As Russian forces withdraw, a Ukraine battlefield victory seems a real possibility
‘Ukraine can undoubtedly defeat the Russian occupation force,’ a senior Zelensky adviser tells Times of Israel — but Western arms are the key
When Russian armor began rolling into Ukraine on February 24, Western military experts saw a Russian victory on the battlefield as an inevitability.
“There is almost no chance the Ukrainian armed forces can stave off a dedicated Russian attack,” RAND corporation strategist Ben Connable wrote then in an article titled “Will the Ukrainians Fight?”
“The military balance of power is totally overwhelming” in favor of Moscow, said Francois Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, on the first day of the war.
Even the US government, which accurately predicted the invasion itself, didn’t seem to give Ukraine much of a chance. In the early hours of the conflict, Biden administration officials reportedly offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to safety, which he famously rejected: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
But more than a month into the war, the tone has shifted dramatically. As Russian forces abandon their attempts to take Kyiv, and continue to take heavy casualties, officials and observers are increasingly speaking about the possibility of a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield. For Ukraine, a military win would mean defeating Russia’s strategy — turning back its drives on major cities, forcing Putin to scale down his war aims, and bleeding Russian forces until Moscow searches for a way out of the fight without accomplishing anything close to what it intended.
In order for that to happen, however, the West will have to increase its shipments of arms and other crucial supplies.
Even if the flow does pick up, a wounded Russia remains dangerous. It has several options for escalating the conflict, which is by no means a done deal for Moscow.
The Russian advantage
The concept of victory in war is a slippery one, that continues to be hotly debated. After fighting five indecisive major conflicts against non-state armed groups in the past two decades, many Israeli commentators question the very use of the term.
Despite the complexities, it is the goal towards which combatants — Ukraine and Russia included — focus their efforts. Even after the repeated rounds against Hamas and Hezbollah, both Israel and its opponents claim to have won.
In the leadup to the fight in Europe, it was entirely reasonable to anticipate a speedy Russian victory. In 2021, Russia spent almost 10 times as much as Ukraine on defense, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies publication, “The Military Balance 2022.”
Russia, on paper at least, boasts 900,000 active military personnel to Ukraine’s 196,000. The difference in airpower is even starker, with Russia on the eve of battle fielding 1,391 planes and 948 helicopters, to 132 planes and 55 helicopters for the Ukrainian air force.
Russia has been modernizing its armed forces since the 2008 war with Georgia, while Ukraine still relies on many Soviet-era systems. And only eight years ago, Russia’s takeover of Crimea was carried out with little resistance from the Ukrainian armed forces.
Based on the Russian deployment and initial maneuvers, Moscow’s war aims seemed pretty clear: over 50 battalion tactical groups would drive south from Belarus to quickly take Kyiv and install a friendly government. In the east, they would seize Kharkiv, then advance to Dnipro and encircle Ukrainian forces in fighting in the Donbas. Meanwhile, units in the south would take Odesa and the entire Black Sea coast, cutting off Ukraine’s access to the sea.
It didn’t appear that Ukraine’s armed forces could do much but bleed Russia for a few days, before inevitably fleeing or shifting to an extended insurgency against Russian occupiers and their puppets.
Within days, however, it became hard to ignore signs that things weren’t going according to plan for Vladimir Putin. A defiant Zelenksy quickly found his voice, filming himself out on the streets and with the troops, pledging that Ukraine would fight on. Ukrainian civilians and soldiers posted videos of knocked-out state-of-the-art Russian tanks, and Russia’s air force was, astonishingly, unable to establish supremacy in the skies.
Russian logistics were clearly not up to the task either. With tires falling apart and fuel running out, a huge Russian column advancing on Kyiv stalled, stretched out over 40 miles. The Ukrainians were sure to make the Russian’s task even harder, striking the under-protected logistics columns.
Russian generals were dying at a shocking rate too. Ukrainian officials claim that their forces have killed six Russian flag officers.
The anticipated Russian adjustments never came, nor did the Ukrainian collapse. Instead of a coordinated campaign where the various lines of advance support each other, the Russians seemed to be conducting four disparate campaigns, with no clear main effort.
Photos from a destroyed Russian convoy in Chernihiv, including a KamAZ truck transporting MLRS rockets, a T-72B3 tank, and an Osa air defense system TELAR. https://t.co/zLrmg1hgN3 pic.twitter.com/gCTfU15H6q
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) March 9, 2022
By mid-March, the advance on Kyiv had permanently stalled. Russia had managed to take only one major city, and Kharkiv, Mariupol and Mikolaiyv continued to hold out, despite brutal conditions and constant shelling.
A ‘strategic turning point’
Despite Western expectations, for weeks Ukrainian officials and experts have been telling the world they can win.
On March 11, Zelensky was speaking about a “strategic turning point.” By last week, he was starting to discuss the future, pledging to compensate citizens for damaged property after the war.
“Ukraine can undoubtedly defeat the Russian occupation forces,” Ihor Zhovka, Deputy Head of the Office of the President, told The Times of Israel, “which should now be evident to the world.”
“They are winning on the battlefield,” Alina Frolova, Deputy Chairman of Kyiv’s Centre for Defence Strategies said in a Zoom interview. “No big cities except Kherson have been taken by the Russians.”
“I am sure the Ukrainian army can and will win this operationally.”
“The thinking is that without a doubt they can win, and that is reflected in public opinion numbers,” explained Yorktown Solutions President Daniel Vajdich, who advises the Ukrainian state-owned energy sector in Washington DC, and regularly interacts with senior Ukrainian officials. “Some 85 percent of Ukrainians say, ‘Yes we can win.’”
