Ukraine was in trouble already — now it openly admits it's on track to lose

  • The situation for Ukraine is becoming increasingly desperate.

  • It's running out of vital military equipment amid a block of US aid.

  • The picture is not totally catastrophic — but Ukraine's leaders are warning that Russia could win.

Ukraine's chances of victory in its two-year war against Russia appear to be fading.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine's president, has warned with increased urgency that his country could lose the war if it doesn't get the $60 billion in US military aid that Republicans in Congress have refused to release.

"Can we hold our ground? No," Zelenskyy recently told PBS of Ukraine's prospects should it not get the funding.

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister, was just as blunt in a recent interview.

"Give us the damn Patriots," he told Politico in March, referring to the US-made air-defense systems Ukraine has used to defend itself from Russian missiles.

On the front line in east and south Ukraine, reports say the situation is increasingly desperate, with Russia outfiring Ukraine at a rate of three to one.

Senior Ukrainian military officials who spoke to Politico said Russia could break through wherever it focuses its anticipated summer offensive.

Russia will likely be able to "penetrate the front line and to crash it in some parts," the military officials told the outlet.

"I would say the conditions now are probably more favorable for a Russian breakthrough than at any time since the opening stages of the war," Bryden Spurling, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, told Business Insider.

Without aid from the US, it will become more difficult for Ukraine to defend its cities and critical infrastructure, such as power stations, from waves of Russian missile and drone attacks.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Last year, Ukraine was able to shoot down about 90% of Russian attacks using Patriot air-defense systems, the Kyiv Post reported in May of last year, but that number has dropped to around 30%, Ukraine officials said last week.

Ukraine is also having serious difficulties recruiting enough troops. It doesn't regularly release its military-casualty figures, but US officials estimated last summer that up to 190,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded in the war.

Russia suffered steep casualties early in the war, but it's been able to boost the size of its troops with incentives to those who enlist, a US State Department official said earlier this month.

After suffering huge equipment losses early in the war, Russia started producing more ammunition, and its allies, including Iran and North Korea, have provided it with drones and rockets.

Putin's strategy of waiting for Western support for the war to weaken and for Ukraine's crucial aid supplies to dwindle appears to be working.

Without the US aid package, "the risk of a Russian breakthrough rises substantially," Spurling said. "Even at best, it limits Ukraine's options and ultimately leads to more Ukrainian lives and material lost," he added.

The role of the West

George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told BI that Ukraine is on a "starvation diet" and needs more aid.

One US volunteer fighting for Ukraine previously told BI's Sinéad Baker he thought Ukraine lost Avdiivka, a city in the Donetsk Oblast, because its army lacked sufficient ammunition.

Western equipment, like tanks, were sent mostly in "symbolic" amounts, Barros said.

This limited support doesn't just weaken Ukraine's volume of fire — it can torpedo its whole approach to battle planning.

"It forces them to operate differently, be extremely conservative, not have the comfort to be able to take acceptable losses," he added.

The US's monthslong delay in sending ATACMS ballistic missiles to Ukraine ahead of its counteroffensive last year was a case in point.

Barros said it was "really painful to watch" Ukraine start attacking the southern region of Zaporizhzhia without them because ATACMS could have taken out an air base in Berdyansk being used by Russian helicopters.

Instead, Western-supplied German Leopard tanks that attempted to advance in the counteroffensive were "shredded" by rival helicopters, he said.

Ukrainian soldiers work on the tank gun of a Leopard 1 A5 main battle tank
Ukrainian soldiers work on the tank gun of a Leopard 1 A5 main battle tank.Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/picture alliance via Getty Images

"From a campaign-design perspective, it's very frustrating because ideally, the Ukrainians should have had the capability to strike that Russian attack-helicopter base on day zero," Barros added.

It was the first thing Ukraine took out when ATACMS finally arrived.

Those battlefield frustrations have made an already difficult political situation back in the US worse.

Barros said there are "bad-faith debaters and policymakers" who "point to a failed Ukrainian summer 2023 counteroffensive and then say, 'Look at all this money we've given Ukraine. Look at all the stuff we've given Ukraine.' But they don't bother to actually take in the facts of the matter."

Justin Bronk, an air power expert at London's Royal United Services Institute, told BI there has been a "very dysfunctional discussion" where both Ukraine and its Western partners have set inflated expectations to try to counterbalance these negative views of aid to Ukraine.

He said there is a "constant seesawing between being massively over-pessimistic and massively over-optimistic on the impact of any one weapon system and on Ukraine's military prospects in general."

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has talked about the possibility of creating a NATO-led five-year, $100 billion fund for Ukraine, a move designed to give the US less individual sway over the country's fate.

More reliable, long-term aid could provide a major boost to Ukraine's military. NATO leaders hope to have details in place for a July summit in Washington, diplomats told Politico.

Russian military weaknesses could hamper its advances

Ukraine is desperately trying to shore up its defenses ahead of an anticipated Russian attack this summer.

It's constructing thousands of miles of multilayered defense lines to protect its territory, much like Russia did last year.

But Mykola Bielieskov, an advisor to Ukraine's military leadership at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, told iPaper that such lines have to be defended by artillery fire to be effective — and that's what Ukraine's running short on.

"In-depth defense reinforced with obstacles only works if buttressed with proper firepower," he said.

However, Ukraine continues to achieve some successes despite being outgunned and outmanned by Russia.

Ukraine's long-range drone strikes are seriously affecting Russia's oil and gas sector, which Russia relies on to fund its military campaign. Ukraine's innovative, inexpensive sea drones have also hurt Russia's Black Sea Fleet, helping keep a crucial maritime corridor open for Ukraine's grain exports.

Ukrainian drone operator and a drone in New York, Ukraine
A Ukrainian drone operator from the 24th separate mechanized brigade driving a drone on August 8.Anadolu/Getty Images

Analysts also say that Russia's military has weaknesses that are preventing the Kremlin from taking full advantage of the situation. Despite Ukraine's woes, Russia has so far only been able to make incremental gains this year, such as seizing control of Avdiivka in February.

Russia has faced serious problems within its ranks, including inept officers, an excessively rigid command structure, and low morale among troops who are often thrown into high-casualty, head-on assaults on Ukrainian positions.

Spurling said Russia's failure to establish dominance of the air and the fact that Ukraine destroyed a number of its armored vehicles could also have hampered a planned offensive.

"These things will make it harder for Russia to exploit any breach in the Ukrainian lines," he said.

What would Ukraine's defeat look like?

But if no more US aid is coming and Ukraine's European allies fail to boost supplies to make up for the shortfall, Ukraine will likely face defeat. What that might look like, though, is unclear.

George Beebe, a former director of the CIA's Russia Analysis Unit, told BI that Russia doesn't have the resources or the desire to seize all of Ukraine.

"Russia could not conquer all of Ukraine without mustering an invasion force many times the size of its present army, and occupying and governing that territory would be enormously bloody and expensive for Russia. The odds that it would attempt to do so are therefore miniscule," he said.

He added that Russia would likely seize more territory east of the Dnipro River that it sees as rightfully Russian and create a "no-man's-land," with heavy fortifications separating the parts of Ukraine it's seized from the rest of the country.

Despite the setbacks, Ukraine continues to resist Russia's attacks. Spurling said the country has defied predictions so far.

"For Ukraine to suffer total defeat, we'd need to see a major collapse in Ukrainian lines and morale," he said. "Given Ukraine's ongoing resilience and the challenges Russia's own military is facing, I think it's a low risk. But it's not zero."

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