Opinion: Ukraine can no longer win

As the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of the country to its west nears and the latest aid package for Ukraine stalls in Congress, we must be clear-eyed about the future: There is no path for Ukraine to win this war. American support will not change this reality.

Two years ago, the Ukrainian Armed Forces defied expectations immediately. Days before Russia's massive combined arms incursion at dawn on Feb. 24, 2022, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, spoke for the U.S. military when he predicted to Congress that Kyiv would fall within 72 hours. Many military analysts similarly predicted that the Russian military would quickly rout the overmatched Ukrainian forces. American leaders encouraged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to leave the country lest Russian troops assassinate him.

These projections of immediate success for Russia misread the progress Ukrainian troops made in capability and readiness since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. They also overestimated the Russian forces' readiness, air superiority and command cohesion.

One year ago, the people of Ukraine saw encouraging signs in their gruesome war with Russia from almost every corner. A year into Russia's massive invasion, Ukrainian forces were bloodied but held on to territory in the east in defiance of most expectations. Successful counteroffensives allowed Ukraine to regain territory in the south. Zelenskyy defiantly declared the coming year one of "our invincibility." American aid into the country offered a king's ransom in artillery and anti-tank weapons through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and the flow seemed unceasing.

Inspired by Ukraine's stunning success against the much larger and more advanced military, the West galvanized behind Zelenskyy and his troops. Tragically, all these indicators led to unrealistic expectations.

Today, the situation is grim. The once dynamic fighting has slowed to a cruel slog — one that inures to Russia's favor as Ukraine runs low on troops and munitions while Russia maintains both in plenty. The long-planned, high-risk, months-long Ukrainian spring 2023 counteroffensive failed, with Ukraine unable to regain any territory seized by Russia. Support for Zelenskyy — in Ukraine and the West — has slipped. American aid is logjammed in Congress, and the United States seems tired of funding the war.

The reality after two years of fighting is that there is no path to victory for Ukraine — not in the sense of pushing Russian troops back to the pre-February 2022 lines of control. After Ukrainian troops abandoned Avdiivka — the most significant loss or gain by either side in nine months— following some of the war's heaviest fighting, almost all advantages accrue to Russia.

The seizure of Avdiivka does not materially change the war. Still, it is a damaging psychological blow that further shifts the momentum against Ukraine. Moscow can now throw mass in terms of bodies, tanks, artillery and drones at the exhausted Ukrainian forces until they crack. Ukraine is exhausted, and outnumbered, and struggling to recruit troops. The best Ukraine can do now is fight Russia to a negotiated settlement that allows sovereignty, territorial integrity and security from another Russian invasion. Even these provisions now seem unrealistic.

Russia also has the advantage of time. While Vladimir Putin can lead Russia along a single strategic trajectory regardless of the length of the war, the United States is subject to the whims of democracy: presidents and members of Congress change hands, voters grow weary of supporting other countries, and policies change.

In considering an aid package to Ukraine, U.S. policymakers and their constituents must assess how long the cash and weapons will continue to flow and toward what end. Getting to a favorable — or at least even — negotiated settlement will take more than a year of fighting. Putin has no incentive to stop fighting and every incentive to continue pushing and waiting for his adversaries to run out of troops and munitions, and policymakers in the U.S. to run out of patience.

None of this is fair to the people of Ukraine, who have placed their hopes of sovereignty on American commitment. It is, however, the tragic reality of the situation. The $60 billion aid package held up in Congress will not significantly change the future. This fight is a long haul that will require additional aid. The spigot will close at some point — perhaps soon — turning off aid and sealing Ukraine's fate.

Joe Buccino is a research analyst at the Defense Innovation Board, a former communications director at U.S. Central Command and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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