“The government has done and is doing a tremendous job of organizing that resistance. But none of that would be possible unless you had such commitment and such a conviction among the Ukrainian people that not only can they withstand, but they can actually prevail over the Russians.”
Western experts are increasingly coming around to this position as well.
“Ukraine is going to win,” Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the United States Army Europe told The Times of Israel last week. “It’s not going to be fun or easy or pretty. We’re in the decisive phase of this campaign. Russia’s ability to conduct offensive operations has culminated. I don’t think they have the ability to conduct extended land operations.”
“They certainly cannot encircle and capture Kyiv. I don’t think they’ll ever get to Odessa.”
Hodges’s predictions proved prescient. Last Saturday, the Russian forces near Kyiv began a general withdrawal, leaving behind the bodies of Ukrainian civilians in the streets of the capital’s suburbs. Moscow called the retreat a tactical repositioning to prepare for a concerted assault in the Donbas region.
Even if the thousands of troops do eventually make their way through Belarus and Russia to the Donbas front, Russian messaging can’t obscure the fact that they were roundly defeated around Kyiv. The focus on Donbas indicates a drastic scaling down of war aims for Putin, as he seems to be looking to grab more territory in the southeast to give him an advantage in negotiations, giving up on the goal of installing a puppet government and seizing most of Ukraine’s major cities.
‘Pour it on’
With Ukrainian forces gaining the upper hand, said Hodges, now is the time for the West to make sure Kyiv has the necessary materiel to push the advantage home.
“We should be pouring it on right now, giving Ukrainians everything they need, so that the Russian positions now do not harden into a new frozen conflict,” he said.
“We should not be parceling it out — here’s a few more Javelins, here’s a few more Switchblades,” Hodges continued, referring to the US-made anti-tank missile and Kamikaze drone that have proven lethal in the hands of Ukrainian forces. “We should be flooding that place with what we have. They shouldn’t have to say what they need.”
“Now the Ukrainians are saying, ‘Look, we’ve demonstrated to you that we can do this with very little. Imagine what we can do with a little bit more from you,” said Vajdich.
We’re supposed to be the arsenal of democracy. Why are we parceling things out?
Zelensky’s adviser had the same unequivocal message.
“Our complete victory will require more military assistance from abroad, including Israel,” stressed Zhovka.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, hammered that point home during his meeting at NATO headquarters this week, saying he came to discuss three things — “weapons, weapons, and weapons.”
Met with Secretary General @jensstoltenberg at NATO HQ in Brussels. I came here today to discuss three most important things: weapons, weapons, and weapons. Ukraine’s urgent needs, the sustainability of supplies, and long-term solutions which will help Ukraine to prevail. pic.twitter.com/247GdqdPwj
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) April 7, 2022
If the West gets Ukraine the systems and ammunition they need, localized counterattacks could turn into a broad offensive on multiple fronts.
“If we get them capabilities, they’re going to try to push Russia all the way back to the pre- February 24 lines,” said Hodges. “There’s a lot of good opportunities for Ukrainian forces.”
Ukrainian officials have been asking for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, which Western officials have rejected given the potential for escalation. But there is another way to keep Russian planes out of Ukrainian skies.
“When they say we can defeat the Russians, they’re saying, ‘We can defeat them, but you have to provide to us either a no-fly zone, or the assets that we can use to basically create a no-fly zone on our own,’” Vajdich explained.
A new phase
With Russia’s initial plan defeated, the conflict appears to be headed toward a drawn-out slog, with the focus moving toward the Donbas region.
This development contains dangers of its own for Ukraine. A frustrated Putin may give up on capturing cities altogether, instead choosing to intensify bombardments of civilian areas. The bulk of the Russian air force has not yet been committed to the fight, and its planes could drastically increase the pain inflicted on Ukraine’s eastern and southern cities.
Kremlin spokesmen have not ruled out the use of nuclear weapons, and Biden warned that a frustrated Putin could resort to chemical weapons.
Hodges doesn’t see either as likely.
“I actually don’t believe that’s going to happen,” he said. “There’s no battlefield advantage for him to use chemical weapons. He won’t be able to kill more people than he’s already killing. But it will do is put this into a new category.”
Western nations will find it extremely difficult to stay out of the conflict if chemical weapons are used, he said, especially after Barack Obama opted not to respond militarily in Syria after issuing his infamous red line.
The same goes for nuclear weapons.
“The nuclear weapon is more effective for them by not using it,” said Hodges. “If he uses it, it will be impossible for the West to stay out.”
Even with the setbacks, Moscow could still win the next phase on the battlefield. If its commanders solve their logistical issues and conduct more effective combined-arms operations, they could wear down Ukrainian forces in the east. In the meantime, Ukrainians will continue to flee the country, leaving few citizens to maintain necessary economic activity and build up a credible reserve force. A long conflict could play to Russian strengths if they are willing to take more pain than the Ukrainians.
And if Ukraine is going to move to the offensive and try for a knockout blow, the West will have to do more than provide defensive weapons. Ukrainian forces will need tanks and aircraft to seize the initiative. While NATO countries have yet to agree to those requests, there are indications that the trend is moving toward heavier systems.
“There was support for countries to supply new and heavier equipment to Ukraine, so that they can respond to these new threats from Russia,” British Foreign Secretary said after the NATO meeting with Kuleba.
In the meantime, Hodges wants the US to be doing everything it can to ensure that Ukraine wins the conventional fight.
“This is about democracy versus autocracy. We’re supposed to be the arsenal of democracy. Why are we parceling things out?”
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