Can Ukraine Still Win? | The New Yorker


Long before it was reported, at the end of January, that Volodymyr Zelensky had decided to replace his popular Army chief, Valery Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian counter-offensive of 2023 had devolved from attempted maneuvers to mutual recriminations. The arrows pointed in multiple directions: Zelensky seemed to think that his commander-in-chief was being defeatist; Zaluzhny, that his President was refusing to face facts. And there were arguments, too, between Ukraine and its allies. In a two-part investigation in the Washington Post, in early December, U.S. officials complained that Ukrainian generals did not follow their advice. They tried to attack in too many places; they were too cautious; and they waited too long to launch the operation. The Ukrainians, in turn, blamed the Americans. They delivered too few weapons and did so too late; they insisted on their tactics even when it was clear these were unsuitable for the terrain and the opponent; and they did all this from the comfort of Washington and Wiesbaden, rather than from the trenches, tree lines, and open fields where Ukrainian soldiers gave their lives.

The arguments were painful and significant. Was Zelensky right that, given the wobbliness of Western support, Ukraine had to keep up a brave face and the so-called military momentum, no matter the cost? Or was Zaluzhny right that a change of strategy and more troops were needed, no matter how unpopular these choices might be? The argument with the U.S. was significant, too. Was the failure of the counter-offensive, as the Americans argued, one of strategy or, as the Ukrainians counter-argued, one of equipment?

There was a third option: neither. The dominant factor was the Russian military. It was better than people had given it credit for, after its disastrous performance in the first year of the war. It was not demoralized, incompetent, or ill-equipped. Russian soldiers and their officers were fighting to the death. They had executed a brutal and effective defense and, despite all the losses they had incurred, they still had attack helicopters, drones, and mines. “People came to very strong conclusions based off the first month of the war,” Rob Lee, a former marine and an analyst of the Russian military at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said. “And I think a lot of those conclusions were wrong.”

Being wrong about war can be disastrous, yet it is extremely common. The political scientist Stephen Biddle’s influential book, “Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle,” begins by listing a century of analytical mistakes. “In 1914,” he writes, “Europeans expected a short, decisive war of movement. None foresaw a nearly four-year trench stalemate—if they had, the war might never have happened. In 1940 Allied leaders were astonished by the Germans’ lightning victory over France. They had expected something closer to the trench warfare of 1914-18; even the victors were surprised.” Biddle goes on to describe the debate over the tank, deemed obsolete after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and then resurrected by its awesome performance in the Gulf War, in 1990 and 1991. Biddle’s book came out in 2004; since then, two major American wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, have not gone as anyone had planned.

“It’s impossible, basically, to predict a future war,” Bettina Renz, an international-security professor at the University of Nottingham and an expert on the Russian military, said. “Most people who start a war think it will be over quickly. And, of course, nobody starts a war that they think they can’t win.”

Once a war ends, or even earlier, military historians begin to describe what happened and who was right. Some debates remain unsettled, because the war they theorize never takes place. A famous instance is a debate many years ago, on the pages of the journal International Security, over whether NATO was adequately prepared for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The political scientists John Mearsheimer and Barry Posen, having calculated the relative balance of forces, said that it was; the defense intellectual Eliot Cohen, who had worked in the Pentagon’s famous Office of Net Assessment, said that it was not. The debate stretched over several months, in 1988 and 1989. A short while later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The war in Ukraine has led to more than its share of arguments. In the run-up, the U.S. spent months warning skeptical allies that an invasion was imminent. This argument was mirrored inside Ukraine: Zaluzhny became convinced that the Russians were coming, and spent the weeks before the war urging a mobilization; Zelensky remained uncertain, and resisted the advice, worried that it would panic the population and give Russia an excuse to invade. There was widespread consensus that, in the event of an invasion, Russia would quickly win. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told congressional leaders in early February of 2022 that the Russian military might take Kyiv in as little as seventy-two hours.

When this did not happen, in part because Zaluzhny repositioned some of his forces without authorization and moved or camouflaged the country’s military hardware, a new round of arguments broke out. Was Russia a paper tiger, or did it simply fight in the stupidest possible way? Was China also overrated? Was the tank dead (again)?

Some of the figures in the argument were familiar: Eliot Cohen was back, urging the West to take a harder line with Russia (and China); so were Mearsheimer and Posen, counselling caution. (Mearsheimer sometimes went further, blaming the West for provoking the Russian bear and for violating the tenets of his books, which posit that great-power conflict is inevitable.) Both sides invoked Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth-century Prussian military theorist. Cohen cited Clausewitz’s observation that intangible “moral factors,” like the will to fight, are the most important thing in war; Cohen’s opponents held up Clausewitz’s arguments that defense always has the advantage, and also that war is the realm of contingency and chance. (“Clausewitz is like the Bible,” the American University international-relations scholar Joshua Rovner told me. “You can pull out parts of it to suit basically any argument.”)

Among analysts who had studied the Russian military and thought it would do much better than it did, there was some soul-searching. Russian units turned out to be shorthanded, and neither their cyberattacks nor their Air Force were as dominant as expected. The Ukrainian military had better cyber defenses than people realized, and they fought tenaciously. Importantly, they also had the full support of U.S. intelligence, which was able to tell them when and where Russian forces would try to land, and to help them prepare for it. But the biggest surprise was Vladimir Putin’s terrible war plan, which assumed that Ukrainians would not resist, and which he kept secret from his own Army until the eve of the invasion. “No one would have done a Ukraine war game that was set with the political and strategic starting conditions of the Ukraine conflict,” Scott Boston, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation who often “plays Russia” in the think tank’s war games, said. “You’d be kicked out of the room.”

So, was the Russian military as bad as it seemed, and would Russian lines collapse if subjected to a bit of pressure? Or was it a fundamentally competent military that had been given an impossible task? Boston said he kept thinking of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, between Somali militants and American special forces, in which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and eighteen Americans were killed in a misbegotten snatch-and-grab mission inside the Somali capital: “You can take the best soldiers on the planet, and, if you throw them in a bad enough situation, it’s not going to go well.” Russian soldiers were not the best on the planet, but they were probably not as bad as they looked in that first month of the war, running out of gas for their tanks and asking locals for directions to Kyiv.

The very successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in the fall of 2022 presented evidence for both sides. In the Kharkiv region, thinly defended Russian lines collapsed when confronted with mobile Ukrainian units, allowing Ukraine to take back significant amounts of territory and cut off key Russian supply lines. But along the other axis of attack, in the city of Kherson, Russian forces held out for a long time and then made a large and orderly retreat, saving much manpower and matériel. The question became which army Ukraine would face in the summer and fall of 2023: the undermanned and demoralized one they saw in Kharkiv, or the organized and capable one they saw in Kherson?


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