Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, I wrote “Putin is already Losing in Ukraine.” Even back then, it was already pretty obvious. Whatever emerged from the war, it would not be a Russian “victory.” Putin has lost more and more with every day since.
I’ve never asked the question on the other side of that coin – Have the Ukrainians Already (Mostly) Won?” The answer is… yes? Winning more every day. Not a full-scale “victory” (yet). But they have a decent shot at it.
A conversation around stock markets (which have recently been pretty upbeat) made me ask that question. Maybe markets are pricing in a Ukrainian victory? Economically, that probably re-starts Russian energy production and exports. Lower energy costs are a good thing economically (and for headline inflation). “Ending a hot war in Europe” would also be a good thing for markets. Enough said.
But it already looks more like a win for Ukraine. One or two more successful offensives and they have a decisive victory by Spring-Fall of this year. Even if they don’t win a decisive victory, they will have largely won.
Think about what “victory” really means for Ukraine:
- A de-fanged Russian military incapable of mounting serious offensive action.
- Multi-layered, modern air defenses effectively denying the airspace to Russian planes and missiles.
- NATO-standard equipment with adequate ammunition and training.
- NATO-quality aircraft with trained crews.
- Economic Integration with the European community.
- Implicit defensive support/security guarantees from NATO.
- Recapture of territory occupied in 2022.
- Recapture of the Donbas – or the important parts of it.
- Recapture of Crimea.
Ukraine has ticked off a lot of that checklist already. Much of the rest could come in 2023. That sums up to victory…
- …already or soon-to-be there on 1 to 3 (self-defense/security). #4 (fighter jets) is likely soon.
- …well on their way to 5 and 6 (integration with the West) if Ukraine doesn’t backslide on corruption and rule of law.
- …one or two more successful offensive away from some part of 7 and 8 (taking back territory).
- 9 (Crimea) is still looking like a stretch for now, but not forever…
The next 6-12 months also favor Ukraine…
Russia is getting weaker. It is frittering away its last dregs of offensive capability now. They will no longer be a meaningful offensive threat to Ukraine by the end of 2023. They might not run out of (poorly trained) men, but they will run out of advanced weapons, missiles, tanks, trucks, and artillery shells. Most damaging, they are running out of trained officers/specialists to lead and direct that rabble. Armies stand and fight. Mobs generally don’t. Russia can dig in. Try to hold out. But Russia won’t be taking more ground (barring a miracle).
Ukraine is getting stronger. By year end, it will be re-armed with superior Western hardware. They are getting longer-range missiles which will wreak further havoc on the Russian supply system. They are also getting top-drawer air defense systems. Top-drawer fighter aircraft look to be coming soon. If Ukraine controls its skies, it fully controls its territory. Russian aircraft already don’t fly over Ukraine. If Ukraine’s aircraft can fly, Russian troops will be sitting ducks. At that point, Russia REALLY ceases to be an offensive threat. They will struggle to supply defensive positions, with no ability to supply meaningful offensive gains.
For a complete victory, Ukraine still needs luck on its side. Another breakthrough like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Izyum, and Kherson. The Russians have “collapsed” locally in those 4 breakthroughs, but we have not (yet) seen the general military collapse I’ve been looking for… Yet those are 4 more breakthrough than the Russians have had over the past 6-8 months. The Ukrainians have been winning. The Russians have been losing.
The least likely win above is #9 – Crimea. Note that Crimeans themselves don’t feel particularly “Ukrainian.” But Ukraine does have a long-game, non-military path to re-taking Crimea. The Crimeans themselves might eventually choose to be rich in a prosperous, EU-adjacent Ukraine vs poor in corrupt, China-dependent, petro-state Russia.
Crimea remains – legally – part of Ukraine. A local popular uprising would be enough for international recognition. That local revolt doesn’t happen unless/until the Russian central government is seriously weakened and/or distracted. But the richer and more “European” Ukraine gets, the more likely it is to re-absorb Crimea.
Many call the present situation a stalemate. Based on the false expectations that wars are fast-paced, action-packed, decisive affairs. A mental error compounded from a mixture of recency effects (US in Iraq), historical telescoping (WW2 history is a series of decisive battles, but WW2’s reality was MONTHS of “no major news from the front”) and Hollywood thinking (fast cuts over the boring stuff).
Reality on the ground is not a stalemate. It is just the messy business of grinding it out. The parts of history that don’t often make it into the history books.