In International, National Security

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 U.S. Army Lt. Colonel, Daniel L. Davis

On June 4, 2023, at the insistence of Western governments clamouring for Russia’s strategic defeat, Ukraine’s military launched a highly anticipated counter-offensive. Since then, as Ukrainian casualties soared, Western commentators acknowledged grudgingly that Ukraine was sustaining severe losses. At the same time, they sought to focus the public’s attention on Ukraine’s meagre territorial gains. In so doing, they obscured the reality of this existentially dangerous war: even if Ukraine achieves the goals of this offensive, it will lose the war.

What has Ukraine achieved thus far, and at what cost?

Despite the Ukrainian army’s relentless attacks on Russian defences, Ukrainian gains to date have been insignificant.

A map produced by the pro-Ukraine Institute for the Study of War (ISW) shows that, as of September 8, 2023, the territory retaken by Ukraine is negligible in relation to the overall territory captured by Russia since the invasion began in February 2022:


Ukraine's counter-offensive: missing the forest from the trees

Importantly, the map above does not show Crimea or the area surrounding Kupiansk, in the northeast of Ukraine.

Since Ukraine’s counter-offensive began, and despite repeated attacks on the Crimean peninsula, Ukrainian forces have recaptured no part of Crimea,

In the Kupiansk region, not only has Ukraine failed to retake any territory, but Russian forces have advanced, as shown in this map published on September 8, 2023 by the pro-Ukraine CNN:

Ukraine's counter-offensive: missing the forest from the trees


Ukraine’s marginal gains have come at enormous cost.

On September 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Ukrainian losses since the beginning of Kyiv’s counter-offensive amounted to 71,000 soldiers – a staggering figure.

Based on publicly available information, it is impossible to know whether Putin’s claim is accurate, but numerous reports in pro-Ukraine, Western media confirm that Ukraine has suffered massive losses:

Ukraine's counter-offensive missing the forest from the trees


Ukraine's counter-offensive missing the forest from the trees



Ukraine's counter-offensive missing the forest from the trees



Ukraine's counter-offensive missing the forest from the trees


Russia’s claim that Ukraine has sustained severe losses is also consistent with Zelensky’s desperate efforts to reconstitute his army.

Six weeks after Ukraine launched its counter-offensive, Zelensky extended martial law and general mobilization for three months.

Three weeks later, Zelensky fired 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 checkpoints 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 – one of Ukraine’s most committed backers – 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.”

Germany followed Austria’s lead, as did Hungary. 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 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 counter-offensive failed

Emboldened by the success of Ukraine’s 2022 counter-offensive in the regions of Kharkiv and Kherson, Ukraine and its Western sponsors boldly projected the swift attainment of Ukraine’s 2023 military objectives. Zelensky’s Chief of Military Intelligence went to far as to proclaim publicly that Ukraine would retake Crimea by the end of the spring in 2023.

There were at least three fatal flaws in their reasoning.

First, the Russian army that Ukraine faced in the autumn of 2022 was not the same army that Ukraine now confronts.

In late 2022, 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 boosters exaggerated the scale of Ukraine’s success in its 2022 counter-offensive. As explained recently by Professor John Mearsheimer, a former U.S. Air Force officer and graduate of West Point:

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 Russian 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 counter-offensive.

In a recent, detailed analysis of Ukraine’s counter-offensive, Professor Mearsheimer described it as a “colossal failure”.

Third, months before the counter-offensive 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.

The map below, compiled by ISW, shows the formidable Russian defences that Ukraine’s military must overcome between to reach Melitopol:


Ukraine's counter-offensive missing the forest from the trees


Ukraine’s forces stood little chance of advancing beyond Russia’s extremely dense minefields, which lie to the north of Russian fortifications. Under ideal conditions, navigating these minefields would be a major challenge, but conditions for Ukraine were far from ideal: Ukraine’s beleaguered forces were obliged to cross these minefields while suffering from large disadvantages in air power and artillery.

