbass.

Yet Ukraine seems unable to push back the Russians to where they started in February 2022, much less recover lost areas grabbed earlier in 2014.

Although neither side has published reliable and comprehensive dead and wounded statistics, the war has now likely reached a horrific Verdun-like total of 600-700,000 combined casualties.

Perhaps 10 million of Ukraine’s prewar population have fled the country. Due to the massive refugee exodus, the country may have shrunk below 35 million.

In other words, Russia now has a population seven times larger, a gross national product ten times greater, and an area over 30 times the size of current Ukraine.

Still, if NATO and the United States can continue to arm Ukraine, it is as unlikely that Russia can annex Ukraine, even as it is doubtful that Ukraine can ever regain territory lost prior to 2014.

As human costs grow and the stalemate continues, talk of peace agreements arises each month.

For Ukraine and its allies, there is a growing, but private, realization that Kyiv will not recover majority Russian-speaking Donbass and Crimea that were lost a decade ago during the inert Obama administration.

Indeed, during the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, there was no effort either in Ukraine or among its allies to take back by force what Russia had de facto absorbed in 2014.

So what could possibly be the outlines of the armistice agreements that are increasingly being floated in the media?

Perhaps something near what Ukraine and Russia reportedly discussed a few weeks after the failed 2022 Russian invasion.

That plan would result in the institutionalization of the decade-long Russian control of the Donbass and Crimea, coupled with guarantees of Ukrainian sovereignty along the pre-February 2022 lines.

Some have further suggested that Ukraine would not become a member of NATO but would be armed to the teeth to deter or destroy likely future Russian aggressors.

If such plans were previously floated and are reportedly now revisited, what would be the advantages and downsides for both Russia and Ukraine?

Putin would have to explain—as much as any dictator does—to his people why he started a war that cost some 500,000 Russians dead and wounded, shattered his military, and resulted in no additional territory but a vastly diminished Russian reputation.

His supposed upside would be that he alone finalized the absorption of the resource-rich Donbass and Crimea and stopped Ukraine from joining NATO.

Ukraine could counter that its bravery and allied aid inflicted the most grievous damage to the Russian military since World War II. Furthermore, guarantees to rebuild and rearm the now-veteran Ukrainian military could deter the 71-year-old Vladimir Putin from a repeat invasion.

Ukraine would lose its valid claims to the Donbas and Crimea. But again, apparently neither the Obama, Trump, prewar Biden administration, NATO members, nor Ukraine itself ever had any agenda or ability to forcefully wrest back what Putin had stolen.

But what if there is no deal?

By the end of 2024, the current status quo may well result in a combined million dead and wounded.

European nations will still talk aggressively. But increasingly, they will taper off their aid and quietly consider Ukraine out of sight, out of mind.

The emerging toxic anti-Western alliance of China, Iran, and Russia will likely strengthen. Third-party opportunists like Turkey, Vietnam, the Middle East, and southern hemisphere nations will increasingly be drawn closer into this new Axis orbit.

Measures to break the years-long deadlock will mount, with Ukrainian calls for far more and deadlier Western weapons, even as their manpower declines.

Demands will increase for strategically logical, but otherwise dangerous, escalatory attacks on Russian bases and supply depots inside Mother Russia and against the Black Sea Fleet.

Russia, in turn, will up its now-serial nuclear threats and keep targeting civilians. Deadlocked wars have a way of turning the once frightening and unimaginable into the normal and likely.

There is already crazy talk about the insertion of NATO ground troops into the war, while Russia threatens to attack other Western nations.

The only thing worse than an armistice with no clear winner or loser is an endless war with more than a million casualties.


