There is certainly a moral component to the question of supporting a war that almost certainly cannot be won. It is troubling to know there are some in the West who remain content knowing thousands of someone else’s sons and daughters will be sacrificed in the vague hope of weakening Russia.
—Former US Army Lt. Colonel Daniel L. Davis
On June 4, at the insistence of Western governments clamouring for Russia’s strategic defeat, Ukraine’s military launched its much-anticipated counteroffensive. Since then, Ukrainian casualties have soared, leaving the country in a weak position on the battlefield and with little leverage at the still empty negotiating table.
Western officials and media commentators have gradually acknowledged that the counteroffensive is not going to plan. At the same time, they have sought to focus attention on Ukraine’s meagre territorial gains along the 700 mile front, suggesting the military effort is “gaining momentum” and “could yet pay off.”
By framing the narrative in this way, they are obscuring the reality of an existentially dangerous war where the risks of escalation—either nuclear use or an attack on NATO—are rising fast. Indeed, even if Ukraine achieves the goals of its ill-fated counteroffensive, it will still lose the war.
What has the counteroffensive achieved, and at what cost?
Despite the Ukrainian army’s relentless attacks on Russian defences, its gains to date have been insignificant.
A map produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) shows that, as of September 8, the territory retaken by the Ukrainian military so far is negligible.
Since the counteroffensive began, and despite repeated attacks on Crimea, Ukrainian forces have recaptured no part of the peninsula.
In some areas, such as the Kupiansk region, not only has Ukraine failed to retake any territory, but Russian forces have advanced, as shown in a map published on September 8, 2023 by CNN.
According to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, “in the first two weeks of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Ukraine seized only 44 square miles of territory previously held by the Russian army, much of it open land. In contrast, Russia is now in control of 40,000 square miles of Ukrainian territory.”
Ukraine’s minimal territorial gains have also come at an enormous human cost.
Based on publicly available information, numerous reports confirm that Ukraine has suffered massive losses, possibly in the range of 40,000 casualties in little under four months.
The counteroffensive has achieved practically nothing at a huge human cost — more than 40,000 casualties, according to some sources. The absurdity of this war is mind-boggling. pic.twitter.com/2ruqYHgBz7— Thomas Fazi (@battleforeurope) September 7, 2023
Evidence that Ukraine has sustained severe losses is also consistent with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s desperate efforts to reconstitute his army.
Six weeks after Ukraine launched its counteroffensive, Zelensky extended martial law and general mobilization for three months.
Three weeks later, he dismissed all of Ukraine’s regional military commissars and announced that Ukrainian authorities had launched 112 criminal proceedings against 33 regional officials, alleging corruption in the process of military conscription.
Since the beginning of the invasion, Ukrainian authorities have apprehended approximately 20,000 military-aged men who sought to leave the country, either by avoiding border checkpoints or by attempting to pass through them with forged documents.
Many other Ukrainian men succeeded in avoiding conscription, often by paying bribes.
Now, a representative of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party has declared that Ukraine expects all Western European countries that have accepted Ukrainian refugees to send men of military age back home so that they can be drafted into the army and sent to the front.
Several days ago, Ukrainian media reported that Poland might extradite Ukrainian ‘draft dodgers’ back to Ukraine, where they could be compelled to participate in near-suicidal assaults on heavily fortified Russian positions.
Austria’s government then rejected extradition, stating “That would be a massive encroachment on our statehood, we would never do that. That would be an attempted intervention in our asylum system and in our statehood, Austria could not entertain that.”
Zelensky’s plan to reconstitute his army by means of extradition might now be in tatters.
To mitigate the effects of draft evasion, Ukraine’s government has also imposed harsh penalties on conscientious objectors. As the New York Times recently reported: “Conscientious objection to military service is an internationally recognized right, one enshrined in Ukraine’s Constitution. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky instituted martial law. With that, the right to alternative service related to conscientious objection effectively evaporated.”
Not only is conscientious objection a “human right,” said Eli S. McCarthy, a professor of justice and peace studies at Georgetown University, it is “critical to commitments that Ukraine has made” to international bodies and aspirations to join the European Union.
Why Ukraine’s counteroffensive is sputtering
Emboldened by the success of its counteroffensive operations last year in the regions of Kharkiv and Kherson, Ukraine and NATO boldly projected the swift attainment of Ukraine’s latest military objectives. Zelensky’s chief of military intelligence went so far as to proclaim publicly that Ukraine would retake Crimea by the end of spring.
There were at least three fatal flaws in this reasoning.
