The Looming Ukraine Debacle

national interest​​​

by Matthew Blackburn

    With Ukraine’s military situation deteriorating, NATO foreign ministers have gathered in Brussels to develop a long-term plan to deliver the necessary supplies to Kyiv. As NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg put it, “Ukrainians are not running out of courage, they are running out of ammunition.” Distracted by other matters, America increasingly looks to Europe to coordinate the defense of Ukraine. But, other than scrambling for shells and money or unveiling a modest EU defense industry strategy, European leaders do not appear to have the ideas or the means to intervene in a decisive or timely fashion.

    French president Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion that NATO troops may enter Ukraine was supported by Poland and Czechia but caused some consternation in France itself. More importantly, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States still rule out boots on the ground. Instead of a new approach, the old pattern continues: NATO mulls over how to help Ukraine without provoking open war with Russia and fails, in the end, to deliver the kind of decisive assistance needed to turn the course of the war.

    Another established pattern is the repetition of moralistic binary language. The West “cannot let Russia win.” The “rules-based order” could unravel. Then there is the new domino theory: if Ukraine falls, Russian hordes will flood further west. The personalization of the conflict onto one evil man, Vladimir Putin, continues with the death of Alexei Navalny. It is a Manichean struggle of good and evil, democracy and authoritarianism, civilization and darkness. There can be “no peace until the tyrant falls.” The Western alliance must not waver in its commitment to Ukraine.

    What is lacking throughout the discourse is realism. What is the real balance of power between the warring nations, and what can be concluded from two years of Russia-NATO hard power competition? Unsurprisingly, Western leaders are reluctant to admit that the dire situation facing Ukraine is related to their own fundamental miscalculations about Russia. Russia’s multiple blunders in this war are well-known but what of those made by the Western alliance?

    The West’s Plan A Failed; Russia’s Plan B is Slowly Succeeding.

    About two years ago, it became clear that Russia’s Plan A in Ukraine failed. Putin’s initial approach was a sudden movement of troops into Ukraine that, in the best case, could topple Ukraine’s government or, at least, coerce Kyiv into signing a new and less favorable version of the Minsk II agreement. Russia’s Plan A was resisted by the Zelenskyy government, whose military forces held firm on the outskirts of Kyiv in March 2022. After the collapse of the Istanbul peace negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow in April, Russia shifted to Plan B: waging a grinding war of attrition to exhaust Kyiv’s will and capacity to resist while testing the Western alliance’s collective ability to sustain Ukraine.

    Russia’s Plan B had mixed results in 2022. While Russia won important, if costly, victories in Mariupol and Severodonetsk, Ukraine exploited Russia’s lack of manpower to win back territory in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. However, following a partial military and economic mobilization, Russia turned the corner, defeating Ukraine’s offensive in 2023 and taking the upper hand in 2024.

    As the slow success of Russia’s Plan B becomes more apparent, the failure of the West’s own Plan A to deal with Russia is now clarified. This plan consisted of sanctions to derail the Russian economy, diplomacy to isolate the Putin regime, and the use of NATO weapons and know-how to inflict serious damage on Russia on the battlefield. The optimal outcome would be Russia’s humiliation and withdrawal from Ukraine. But experts assured us that whatever happened, Russia would be seriously weakened and put in its place. This, however, is not what has materialized.

    Faulty Assumptions

    Russia’s economy was rated as weak and vulnerable to sanctions, given its energy dependency and relatively low GDP score, which is calculated by converting the value of its economy into U.S. dollars. This measure did not account for Russia’s strategic industries, resource self-sufficiency, and access to alternative trading partners. Western sanctions on Russia’s energy exports backfired, damaging some European economies more than Russia. They also caused a spike in energy prices, ensuring Russia received more than enough revenues to fund its war effort. The hope that most non-Western states would stop trading with Russia also proved unfounded; Russia has increased its trade flows with India, Turkey, and China, while many of Russia’s neighbors quietly profit by reselling sanctioned goods to Moscow.

    The assumption that Russia is a kleptocracy led to personal sanctions on wealthy Russians that were expected to have political side effects; losing access to their assets and luxuries in the West, Russia’s kleptocrats would surely turn on Putin. Instead, the sanctions have largely incentivized them to invest money in their own country and give their loyalty to the regime. Western sanctions were thus a double failure: they did not wreck the Russian economy or destabilize the elite coalition around the regime.

    The other set of assumptions was military in nature. Russia’s failed use of hard power in the first two months of its “Special Military Operation” was taken as an indicator of gross military incompetence. Claims of high Russian causalities and equipment losses were linked to corruption, poor morale, and disorganization. Most commentators and reporters have accepted at face value the Ukrainian, U.S., and UK estimates of Russian losses, as well as the equipment loss count of the open-source intelligence unit “Oryx.” The claims of astronomical Russian losses reinforced the long-standing assumption of NATO military superiority over Russia, creating a remarkable war optimism in the West. Ukraine would now use higher caliber Western weapons, tactics, and training to defeat Russia comprehensively. NATO’s game-changing wonder weapons were kept on the sidelines and could be introduced when Ukraine needed decisive assistance.

