A reasonable criterion for Ukrainian victory would be if they managed to push Russia back to the February 24th borders. And a reasonable criterion for total Ukrainian victory would be if they managed to push Russia out of the Donbas and Crimea too. Is either of these goals achievable?
Back in March, Ukraine arguably won the battle of Kiev by forcing Russia to withdraw from the area surrounding its capital city. Then in September, Ukrainian forces recaptured about 10,000 square kilometres of territory to the east of Kharkiv. And just in the last week, they recaptured a large area in the south west, including the city of Kherson, following another Russian withdrawal.
Since early April, the net change in territory has been overwhelmingly in Ukraine’s favour. Yet this has come at a heavy price in terms of casualties. And since the attempted sabotage of the Kerch Bridge in early October, Russia has stepped up its attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.
Although Ukraine’s fighters have exceeded the expectations of many Western observers, it’s unclear how much more territory they can retake by force – especially given that thousands of newly mobilised Russian soldiers are arriving on the battlefield. So the question remains: can Ukraine win?
A flurry of articles published in the last few weeks suggest some U.S. officials are doubtful that they can.
On October 11th, the Washington Post reported that: “privately, U.S. officials say neither Russia nor Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright, but they have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table.”
Fast forward to November 9th, and NBC News reported that: “some U.S. and Western officials increasingly believe that neither side can achieve all of their goals in the Ukraine war and are eyeing the expected winter slowdown in fighting as an opportunity for diplomacy”.
“Kherson is the last major front line that could shift before winter,” officials told the network, “after which neither side is likely to make large advances”.
The next day, General Mark Milley – the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Armed Forces – stated that “for negotiations to have a chance” there would need to be “mutual recognition” that a military victory “is maybe not achievable through military means, and therefore you need to turn to other means”.
According to the New York Times, he has also made the case in “internal meetings” that the Ukrainians “have achieved about as much as they could reasonably expect on the battlefield before winter sets in and so they should try to cement their gains at the bargaining table”.
The Wall Street Journal likewise reported that “officials in Washington are beginning to wonder aloud how much more territory can be won by either side, and at what cost”.
A few days after Milley’s comments, the Biden administration was said to be in “damage control mode”, as officials scrambled to maintain a “a unified front”. Yet one told Politico that “what White House officials are willing to say publicly and what they think privately are not necessarily the same”.
Another asked, “Why not start talking about [peace talks] before you throw another 100,000 lives into the abyss?”
It’s unclear what to make of all this. U.S. officials are known to use leaks strategically, so the quotations above could be some kind of ploy. Are they trying to lull Moscow into a false sense of security before Ukraine launches a major counteroffensive? It’s not impossible.
Taken at face value, however, they suggest that some in Washington believe Ukraine cannot win and it may be time to restart negotiations. This would make sense, given that America has already achieved its main strategic objectives.