Share This

41 thoughts on “The Ukrainian Verdun”

  1. “500,000” Russian dead? Not likely. You consistently flip Ukraine and Russia’s casualties. A slog for sure, but one that the outcome was known from the beginning. The transfer of wealth and arms from America to the foreign and corrupt, with a kickback to our own corrupt Uniparty, with an eventual Russian victory. Even the NYT admits Russia is self sufficient in arms ( 7 to 1 munitions capability against all of NATO combined ) and energy. We have created the 1st 21st century war power, and will reap the consequences. How many sleeper Iranians, Russians, and Chinese have we invited in and given debit cards to? I appreciate your commentary, but almost every take on this war has been incorrect.

    1. Your quote marks are a little tight. The author said “500,000 Russians dead and wounded,” at least when I am reading this at 9 PM Eastern time. Typically, the number of those wounded in war far exceeds the number of dead.

    2. Old Airborne Dog

      Almost everyone who comments on this war deliberately avoids making any mention of the fact that Ukraine would still have nucs to use as a deterrent to Russian agression IF they hadn’t surrendered them in exchange for America’s promise to replace them as a deterrent: promising to come to their defense if they were attacked.

      Just as all commenters (including Professor Hanson) never mention the fact that Ukraine was one of the first nations to send troops and their treasure into Afghanistan a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And then again when we went into Iraq. And stayed with their troops outside American troops until our last day in Ukraine – despite the fact Obama/Biden deserted them and allowed Putin to invade without America fulfilling our promise given to get them to surrender our nukes.

      And few, while bitching about corruption in Ukraine ever tie that bitching to the corruption of Americans in the White House and State Department that is often tied to corruption in Ukraine as it is to Communist China and Russia. America, with our advanced law enforcement like the FBI, can proudly show Ukraine how it’s done while trying to flex and pose as being better.

      I don’t see any good path forward for America, whether we continue trying to manage our cowardice and desertion of Ukraine, or just plain walk away screaming “Not our war”.

      But whatever we do, there will be second and third order consequences of what we do in response to Russia/Ukraine. Just as in Afghanistan.

    3. Dr. Hanson is a military historian and gingo and so he has a need to exaggerate casualties for the evil “commies” while down playing allied or US casualties. He does something intersting with the Korean Conflict. It’s always “We” killed a million Chinese. If that number is correct it still doesn’t mean “We” killed that many because the South Koreans fought along side us and fought against the PLA as well as KPA troops. Also many died from sickness and cold. He never mentions this. But you are right about his Russian casualty fantasy. He reverses them as if this is the CCCP fighting against little Findland back in the late thirties.

  2. Tomppa Brunila

    “In other words, Russia now has a population seven times larger,”
    Ukraine has about 43 million citizens and Russia has about 143 million!
    That is NOT seven times larger. Its about 3.5 times larger!

    1. Yes, the arithmetic is in error. However, there are reports that so many people have fled Ukraine that its population is now below 40 million, and may even be in the mid 30 million range.

    2. Donbass and Crimea are no longer citizens of Ukraine. Deduct ~8 million from Ukraine and add them to Russia.
      Since war broke out in 2022 deduct another 8-10 million who fled Ukraine (at least ~3 million to Russia and rest to the western countries)
      Now somewhat correct number are: Russia 150 mln / Ukraine 25 mln = Russia has 6 times larger population than Ukraine.

  3. Ukraine will never give up. Putin will face armed insurrection by Urainian patriots as long Zas Russian occupiers exist. Memories of Stalin and the Holodomor run deep.

  4. Nuclear weapons are the Aces in Putin’s sleave. That’s not a winning hand…just a hand that ensures everyone is a loser.

    1. Old Airborne Dog

      To finish what you started: the Joker in Ukraine’s losing hand are the nuclear weapons Ukraine willingly surrendered when a fearful America promised to replace those nukes as a deterrent with a promise they made to Ukraine and the watching world that we Americans would come to the defense of Ukraine if they were ever attacked.

      Anyone, including Professor Hanson, think they can make an argument that Putin would have invaded Ukraine if they still had those nukes and memories of Russia and the Holdimor still in living memory?