    These military assumptions have now been proven incorrect. The drip-feeding of advanced weaponry, calibrated to avoid crossing Russian redlines too flagrantly, did not allow the Ukrainians to achieve decisive success in 2023. While access to NATO intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems has given Ukraine a crucial advantage in battlefield targeting, NATO training, equipment, and planning proved unsuitable for Ukraine’s 2023 offensive. NATO countries have not provided consistent types of weaponry or kept up with the basic needs of munitions production or procurement into 2024. Overall, NATO was not well prepared for the war in Ukraine; its military doctrines foresaw interventions in civil wars or conflict with weaker opponents, not a proxy war of attrition with a peer competitor.

    In contrast, Russia was better prepared for the long haul of military production and has also successfully innovated in response to the military setbacks it has experienced. The Russian military has adapted to conditions of near total battlefield visibility, the mass use of drones, and the vastly reduced power of tanks and aircraft. This includes innovative infantry assault tactics, new methods of using and countering drones, and, more recently, the devastating use of glide bombs that allow Russian air power to be used while evading anti-aircraft fire. On the tactical and operational level, Russia is engaging many parts of the front simultaneously, forcing Ukraine into an exhausting and constant redeployment of troops. Presenting Russian military successes as “human wave” or “meat assaults” is clearly inaccurate. Russia’s approach is gradual, attritional, and anything but mindless.

    Given these dynamics, widespread talk of a Ukrainian victory has been replaced by the specter of defeat if the West cannot deliver the needed weapons and supplies. Yet, even if the shells arrive in time, Ukraine also has a manpower problem that is much harder to solve. The Ukrainian government’s deep reluctance to issue another mobilization may reflect a fear of popular discontent and doubts over the state’s capacity to deliver the required number of men.

    Despite all the above indicators, many in the West want to continue Plan A: more sanctions on Russia, new weapons, and more training for Ukraine, all to somehow prepare Ukraine to launch another offensive in 2025. Yet it remains unclear how Ukraine can survive 2024 if Russia is outproducing the West by more than three-to-one in shells and has more troops at its disposal. Something has to give in the next phase of the war.

    What Next?

    The current rather desperate effort to scrape together munitions to ensure Ukraine’s immediate survival does not constitute a Plan B for the West in Ukraine. A definition of “victory” is still lacking. It is unclear what prerequisites must be in place for “honorable” negotiations with Russia. The Western alliance’s Plan B must be a choice between rapidly developing an effective means of doubling down its support for Ukraine or starting to talk about a compromise with Russia.

    Macron’s variant of a Western “double-down” in Ukraine looks unconvincing. Talk of NATO troop deployment is not a serious threat to Russia’s military dominance. More likely, it represents a signal of Western commitment intended to bolster Ukrainian morale at a crucial time, as well as ensure that, in case of a debacle, Macron himself cannot be accused of having been silent. But in real terms, what could 2,000 French troops do in Ukraine to change the military balance? Surely, it would be nothing more than a stopgap, but one with risks of further debacle, given that a NATO contingent in Ukraine would not be protected by Article 5 and would most likely be “fair game” for Russian missiles and drones.

    Statements made in recent weeks do not hold together. Russia cannot be “allowed” to win, but the West lacks the means to defeat Russia. The Western alliance lacks the desire or the means to take the initiative in Ukraine. For all the bluster about how the West must not self-deter and cross Russia’s redlines without fear, there is no real appetite to engage in brinksmanship over a Russia-NATO war.

    The lack of realism in Western discourse is clear. There is indeed a serious risk that, rather than the West teaching Russia a lesson and putting Putin in his place, the opposite may occur. Is Russia, in fact, educating the West on what it means to use hard power and wage interstate conflict in twenty-first-century conditions? Russia advertises its version of great power sovereignty, in which a united, resilient, and unwavering state can defeat the pooled sovereignty of the EU and NATO.

    We have all heard the objection that Putin simply cannot be trusted and that he wants nothing less than the complete elimination of Ukraine as an independent state. Yet, does not the blind continuation of the West’s dysfunctional Plan A also threaten the total physical destruction of Ukraine? It is for this reason that Pope Francis has called on Western leaders not to be “ashamed to negotiate before things get worse.”

    A new approach to the war in Ukraine will not emerge from rhetorical and moralistic proclamations. Words alone will not prevent a Russian victory. What is needed is a clear accounting of what can be realistically achieved with the means available, as well as the cost, risks, and benefits of different scenarios. Trying what has failed before and expecting new results is, after all, not a recipe for success.


    Matthew Blackburn is a Senior Researcher in NUPI’s Research Group on Russia, Asia, and International Trade. His research addresses the politics of contemporary Russia and Eurasia, including both domestic politics and interstate relations. He has also published academic and media analyses of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war.

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