Russia Has Already Lost
There is no clear path to a positive outcome for Russia in Ukraine. It could win every future battle, but it has already lost.
We are at the one-month mark into Russia's invasion of Ukraine and it looks like things are only set to get bloodier. Short of a sudden ceasefire and a robust peace deal, which some would argue seems less feasible with each passing day, the war will grind on. But regardless of if Russia achieves its military objectives in the country, it has already lost in nearly every conceivable way. What's worse is what awaits them if they succeed in conquering Ukraine's territory — an insurgency the likes of which we have never seen. It will be one funded by the richest nations on earth and run by hardened fighters in a country absolutely awash with advanced anti-armor and anti-aircraft weaponry. This, combined with a whole slew of other factors I detailed over three weeks ago — which are more relevant now than they were then — results in the conclusion that there is no conceivable path to a positive outcome to this conflict for Russia. It can win any battle and seize any city, but the reality is that the country has already lost.
Russia massively miscalculated a number of critical tactical realities. These include the Ukrainian people's cohesiveness and willingness to fight, the bravery of Ukraine's political leadership, its air defenses' abilities and knack for survival, and NATO and the European Union's resolve.
What's worse, Russia severely overestimated its own capabilities. These included the effectiveness of its own air force, the required quantity and reliability of its standoff weaponry, the quality and resolve of its ground forces, and especially the logistics necessary to support them beyond a single opening blitz. Even the Russian military's ability to deploy realistic planning and effective command and control seemed to disintegrate just days into the invasion. There still appears to be little integration or deconfliction between various field commanders and no single commander leading the war effort.
Russia has effectively galvanized the Ukrainian population against a common foe and upgraded the image of Ukraine's fighting forces dramatically while downgrading its own to a stunning degree on the world stage. Even more so, Russia's actions have aligned NATO, the EU, and the vast majority of other nations around the globe against them. The unprecedented sanctions placed on Russia are a weapon of mass destruction in their own right. They will obliterate the Russian economy, quickly deplete the Kremlin's financial reserves, and isolate the country from the world community and its global markets that are critical to economic survival.
Even though Russia's energy sector, which makes up over a third of its economy, is still trading to many countries that have been a part of the new sanctions regime, international development has already retreated and it's a matter of time till many of those deals slow dramatically, as well. While China will continue to help offset Moscow's sudden trade deficiencies, it cannot come close to replacing the markets that Russia lost. The bottom line is these sanctions will cripple Russia in ways it clearly didn't even imagine were possible.
Beyond all that, Russia is now labeled an evil global pariah — a mass murderer of countless civilians — and is now radioactive in terms of most trade, geopolitical cooperation, and basic trustworthiness according to most of the world.
As a result of its own actions, the very regime that started this baffling war could soon find itself fighting for survival domestically. Carefully edited propaganda can only go so far. When shelves and bellies are empty, financial futures turn into a black hole, and many sons disappear into a mystical conflict in Ukraine, of all places, public perception of the war will be harder and harder to control and negative sentiment will be harder to suppress.
While it was nearly impossible to see how Russia could achieve a positive outcome from its adventure in Ukraine just after it began, that question has only become more pressing with the weeks that have since passed. Taking an offramp to end or freeze the conflict as soon as possible seems absolutely critical to salvaging any sort of claim to success. Even then, while a victory could be "sold" to the Russian people if certain achievements are allowed to stay intact and the true losses in lives and materiel remain undisclosed, it would still be a hard case to make to any person with all the facts that Russia gained in any worthy fashion from its blunder of an invasion. In fact, it seems like it would be outright impossible to make such a claim now.
Even if Russia took all of Ukraine's eastern port cities and retained its self-recognized breakaway states in the Donbas — securing a land bridge to Crimea in the process — while also falsely declaring it degraded Ukraine's ability to fight in the future, all that would hardly be worth what it has lost in virtually every category. Maybe some of the low-information or in-denial Russian populace would buy it, but it would be a major reach. And there is no sign that Ukraine would abide by those peace terms. What would stop Russia from executing an even easier invasion the following year? One in which it would be far better prepared to overcome the fumbles it has made during this current operation.
None of this is to say Russia's blunt military might is not something to fear or that it couldn't win the conventional conflict it began. Far from it. While Ukraine absolutely has a shot of running Russia out of its country, the odds are still on Moscow's side when it comes to militarily conquering the territory of Ukraine.