      Or alternately, if Putin would have invaded if he wasn’t sure he had the White House administration of the day tucked away in a corner of his wallet?

      1. Carole Serling

        Old Airborne Dog….you speak many truths. So many mistakes and miscalculations on America’s part, especially since Biden and Co have assumed power. It’s as if they just can’t get anything right. And innocents continue to pay the ultimate price. Why, why why, didn’t we allow Ukraine to keep its nucs? Seems that would have been a far better deterrent to Russia’s aggression than the flimsy promise that the U.S. would enter any fray on their behalf. MAD is a powerful policy which enables countries to actually continue to exist and their populations to carry on.

  5. Ukraine, despite being armed to the teeth by the US neocons, Pentagon, and the rest of our military/industrial establishment in this proxy war, and likely because of the corruption there, has not be able to dominate or discourage Russia. Since untold $billions of aid have been gifted to Ukraine and Zelensky, and since $billions are unable to be accounted for by our Pentagon or State Department, sending even more would be a fool’s game yet not surprising. It appears the recent announced leave of Victoria Nuland who was clearly up to her neck in the 14 CIA bases there along the Ukraine/Russian border, the questionable biowarefare labs that had funding approved by Fauci and the Pentagon, the disbursement there of US taxpayer funds, and not to mention the destruction of the Nord Stream Pipeline – no, that will not be mentioned herein, is significant and possibly indicative of the Blob’s perception of the need to get out of Dodge now to prepare for upcoming legal challenges from a decent and an aggressive, new AG in January of 2025.

    Possibly, Mr. 10% could save the taxpayers some money by purchasing some of the military equipment gifted to Ukraine and Zelensky that has since been reported missing in Ukraine, off the ME black market.

    1. Ukraine has not been “armed to the teeth” with the shipment of a few hundred tanks and some cutting edge anti-air and artillery systems. Even the Ukrainian statistics often report up to (and sometimes more than) 100 military vehicles are lost every month. However, we have equipped them with a decent-sized air force (50+ F-16s), now in training and which will take to the field in about 3 months. If they can find some secure airfields, this force can contest for air superiority along the southern side of the battlefield.

      In the meantime, the real Ukrainian advantages on the battlefield are their drones in the air and now at sea. These are not used according to any Western-based military doctrines or tactics; we will do the learning.

      1. In my book, any gov that was gifted with well over $100billion is armed to the teeth.
        Notably, military experts advise much of the US military stores has nearly been depleted in order to arm the corrupt Ukraine. Now military hardware the US gifted them is showing up on the global black market and Congress is unable to track billions gifted them.

    2. Old Airborne Dog

      “and likely because of the corruption there, has not been able to dominate or discourage Russia”.

      You sound pretty confident that both of these invasions had nothing to do with the corruption that was present in the White House at the time of both of Putin’s invasions. Odd that we either don’t have any corruption in the White House related to Ukraine, or that the corruption couldn’t possibly have anything tied to not just Ukraine, but Putin himself.

      In the face of our promising Ukraine to serve as their deterrent to invasion by being their defense if they would just, pretty please, surrender the nukes in their possession, should we believe that they didn’t invade while Bush was president because there was no corruption in Ukraine and Washington DC until after Obama took office? And that’s why Putin didn’t invade?

      Or alternately, corruption suddenly vanished in Ukraine during Trump’s administration – and then suddenly sprang up again when Biden replaced him in office?

      As Dr. Thomas Sowell has repeatedly said, ‘beware of stories where the narrator wants to start the story somewhere in the middle’. And one proven way to avoid talking about the corruption ties between the American White House and both Ukraine and Russia is to snivel and whine about Ukraine corruption without a single line included that mentions American corruption.

      I see no good way forward now that we’ve allowed this to this point, but ignoring American root cause in this is deceitful.