First, the Russian army that Ukraine faced in the autumn of 2022 is not the same army that it now confronts. Late last year, Russia completed the mobilization of nearly 300,000 soldiers. Moreover, as Russian forces accumulated experience on the battlefield, they inevitably fought with greater sophistication and lethality.
Second, Ukraine’s supporters exaggerated the scale of the army’s success in its counteroffensives of December 2022. As explained recently by Professor John Mearsheimer, a former US Air Force officer and West Point graduate:
We [in the West] misread what happened in Kharkiv and Kherson… These were not great Ukrainian victories… Before the Russians withdrew [from Kherson], they really hammered the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians suffered enormous casualties on the West Bank of the Dnieper River in Kherson before the Russians evacuated. The Russians were not ‘pushed out.’ And you see a similar situation in Kharkiv. So these were not great victories that presaged what was going to happen in the counteroffensive.
In a recent, detailed analysis of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Mearsheimer described it bluntly as a “colossal failure.”
Third, months before the counteroffensive began, Western military experts telegraphed Ukraine’s plans to the Russians by accurately predicting that Ukrainian forces would attempt to sever the land bridge from mainland Russia to Crimea by thrusting southward to the Russian-controlled city of Melitopol, near the Sea of Azov.
Their advanced warning gave Russia’s military command both the incentive and opportunity to prepare heavily fortified positions in the south, particularly between the line of contact and Melitopol.
Ukraine’s forces stood little chance of advancing beyond Russia’s dense minefields, which lie to the north of its main fortifications. Under ideal conditions, navigating these minefields would be a significant challenge, but conditions for Ukraine were far from ideal: its beleaguered forces were obliged to cross these minefields while operating at a huge disadvantage in both air power and artillery.
What’s more, Ukraine’s army has had to depend on a daunting array of diverse and often outdated Western weapons, each presenting its own specifications, strengths and weaknesses.
A grim New York Times assessment highlights the problem:
Ammunition is in short supply, and there is a mixture of munitions sent from different countries. That has forced Ukrainian artillery units to use more ammunition to hit their targets, Ukrainian soldiers said, because accuracy varies widely between the various shells. In addition, some of the older shells and rockets sent from abroad are damaging their equipment and injuring soldiers. “It’s a very big problem now,” said Alex, a Ukrainian battalion commander.
Finally, Ukrainian soldiers received inadequate training from NATO forces. Not only was their training too brief, but it was also administered by instructors with no real-world experience of fighting a peer enemy in a large-scale land war. Leaked documents from the end of February revealed that nine Ukrainian brigades being equipped and trained abroad in Poland, Romania, and Slovenia had less than half their equipment and, on average, were only 15 percent trained.
There is a world of difference between fighting the rag-tag Taliban—which possessed little more than Soviet-era small arms—and the Russian military, a modern force equipped with an extensive array of artillery systems, hypersonic missiles, fighter jets and bombers, advanced air defence systems, satellite imagery, and electronic warfare capabilities.
It is probably fair to suggest that, at this stage of the conflict, Ukrainian combat veterans likely know a lot more about fighting Russians than just about any NATO instructor.
What if the counteroffensive succeeds?
Let’s imagine that Ukraine’s army miraculously takes Melitopol before the autumn rains impede the movement of armoured vehicles. What then?
From Melitopol, which is close to the Sea of Azov, Ukrainian forces would acquire fire control over the narrow strip of land between the city and the coastline, thereby severing Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.
At that stage, Russia would still control all of Crimea, sizeable chunks of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, and most of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Donetsk City and Mariupol.
Zelensky’s government has consistently defined ‘victory’ as the recovery of all territories that formed part of Ukraine when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. When a senior NATO official recently suggested that Ukraine might have to make territorial concessions in exchange for NATO membership, Zelensky was outraged. One of his senior advisors complained that “Trading territory for a NATO umbrella? It is ridiculous. That means deliberately choosing the defeat of democracy, encouraging a global criminal, preserving the Russian regime, destroying international law and passing the war on to other generations.”
Even if Ukrainian forces managed to sever the land bridge to Crimea, Ukraine would remain far from its own standard of victory.
Some might argue that a rupture in Russia’s land bridge could precipitate a rapid collapse in Russian control over Crimea and the Donbas. Based upon recent history, however, there’s no reason to expect such a collapse to occur.
From 2014 (when Russia annexed Crimea) to the launch of Russia’s invasion in early 2022, Russian forces controlled the peninsula without the benefit of a land bridge. Despite this, Ukraine was unable to mount any serious challenge to Russia’s hold over Crimea during that period. It is even less likely to do so now, because Ukraine’s military is in a far weaker state than it was before Russia’s invasion began.
