Fierce fighting has raged for almost 140 days as vicious Russian invaders have attempted to destroy and subjugate their neighbor, but can Ukraine win – eventually? Moscow’s ground, air, and naval forces have battered the courageous Ukrainian armed forces with limited success. However, in an early total miscalculation of the intrepid Kyiv military, Russia failed to take the Ukraine capital and was forced to withdraw.
Subsequently, the Kremlin forces have bombed, shelled, and assaulted with ground troops the Donbas region, particularly the port at Mariupol, leaving piles of debris where office buildings, homes, and factories stood. Moscow’s strategy of stand-off-city destruction before seizing the territories has been slow. In the aggregate, the broader military engagement appears a plodding war of attrition. Reports as of July 11 have Russian losses at 37,400 killed.
What Would It Take for a Ukraine Win?
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky explained Kyiv’s purpose is to “inflict heavy losses on the Russians,” Jamie McIntyre reported in the Washington Examiner. But news from the eastern front is mixed, with several key cities lost to the Russians, including Sievierodonetsk – a strategic holdout finally submitting after more than a month of brutal fighting.
In a late-night video address to his people on June 25, which was more aspirational than realistic, Zelensky told the audience Ukraine had been hit by as many as 45 Kremlin missiles over the previous 24 hours, but such attacks were “cynical” and “doomed” to fail. “Therefore, all our cities – Sivierodonetsk, Donetsk, Luhansk — we’ll get them all back,” the Ukrainian leader said, according to a Reuters report. In a more recent CNN interview, he reflected on what a Ukraine win might look like: “It’s clear that we can’t get it all back, but we need equipment and security support in order to continue the fight. But some areas lost to the Russian occupiers, we will definitely win back. With the diplomatic path, there would be fewer victims.”
With what seems to be turning into a last-man-standing-wins conflict, what are Ukraine’s chances? In a new report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), “Ukraine at War Paving the Road From Survival to Victory,” Dr. Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds offered hope for Zelensky’s forces. “This report is an assessment of the present dynamics of the fighting in Ukraine, how Russia is employing its capabilities, and what is needed to defeat Russia’s invasion.” That opening sentence implies that the embattled country can win an “operational defeat of the Russian military.” But Kyiv’s armed forces must address five essential weaknesses:
- Russian electronic warfare (EW) capability is denying Ukraine a “fast kill chain to destroy Russia’s artillery.”
- Russian artillery is preventing Ukraine’s military from concentrating its forces to maneuver.
- Russian cruise missiles are creating unsustainable economic and political costs in Ukraine.
- Ukraine has a shortage of skilled infantry and armored operators.
- Ukrainian staff support to plan and execute on a combined operations scale is limited.
To mitigate these shortfalls and “reverse these dynamics to enable Ukraine to retake its lost territory,” Watling and Reynolds recommended Ukraine’s international partners provide a menu of combat capability. Among the desired enhancements are anti-radiation seekers on loitering drones to destroy Russian EW systems, more Multiple Launch Rocket Systems to target Russian stockpiles of artillery ammunition, 155 mm howitzers and ammunition to attack Russian troop concentrations, and more anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems.
Watling and Reynolds also emphasize the need for training “at scale to form new units to undertake offensive operations.” Staff and junior officer leadership training is essential to plan and execute combined arms maneuver missions. The RUSI report gave hope to Zelensky’s aspirations for victory, but that depends on the proper support from the United States, other NATO countries, and additional European friends.
The United States and NATO can continue to support Ukraine with weapons and other equipment and perhaps eventually create a situation where the battlefield economics do not favor Moscow. The flipside questions remain: Can Ukraine outlast Russia? More importantly, what will it cost? In any conflict, the enemy always has a vote.
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