While Russian forces have faced stiff resistance in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin is attempting to turn the tide of the war through a long and brutal military campaign. But if the United States and its Western partners can ramp up—and sustain—military assistance to Ukraine for the long term, Moscow may eventually lose the war—a virtually unthinkable outcome several weeks ago. Economic and diplomatic steps are important, but military aid is the linchpin.
The Russian military is facing what Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong called a “people’s war.” As Mao wrote in his book On Protracted War, “the richest source of power to wage war lies in the masses of the people.” Mao argued that in a well-organized resistance effort, the invading force “will be surrounded by hundreds of millions of our people standing upright … and he will be burned to death.” While Mao was referring to China’s war against invading Japanese forces in the 1930s, he could easily have been describing Ukraine.
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Russian forces have faced stiff resistance from conventional Ukrainian forces and a population that has mobilized against an occupying army. According to U.S. and NATO estimates, the Russian military has suffered between 10,000 and 15,000 fatalities and between 30,000 and 40,000 total casualties (which include wounded, captured, killed, and missing soldiers) from Ukrainian forces equipped with Stinger anti-aircraft systems, Javelin anti-tank systems, Bayraktar TB2 drones, and other lethal weapons and systems, many of them sent by the West.
Yet Putin remains committed to waging a scorched-earth campaign in Ukraine. The Russian military has devastated several Ukrainian cities with artillery barrages, guided and unguided missiles launched from aircraft, long-range cruise missiles from naval vessels, and hypersonic missiles. Putin is attempting to turn the tide of the war in Moscow’s favor, as he did in Syria in 2015 and Chechnya in 1999—despite inauspicious starts.
The Russian military ground out victories in both cases. Moscow benefited from successful interdiction efforts to curb the flow of weapons and material to rebel fighters, a cowed local population, and effective information operations that complemented a punishing military campaign. But Moscow lacks all of these conditions today in Ukraine.
The Russian military has struggled to interdict the steady stream of weapons and material flowing into the country, failed to intimidate Ukrainians, and is losing the information war. Putin now has much to lose in Ukraine—including his legacy—if he fails to turn the tide of the war. So much is now at stake for Putin—with his military suffering staggering casualties, his economy in shambles, and his country increasingly isolated from the West—that he is likely to continue to escalate the war.
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But Moscow can lose the war if the U.S. and its Western partners are able to increase the number and type of weapons to Ukraine over a sustained period. Economic and diplomatic steps will only be effective if Ukraine can hold off the Russian military on the battlefield.
The Ukrainian military’s stockpiles have repeatedly run low—and will continue to do so over the course of the war. “We didn’t have enough in the first place,” said Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.K., in late March. “Running out of weaponry will be seen in the week to come.”
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Sustained U.S. and Western support is essential for Ukraine to prevent Russian forces from seizing and holding territory. Territorial control is key. Ukrainian forces have held off Russian advances around Kyiv, Kharkiv, and some other cities. But the Russians have seized limited territory in northern, eastern, and southern Ukraine, including around Kherson, Mariupol, Luhansk, and Donetsk. Western military aid is critical to help Ukraine push back Russian forces on the battlefield and increase Russian costs in blood and treasure.
Examples of weapons and systems that Ukraine needs include anti-tank weapons systems, armed drones, surface-to-air missile systems, and anti-ship missiles. Ukraine could also use additional S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile systems to target Russian aircraft, which could be provided by Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Greece. The U.S. and NATO should also provide fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, and other higher-end platforms if Russia continues to escalate the war.
Ukraine is an ideal country to support a sustained campaign against Russian forces. Ukraine shares a 716-mile border with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, where the West can continue to pour in weapons and other material. Russia lacks the ground forces to effectively interdict this pipeline, and Moscow’s pinprick missile strikes in western Ukraine have failed to stop the flow.
Yet the worst is probably yet to come. The U.S. needs to prepare for Russian escalation, including more strikes against supply lines in western Ukraine, greater targeting of civilian populations, the use of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and possible attacks against countries like Poland that are critical to the arms pipeline. But the U.S. and its partners can’t be intimidated by any of Putin’s actions and slow down the flow of weapons and material.
To complement these military efforts, the U.S. needs to increase economic sanctions against Russia and continue to politically isolate Moscow. In addition, the U.S. and its Western partners should increase efforts to break through the digital Iron Curtain so that Russia’s population knows the extent of the military, economic, and political damage caused by Putin. All of these steps are important.
But preventing the Russian military from seizing and holding territory on the battlefield is the cornerstone. If Moscow loses the war, it will emerge politically, economically, and militarily weaker in ways that shift the global balance of power in favor of the U.S. and its democratic allies. That would be an important victory for freedom and human rights.
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