  6. John Zacharopoulos

    Aside from a minority that mostly profited from all the money we spent there–Ukrainians see us as the greater of the two evils. It will be difficult to set up a democratic government in that arena unless we keep the money taps humming. But aren’t we already running a $2 trillion deficit? And don’t we have a great deal of domestic problems that we eventually have to face? We’re building nothing but Gordian knots here and AI will only accelerate the size of that knot

  7. Peter Patterson

    The Industrial War Complex is a hungry beast and we all know there cant be 12 months past when it isn’t itching for a war. It’s a disgusting and vile creature that the West has no control over. Let Russia have Donbass and Crimea. Keep NATO out as per previous agreements. It’s the U.S. that needs to be brought to heel. They are not the world’s Sheriff anymore. Those day’s are gone.

    1. Old Airborne Dog

      “Let Russia have Donbass and Crimea. Keep NATO out as per previous agreements”.

      How about that previous agreement where (because we were terrified of Ukraine having nukes for a deterrent) America promised if Ukraine gave up those nukes to use as a deterrent, we would serve as the deterrent by promising Ukraine and the watching world we would come to Ukraine’s defense if they were attacked?

      Doesn’t count anymore, now that we’re no longer worried about the nukes they no longer have?

      Where were the whiners complaining about “Industrial War Complex” when we went into Afghanistan the month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Nobody complaining they couldn’t stand that there hadn’t been a war in the past 12 months?

      Or, when Ukraine sent what they had for troops and treasure to fight beside Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq from the first day to the last, complaining “They weren’t attacked; Ukraine should go home, this is not their war”.

  8. John Underwood

    Dear Professor Hanson,
    I truly mean you no disrespect. I acknowledge your tremendous intellect and I greatly admire your work, that I am familiar with, but I think you are wrong on several key points in this article. As there is a limit on how much I can write here, I’ll try to minimize. I’m writing primarily on what I’ve learned by listening to information about this conflict from Douglas Macgregor, secondarily, from Tucker Carlson. If you’ve not listened to Colonel Macgregor at length, I wish you would. His explanation and assessment of this horrible conflict is quite different from yours. If you are familiar with Colonel Macgregor’s numerous discussions about this, and disagree with him, I would very much appreciate you explaining why you and he are so very far apart on this matter of considerable importance.
    John Underwood

  9. Shirley Gohner

    I believe Victor is in error on these two points:
    – “Russia has failed to annex Ukraine.” *1
    – “500,000 Russians dead and wounded” *2
    *1 – It’s my understanding that Russia’s goal was to annex the Donbas region
    *2- I suggest the numbers are inflated. CIA / and US military derive their phony numbers from
    Ukraine and other unreliable sources…clearly they want it to justify the billions we have spent and the need to spend billions more.

    1. If the goal was not to annex Ukraine, why invade at all? Why not simply reinforce Crimea and the Donbas? Nonsensical argument. Russia lost 26 million fighting Germany. 500k means nothing to Putin.


    “Valid claim” . . . “stolen” . . . why does the word Appeasement keep popping up in my mind?

  11. Not a word for the Ukrainians living under Russian occupation? How does that fit into this calculus.

    The insertion of “Russian-speaking” when describing Ukrainian territory is a subtle way to suggest something like “Russian-belonging” (see “majority Russian-speaking Donbass” above). I believe it often tips the writer’s thoughts on how things ought to be.

    Truth be told, Kyiv itself was largely Russian-speaking prior to the full-scale invasion’s start, though Ukrainian has come into much more common use as a public language. We don’t often see “Russian-speaking Kyiv” though.

    And, what exactly does “escalatory” mean in this context? That term was thrown around a lot, often as a scare word, in the first year or so of the war.

    I don’t see it so often recently – as Ukraine has shown the “red lines” are not much of red lines after all (see the many, many attacks on Russian territory, drones into Moscow & St. Petersburg, a devastating strike on the Crimea bridge, sinking of Russian ships and the largely overlooked counteroffensive-period successes unlocking the Black Sea – all this using both Ukrainian and Western weaponry, and so on). Escalation is another word that I believe tips one’s biases.