Moreover, Ukrainian forces have 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 highlighted 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, Ukraine’s soldiers received inadequate training from Western military ‘experts’. Not only was their training too brief, but it was also administered by NATO forces that had no experience of fighting a peer enemy in a large-scale land war.

There’s a world of difference between fighting the rag-tag Taliban – who possessed little more than Soviet-era small arms – and the Russian military, with its extensive array of artillery systems, hypersonic missiles, fighter jets and bombers, advanced air defence systems, satellite imagery and electronic warfare capabilities. Even the Taliban proved too formidable a foe for the mighty NATO.

Why would anyone expect NATO instructors to know how to defeat Russia? At this stage of the conflict, Ukrainian combat veterans probably know more about fighting Russians than just about any instructor  in NATO.

What would have happened if Ukraine had achieved the objectives of its ‘counter-offensive’?

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, and thereby sever Russia’s land-bridge to Crimea.

So what?

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 on the Sea of Azov.

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. Ukraine’s government expressed outrage. A senior Zelensky adviser 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.”

Thus, were Ukrainian forces 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 Crimea without the benefit of any land bridge to mainland Russia. Despite the absence of a land bridge, Ukraine was unable to mount any serious challenge to Russian control of Crimea during that entire 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 the Donetsk and Luhansk regions without any land bridge from mainland Russia to Crimea. During that period, large numbers of regular Russian forces were not entrenched in those regions. Today, those regions would be far harder for Ukraine’s battered army to recover, given the nature and extent of Russian military formations and fortifications in those regions.

In June of last year, I authored an article in which 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, but all of us who foresaw a Ukrainian defeat were dismissed as Putin apologists and banished from the Western mainstream discourse.

Why did we predict disaster for Ukraine? Because in virtually every category that matters for the purposes of a war of this nature, Ukraine was at a massive disadvantage to Russia.

Ukraine has a far smaller population to draw upon to replenish its losses. In a war in which the vast majority of casualties are caused by artillery, Ukraine possesses far fewer artillery systems than Russia, and far less ammunition. Wars of this nature consume huge amounts of energy, and Ukraine has far fewer energy resources than Russia. Ukraine also has fewer tanks, fewer combat aircraft, fewer air defence systems, and fewer long-range missiles. Ukraine has no navy to speak of, whereas Russia has one of the most formidable navies in the world. Russia has ample industrial capacity to replace destroyed and damaged armaments, whereas Ukraine’s industrial capacity has been eviscerated by Russia’s powerful stand-off weapons. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Western sponsors have begun to run out of the weapons Ukraine desperately needs for a war of this nature.

The only category in which Ukraine might have had an edge was motivation, but even that advantage (if it ever existed) likely evaporated once Russian soldiers realized that Ukraine’s military had extensive backing from the world’s largest military alliance and was fully prepared to launch attacks on Russian soil, including on Moscow itself.

There is not now, nor has there ever been, a realistic scenario in which Ukraine can achieve victory, as Volodymyr Zelensky defines it. Anyone possessing a modicum of objectivity understood this long ago.

A proxy war founded on lies

Critics of the West’s arming of Ukraine (including yours truly) insist that this is, in essence, a U.S.-led proxy war against Russia.

U.S. casualties in the Vietnam war, which were far lower than those sustained by Ukraine in the current war with Russian, generated so much public backlash in the United States that the U.S. government increasingly resorted to the use of proxy forces who would sustain the hardships of war while fighting with U.S.-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. Does that make Panetta a pro-Russian propagandistt?

To generate and sustain public support for this proxy war, Western governments and their enablers in the mainstream media have trotted out all manner of sophistry.

None of their arguments can withstand rational, fact-based scrutiny. Let’s take a closer look at their main arguments.

Argument #1: Western states have a duty to defend democracy and international law

The degree to which the public has taken this howler seriously is a marvel to behold.

If history demonstrates anything, it’s that the United States government and its allies vassals 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 U.S.-led wars on Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan, the myriad of elected governments that the U.S. and Britain have subverted (for example, the Chilean government of Salvador Allende and the Iranian government of Mohammad Mosaddegh), 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 hegemonic agenda, but casually ignore these same ideals when they stand in the way of Western domination.

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.

Whatever the West’s true motivation may be, Ukraine is no democracy.

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, Ukrainian political conditions have deteriorated dramatically.

Zelensky apologists often argue that Zelensky 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, Vitalii 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’s just another petty autocrat, and we in the West are funding his government at the expense of our own societies.

Argument #2: As long as the Ukrainian people want to fight, the West has an obligation to arm them

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, however? 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 5% of Ukrainians are ready to make territorial concessions for peace, and only 18% 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 5 years in prison. His ‘crime’ is that he advocated for a ceasefire and diplomacy – and did so while fiercely condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In an environment where advocacy for peace has been criminalized and political dissent has been all but eliminated, polls purporting to show majority opposition to a negotiated peace are plainly unreliable.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that the polls relied upon by supporters of arming Ukraine do reflect the informed opinions of the Ukrainian people. So what?

Western governments are under no obligation to defer to the will of the Ukrainian people. Those governments are elected to ensure the well-being of the citizens of their own countries. If the interests of their citizens would best be served by reducing the potential for nuclear war, or by expending public money on health and education rather than armaments for a foreign conflict, then that is what those governments should do. They certainly have no duty to facilitate a collective suicide by the Ukrainian people.

If Western governments are obliged (despite the immense risks and costs) to arm Ukrainians in a national war of territorial liberation, then why are they not obliged to arm the Palestinian people, or any of the other peoples whose legitimate aspirations for self-determination are being thwarted by military force? The Palestinians have been stateless for their entire lives, whereas Ukrainians have had a sovereign state since 1991. If anything, they have a stronger claim to Western military support than Ukrainians do.

Not only has the West refrained from providing to Palestinians the weapons they require to expel Israeli forces from occupied Palestinian territory, but the West has elected to arm their oppressor. The United States government provides nearly $4 billion in military aid annually to an Israeli state that is widely acknowledged to be an apartheid regime. No Western government has expressed serious opposition to U.S. military aid for Israel. On the contrary, many of them, including Canada, trade in arms with Israel.

By their own conduct, therefore, Western governments have rejected the claim that they are duty-bound to arm national liberation movements.

Argument #3: If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine, we’re next

Time and again, Westerners have been told that Ukraine is but the first domino in Putin’s alleged plan to reconstitute a 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 Professor 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 not envision nato expansion and E.U. expansion as a policy that was aimed at containing Russia. Nobody seriously thought that Russia was a threat before February 22, 2014. nato expansion, E.U. 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 NATO obligation of reciprocal defence and NATO’s 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 being used not only to kill Russian soldiers in Ukraine, it is also increasingly being used to strike targets in Russia itself. Despite this, Russia has refrained from striking any NATO state.

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 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 the fact 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, we must end this war

Ukraine’s situation has become so dire that former British Army Colonel Richard Kemp – one of the most vociferous proponents of the proxy war in British media – just authored an op-ed in The Telegraph in which he bemoaned that the West “must prepare for humiliation”:


Ukraine's worst enemies are those who demand Russia' strategic defeat

With all due respect to Mr. Kemp, this isn’t 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 each other’s bruised egos later.

Now let’s suppose that the only thing you care about is the Ukrainian people.

You don’t care about the potential for nuclear war. You don’t care about the incalculable harm being done to the environment by this war. You don’t care that the weaponry sent to Ukraine might end up in the hands of criminal organizations around the world. And you certainly don’t care about the many ethnic Russians, both military and civilian, who have been killed in this war. The only thing you care about is people who are ethnically Ukrainian.

Even if you are such a person, the humane and rational thing for you 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 day, 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 Ukrainian towns and cities become uninhabitable.

The hole out of which Ukraine must eventually dig itself is only becoming 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.


[Note: An edited version of this article was published by Canadian Dimension on September 16, 2023.]

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