Similarly, from 2014 to 2022, pro-Russian rebels controlled much of Donetsk and Luhansk without the benefit of any land bridge from mainland Russia to Crimea. During that period, few regular Russian forces were entrenched in these regions. Today, they would be far harder for Ukraine’s battered army to recover, given the extent of Russian military formations and defensive fortifications.
In June of last year, I predicted that Ukraine would lose this war. At the time, I was by no means the only person who had come to that conclusion, yet those who dared utter it were dismissed as Putin stooges and conveniently ignored.
There is not now, nor has there ever been, a realistic scenario in which Ukraine can achieve victory, as Zelensky defines it, by recapturing the territory lost to the Russians since 2014. Anyone possessing a modicum of objectivity understood this long ago.
A proxy war fuelled by disinformation
Critics of the West’s arming of Ukraine insist that this conflict is, in essence, a US-led proxy war against Russia.
American casualties in the Vietnam War, which were far lower than those being sustained by Ukraine now, generated so much public backlash in the US that the government increasingly resorted to the use of proxy forces that could sustain the hardships of war while fighting with American-made weapons. The war in Ukraine constitutes the apotheosis of this morally depraved strategy.
Predictably, those of us who have accused NATO of waging a proxy war have been derided as pro-Russian propagandists. Yet, even Leon Panetta, the former director of the CIA, recently acknowledged that the war in Ukraine is indeed a “proxy war with Russia, whether we say so or not.” Many other leading foreign policy experts including former American Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock and Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich share this view. As Lily Lynch wrote recently in The New Statesmen, “The realists were right.”
To generate and sustain public support for the war, Western governments and most of the mainstream press have engaged in what Al Jazeera’s Marwan Bishara calls “official deception” with “little or no attempt at balance or objectivity.”
How this deception is playing out is worth examining closely.
Foreign policy hypocrisy
If recent history demonstrates anything, it is that the US and its allies hold democracy and international law in contempt.
To dispense with the fiction that Western powers are motivated by such ideals, one has only to recall the US-led wars on Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan, the myriad of elected governments that the US and Britain have subverted, or the acts of torture that CIA operatives committed (with total impunity) at black sites around the world.
The historical record leaves no doubt that Western powers cynically invoke democracy and international law when it furthers their agenda, but casually ignore these same ideals when they become inconvenient to their geopolitical interests.
Whatever one may think of Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, we should at least be able to agree that the West’s motivation for provoking and sustaining this war has little (if anything) to do with democracy and international law.
Moreover, whatever the West’s true motivation may be, Ukraine is a flawed and corrupt democracy at best.
Zelensky suspended eleven opposition parties (including Ukraine’s largest). He ‘nationalized’ opposition television stations. He imposed martial law, suppressed religious freedom, linguistic rights and press freedom, and openly mused about deferring Ukrainian elections until the war (which could go on for many years) is finally over.
Even before Russia’s invasion, the CATO Institute and other knowledgeable observers warned of Ukraine’s accelerating slide into authoritarianism. Since the invasion began, conditions have deteriorated dramatically.
Defenders of Zelensky often argue that he has had to resort to authoritarian measures to protect the Ukrainian state from alleged pro-Russian collaborators. Yet a recently leaked report by Swiss intelligence concluded that Zelensky “is showing authoritarian traits” by attempting to ‘eliminate politically” a key rival, Vitali Klitschko.
Klitschko is the mayor of Kyiv. No serious observer would claim that he is pro-Russian or a potential collaborator.
Western elites have implored us to believe that Zelensky is a ‘Churchillian’ colossus bestriding the world stage. The truth is that he is behaving in a fashion similar to most autocrats, and we in the West are funding his government at the expense of our own societies.
How reliable are polls in wartime Ukraine?
Time and again, proponents of NATO’s proxy war have argued that, as long as the Ukrainian people prefer war over a negotiated peace, the West has a duty to arm Ukraine.
In support of that argument, they cite polls which purport to show widespread opposition in Ukraine to any concessions to Russia.
How reliable are those polls? Do they seek the views of the millions of Ukrainians who have fled the country, or the millions more who live (many of them voluntarily) in parts of Ukraine that are now under Russian control?
One such example is a poll conducted in August 2023 by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives foundation and the Razumkov Center think tank. According to that poll, less than five percent of Ukrainians are ready to make territorial concessions for peace, and only 18 percent are ready to concede Ukraine’s future membership in NATO. That poll, however, did not include Ukrainians who had fled the country or who were situated in Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, Kherson, and those areas where “active hostilities are taking place.”