  12. If memory serves, Falkenhayn chose Verdun as a place France would defend to the last that would bleed the French army dry. He knew from the outset it was not tactically significant to victory. Given the mutiny of French forces in 1917, and without US joining the war the same year, he might have been right. At horrible cost to his own army though.

    The German army still had enough to defeat Russia in 1917 and then almost (sans US forces, it would have succeeded) defeat France in 1918.

    I don’t see where Putin would think that Ukraine was such place. After this war, what further objectives could he have? And what further objectives could he hope to achieve now, given the gross inability of his army to conquer a much smaller state?

    Perhaps he saw Ukraine as the first step in recapturing the Baltics and maybe even parts of Poland or Finland (Stalin smiles), or at the least neutering NATO.

    1. Old Airborne Dog

      “and without US joining the war the same year”.

      We (thankfully) only had American troops with boots on the ground actually fighting battles for the last 35(?) weeks of that four and a half year long war. While you mention the mutiny of French forces in 1917, you didn’t finish that with a reminder of the German forces in 2018. An accidental omission? Marxism was involved in both.

      The insertion of Marxism to create instability that Germany carried out by bringing Lenin back and turning him loose in Russia was equally successful as a self-inflicted wound that spread instability through Germany as well.

      Germany had a starving civilian population and was tottering on some version of defeat, not victory, when we finally took to the two way rifle range. America continuing to profit instead of participate could have prolonged the war – but the Russian mutiny was inevitable, and the result was the German monarchy was eliminated before the end of the war as happened in Russia.

  13. Robert C Kallenberg

    I am utterly flabbergasted at this analysis. First the Russian advance toward Kiev was intended to engender a settlement as evidenced by the almost agreement in Istanbul. Why was Russia in the Donbass? At the invitation of the administrations of the two Oblasts in Donbass. The two governments of the Donbass refused to recognize, as they claimed, the illegitimate government installed by coup in Kiev in 2014. For their trouble their entire population, men, women and children were declared terrorists and their territory invaded.

    I consider the assertion that there is some relation between this conflict and the First World War to be ill founded. Russia’s stated goal was the de-militerization and de-Nazification of Ukraine. I am of the opinion that Russia’s goal is not to conquer Ukraine but to destroy its capability of military aggression.

    It is also my opinion that the personal of the governments of the collective West are living in the past. When we look at Russia today we find that the Russian Federal government in Moscow rests very lightly on the eighty some political subdivisions. Communism taught the Russian people that “top down” decision making leads to bad decisions. A free society with decisions made by the most appropriate level result in a more prosperous society.

    For this reason Moscow has no desire to try to administer Ukraine. A few years ago the Commander of NATO announced that Russia was about to invade Estonia. I then called a friend in St.

    1. Old Airborne Dog

      “I consider the assertion that there is some relation between this conflict and the First World War to be ill founded. Russia’s stated goal was the de-militerization and de-Nazification of Ukraine. I am of the opinion that Russia’s goal is not to conquer Ukraine but to destroy its capability of military aggression.”

      Obviously Putin, with all his nuclear weapons, is always terrified of military aggression and Nazism (but not Soviet style totalitarianism… none to be found anywhere!) from smaller and much poorer former Soviet vassal states: Georgia, Chechnya, and now Ukraine. They keep forcing him to invade in self defense! Putin must cry himself to sleep each night with the burden of continually being forced to invade smaller neighboring countries.

      ” Communism taught the Russian people that “top down” decision making leads to bad decisions.”

      In my amusement, am I allowed to point out that Putin’s rule is nothing BUT top down decision making and tyranny?

  14. Hello Dr. Hanson. There are rumors in Europe of private talks between Ukraine and Russian diplomats who are discussing an agreement that would not include the West. Personally, I wish that would happen.