While it has been amazing to watch Ukraine hold off Russia in many areas in the country, we are getting a skewed view of the conflict by default. Russia still has significant basic hardware and manpower to throw at its misguided military operation and the leadership in Moscow seems to have no problem tossing more lives and pieces of equipment down into the dark hole it has already dug itself into. But conquering the territory within Ukraine's borders is really just the easy part, and it has clearly proven not to have been easy at all. What comes after would be the true challenge — an insurgency like no other we have seen before — one that Russia has next to no chance of overcoming.
The flow of advanced man-portable anti-aircraft and anti-vehicle weaponry into Ukrainian hands has drastically increased since the war began. The stark reality is that there are now tens of thousands of anti-tank guided missiles and thousands of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) floating around the country with more on the way. Small arms, unguided rockets, and ammunition are also flowing into Ukraine from the west in huge quantities.
While all this is very problematic for the invading Russian force, it is a downright death sentence to any provisional or stooge government and its security forces that Russia plans to install should the legitimately-elected Ukrainian government fall.
With so much advanced weaponry already floating around the country and throngs of battle-hardened Ukrainians now proficient in how to use it in combat, any puppet administration and its facilitators will have no way to move around the country and execute their duties. Roads will become hellish missile engagement zones with no amount of armor capable of protecting a vehicle's inhabitants. Travel by fixed-wing aircraft will be highly dangerous with airports becoming MANPADS death traps and helicopters will be juicy targets no matter where they go. These threats can emanate from virtually anywhere and melt back into the population in an instant.
While Javelins, NLAWs, and Stingers get the attention, the amount of small arms — assault rifles, carbines, pistols, and sniper rifles — that are also entering the country equally spells doom for any form of Russian occupation. When paired with a combat-experienced civilian fighting force, in addition to a battle-hardened army, all united with a burning hatred for the Russians who came without cause to kill their loved ones, decimate their cities and burn their countryside, every single bullet will become a serious threat. By the time an occupation begins, so many will know how to use those bullets, they will cause maximum pain on the occupying Russians and the sympathizers around them.
No Russian soldier or collaborator will be safe to move about. The environment will be entirely weaponized and extremely hostile. In fact, successful hits on Russian stooge government plants have already begun. So have the use of roadside bombs and mines — the same low-cost improvized tactics that proved so deadly for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are already migrating to Ukraine to be employed alongside missiles costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Not only are the weapons already in the country a huge problem for Russia, but more will continue to pour in for as long as Russia operates in Ukraine. The country has long and complex borders with multiple NATO allies. Even at reduced rates, the supplies will keep flowing. The harsh reality is the insurgency will be the best-funded in history, with much of the Western world basically spending whatever it has to in order to see Moscow's extra-territorial delusions die within the borders of Ukraine.
In fact, maybe for the first time in history, the insurgency will, at least in some cases, be better equipped and trained than the majority of those they are fighting against.
And all this assumes the complete territorial conquering of Ukraine. It's very possible a hybrid model comes to fruition, with the western part of the country remaining heavily contested if not fully out of Russian control. This would only make things all that much worse for the Russian invaders.
The truth is, Russia doesn't even have the forces needed to occupy the country. Not even close. Clearly, that was part of the great miscalculation that kicked off this disaster of a combat operation. It is thought that roughly 10% of its total forces deployed to the conflict are now out of action. As more troops and equipment are lost, it has a spiraling effect as military units cannot properly function with a significant portion of their manpower and equipment wiped away.
Even though Russia has more forces it could commit to the fight beyond what it had originally sent, doing so would leave it very short-handed for any contingencies. When you also consider the physical size of Russia, the idea of sending massive reinforcements is questionable, at best. The U.S. Department of Defense says 75% of Russia's battalion tactical group capacity is being utilized in Ukraine and roughly over 60% of its fixed and rotary wing aviation capability has been committed to the fight. There simply isn't that deep of a bench to pull from, especially to maintain a full-on occupation of the country that could last years. Pair that with a major insurgency, and you see how this becomes a totally implausible task.
Once again, that is not to say that Russia can't throw everything it already has in Ukraine at the conflict, down to the last man, but sustaining such an operation through various phases seems highly implausible. Also, consider that many of the Russian troops in Ukraine have been deployed for many months already and morale is atrocious in some units. While help from neighboring Belarus in the form of its own military engagement in Ukraine could assist with the situation, it is not a viable long-term solution.
So, even if Russia achieves its military objectives in Ukraine, at great cost in blood and treasure, what comes next is a no-win situation. And once the Ukrainian populace largely blends in with the occupying force, all the artillery or combat aircraft in the world cannot pacify the enemy. They are both nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
However you stack it, we are talking about a looming guerilla war bloodbath of epic proportions, and that is only after Russia "wins."
Days before the invasion began, I wrote about how this could end up being a repeat — or far worse — of Russia's 10-year adventure in Afghanistan — a major factor that sent the Soviet Union crashing into the dust heap of history:
The specter of Afghanistan still looms large in Russian society. That brutal decade-long war was a major factor in the eventual crumbling of the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin is known to be an adept student of this exact period of Russian history and it continues to drive his world view. In that war, advanced missiles and other weaponry, as well as training, furnished by the United States, had a major impact on Moscow's ability to achieve its objectives without constant losses of men and materiel. Of course, this all happened on the Cold War battleground of Afghanistan. What will a long-term engagement in Ukraine look like for Russia with NATO member states backing the opposing force? One could argue pretty horrific. How would what could become an incredibly costly and outright open-ended war in Ukraine play domestically in Russia on top of potentially crippling sanctions and ostracization from much of the world community?
Oh, and a Ukrainian insurgency is not just some academic game of 'what if?' The groundwork for such a contingency has been laid domestically and internationally. It has the potential to become a modern proxy war the likes of which we have never seen in the post-Cold War era.
As I noted in my earlier piece, it would be astonishing if Putin, supposedly an astute student of the late Cold War period, would go big in Ukraine knowing so intimately what the pitfalls can look like. Trying to take all or even half of Ukraine would seemingly usher in the same tactical eventualities that vexed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, only on a far greater scale. Now, after it's clear he did choose the grandest path, it looks like all that and more is coming true.
What's worse is that even if Russia were to achieve its basic military goals, what is it getting in return materially? If somehow its forces were to make major gains and the conflict would morph into an occupation, that outlook is incredibly grim as detailed earlier. And even getting to that point will come at further cost to Russia's withering military capabilities. If resistance continues as it has and Russia pushes forward with its depraved leveling of entire towns, the majority of the country will be in ruins by that time the conventional conflict is over. It will require massive amounts of investment in order for it to keep from becoming a crippling liability on the Russian state whose economy is likely to be in total ruin itself.
Either way, Russia's fighting capabilities will be heavily depleted — its troops degraded and much of its materiel destroyed. There will be no money to recapitalize its forces, especially considering the massive economic toll that propping up a Russian-puppet government in Kyiv will cost on top of crippling sanctions. Depleted inventories of advanced weapons will be extremely hard to replace as sanctions have cut Russia off from major sources of the technologies needed to construct them, even if they have the money to procure them, which is very unlikely.
The distorted dream that the Russian government can rebuild a semblance of the Soviet Union, or even restore a buffer zone between it and NATO, goes down the toilet considering Russia will be stuck in Ukraine with a battered and broken military that poses little conventional threat to other nations and no way to rebuild it. Meanwhile, NATO is set to expand its military capabilities in a way not seen since the Cold War as the result of Russia's actions in Ukraine. So there goes that idea.
This also has huge implications for Russia's much-feared strategic arsenal. With a broken conventional force, deterrence will have to rely much more heavily than it already does on its nuclear weapons enterprise. This is hardly an ideal or flexible position to be in. And since that is the case, in any nuclear arms race that comes, Russia will have no way to compete monetarily. In dire straits economically on the domestic front, every dollar that gets siphoned off to the military will only put Putin's regime in all that much more of a precarious state.
And supporting the Ukraine operation, regardless of the form it is in at the time, will hang like a financial noose around Moscow's neck.
So, with all that said, with no clearly feasible pathway for a positive outcome in sight, one has to ask, why even continue? Why go all-in on this? How is it possibly worth the cost at this point? That is becoming the key line of questioning here, not just strategically, but as a litmus test for Putin's currency as a rational actor. Long viewed as a shrewd master strategist, regardless of what you thought of his other actions, that facade appears to be crumbling without explanation.
As such, while Russia still may win its war to conquer Ukraine's territory, it has already lost in pretty much every manner conceivable. There is no positive endgame here. Those losses will only grow deeper and more permanent with each passing day that this phony war that should never have happened in the first place grinds on.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com