Moreover, are Ukrainians living in Kyiv-controlled regions truly free to express their support for a negotiated peace? The Ukrainian government’s persecution of peace activists suggests otherwise.
As reported last month by German independent media outlet AcTVism Munich, Ukraine’s secret service recently raided the home of Yurii Sheliazhenko of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement. Mr. Sheliazhenko is now under house arrest and faces up to five years in prison. His ‘crime’ is that he advocated for a ceasefire and diplomacy—and did so while fiercely condemning Russia’s invasion.
In an environment where anti-war activism has been criminalized and political dissent has been all but eliminated, polls purporting to show majority opposition to a negotiated peace are plainly unreliable.
Myths about Russian grand strategy
Time and again, Western audiences have been told that Ukraine is but the first domino in Putin’s alleged plan to reconstitute the Russian empire. If the Ukrainian domino falls, then other European dominoes will follow. Ukraine, we are told, is fighting not only for its freedom—it is also fighting for our freedom.
Yet, as Mearsheimer has argued, there is no evidence to support this theory:
With Ukraine, it’s very important to understand that, up until 2014, we did notv envision NATO expansion and EU expansion as a policy that was aimed at containing Russia. Nobody seriously thought that Russia was a threat before February 22, 2014. NATO expansion, EU expansion, and turning Ukraine and Georgia and other countries into liberal democracies were all about creating a giant zone of peace that spread all over Europe and included Eastern Europe and Western Europe. It was not aimed at containing Russia. What happened is that this major crisis broke out, and we had to assign blame, and of course we were never going to blame ourselves. We were going to blame the Russians. So we invented this story that Russia was bent on aggression in Eastern Europe. Putin is interested in creating a greater Russia, or maybe even re-creating the Soviet Union.
Neither Putin nor any other representative of the Russian government has ever expressed an intention to conquer the territory of a NATO country. Given the alliance’s obligation of reciprocal defence and its possession of thousands of nuclear weapons, any attempt to do so would be suicidal for Russia. Putin and other senior Russian officials undoubtedly understand this.
If Russia’s government ever had motivation to attack a NATO country, it has such motivation now, because neighbouring NATO countries (particularly Romania and Poland) have become transit and repair hubs for massive flows of Western weaponry into Ukraine. That weaponry is used not only to kill Russian soldiers in Ukraine, it is also increasingly wielded to strike targets deep within Russia’s borders.
Supporters of the Russian empire theory selectively invoke a speech in which Vladimir Putin described the fall of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe.” They conveniently ignore countervailing statements by Putin, for example: “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.”
As Russia expert and professor Mark Galeotti has explained, Putin’s “comment about a ‘geopolitical catastrophe’… was made in a very specific context, about the way the partition of a country left large communities of ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers effectively stranded in other countries.” In other words, the “catastrophe” was not that Russia had lost the ability to dominate Eastern European countries. Rather, it was that tens of millions of ethnic Russians suddenly found themselves in newly independent countries whose governments were, to varying degrees, hostile to Russians.
To save Ukraine, this war must end
Ukraine’s situation has become so dire that former British Army Colonel Richard Kemp—previously one of Ukraine’s most vociferous boosters—recently authored an op-ed in The Telegraph in which he warned that the West “must prepare for humiliation.”
With all due respect to Mr. Kemp, this is not the time for Western leaders to worry about humiliation. Ukrainian solders are dying on an industrial scale. We must do all we can to stop the killing. Western leaders can massage their bruised egos later.
At this stage, the humane and rational thing to do is to oppose the escalation of this war, and to advocate for reasonable, mutual compromises to achieve a lasting peace. This is a war that Ukraine cannot win in any meaningful sense of the word. The best that Ukraine can hope for is a bloody, horrific stalemate that will gradually sap the state’s remaining lifeblood.
With each passing minute, more Ukrainians become permanently disabled. More become displaced. More Ukrainian children become fatherless. More Ukrainian infrastructure is destroyed. More landmines, other unexploded munitions and long-lasting contaminants proliferate among Ukraine’s rich agricultural lands, and more towns and cities become uninhabitable.
The hole out of which Ukraine must eventually dig itself is becoming only deeper. At some point, that hole will become so deep that Ukraine will never come out of it. We are rapidly approaching that point, if we have not passed it already.
By insisting upon Russia’s strategic defeat and excluding any possibility of meaningful compromise with Russia, we doom Ukraine to destruction. To save Ukraine, we must stop this war.
Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer, human rights activist and former candidate for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. He is based in Montréal.