  15. I have a few disagreements with this article. Russia has made gains such as the takeover of Avdiivka and gains along the Black Sea. Ukraine has been in retreat for a while now. In addition, Transnistria has applied for Russian protection. Russia will not allow Ukraine any territory near the Black Sea and will eventually annex Transnistria, providing them another territory to the west of Ukraine, surrounding them in almost every way – except the border with Poland. NATO believes they are weakening Russia, but the reality is that Russia is exposing NATO and hollowing out the fighting men of Ukraine. Russia continues to use non-ethnic Russian Federation soldiers in this war and hasn’t faced the population decline in Russian men that one would expect. The Russian economy continues to grow at a faster rate than those of the EU and USA. The USA will pull out once Trump wins the election, as a civil war is brewing here at home. Russia will get the land they want and neuter Ukraine indefinitely. They will never allow them to be “armed to the teeth” again. If Russia wanted to destroy Kiev and take over Ukraine without regard to Ukrainian civilian casualties, they would have done it already with hypersonic missiles. Ukraine has no real missile defense left to speak of. I can’t see Ukraine keeping it’s government after so many killed in vain by signing an agreement offered mere months after the invasion. Love your content VDH and never miss a chance to see your interviews.

  16. Much has been unclear about the conflict, but by now we see that:

    a.) The Ukrainian military and government is quite a bit more precarious than Russia’s.

    b.) There are some slim chances of a Ukrainian collapse, (see a.) but no chances of significant, territory-seizing Ukrainian victories; it is an inglorious slog-fight, but incrementally, Russia is winning it. That is why VDH is wrong about one thing. Putin is going to be able to say to the Russians, “We had the whole Western world against us, and we still won.”

    c.) Both sides are being bled badly, but both are acquiring valuable experience with the newer tank and drone tactics. Not good, since again, the Russians will likely emerge the victors.

    d.) While one should reject the characterization of neo-con grand strategy as crazed “Forever Wars” NATO-ist imperialism, insofar as you use it to try explain Bush II’s strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the GWOT–for those were much more complicated decisions–; but as far it goes with this war, the cliche pretty much fits! It’s like 70% of the foreign policy establishment, Dem and Repub, woke up one day and just said, “Let’s act as if Trump is right about us.” Bizarre. And God knows what our intelligence agencies, with their labs, and now with their special units, have been up to in Ukraine.

    P.S. The CV-19 vax-harms/deaths are widespread. VDH needs to carefully consider whether he will continue on in the organized suppression of this key issue.

  17. Rand Voorhies

    We all remember Marshall Foch correctly describing the Treaty of Versailles as only a twenty year cease fire.

  18. Steve MacDonald

    I have followed your work for at least 30 years. As often as not, we come at an issue from very different starting points, but invariably arrive at the same conclusion. Until Ukraine. One of us has his facts and initial perceptions seriously in error. I find it interesting and time will tell which of us is more correct.
    There are two additional issues that a Ukraine analysis needs to cover: 1. How our application of sanctions in this kerfuffle, made it a National Security Imperative for most countries in the world to find an alternative to the Dollar in their trading. We may make it worse still by stealing the $300 Billion Russian reserves – but actions to date have been sufficient to rev up the trend line. We will be paying serious cost for this for a long time to come. 2. The Geo-political costs of forcing Russia and China into a broad partnership that is not West inclusive.
    As I said above, time will tell which of us is the more correct. It does serve to make our vicarious interaction more interesting.

  19. It is time to end this drain on money, US prestige, and human life. President Biden allowed everyone to stumble into this mess. The best and quickest way to end this will be to elect Trump. Period.

  20. Jimmy Griffin

    Victor, You and I are about the same age and I hear you speak about how bad California is getting and you sometimes talk about leaving. I’m in Nacogdoches,Texas and we would love to have you and your wife relocate to east Texas. Low taxes, low crime, and great conservative people. Come check us out.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *