It has been said that, given how massively Ukrainian troops were believed be outmatched early in Russia’s invasion, not losing the war is itself a form of victory for Ukraine. The difference between expectations and the surprising resilience of Ukraine’s military makes it easy to misinterpret the current situation in Ukraine’s favor. But not winning is still not winning. Ukraine is in far worse shape than commonly believed and needs, and will continue to need, a staggering amount of aid and support to actually win.
We love an underdog. We love a plucky little guy who beats the odds. It fuels hope for our ordinary selves and allows us to feel we are on the morally superior side. This is why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has appealed so successfully to the world. His defiance against the odds gave us someone to root for against a bully. While cheering on the scrappy, outmatched Ukrainians, we could also assuage some of our shame at leaving them—to whom we had made promises of protection, “security guarantees”—to die alone in the snow and the mud.
Unfortunately, Zelensky’s leadership and the outpouring of international military and humanitarian assistance it has elicited have not prevented a shocking level of destruction to Ukraine’s cities, economy, and society. The fact that Kyiv has not fallen and Russian troops have retreated to the east masks that Ukraine is in worse shape than portrayed in the media.
It is worth remembering that Ukraine has been fighting a Russian invasion since 2014. Between 2014 and February 2022, almost 10,000 were killed in the simmering war in the Donbas, but little or no military progress was made. Now, Ukraine is fighting with that same army in an expanded theater against a bigger opposing force. It is a testament to the pure valiance of its troops that Ukraine has managed since February 24 not only to hold its line but force the Russians into a retreat from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernigiv, and surrounding areas.
Nonetheless, Russia now controls significantly more Ukrainian territory than before February 24. Putin’s army holds Kherson, whatever is left of Mariupol, all the intervening territory, and now not only Luhansk and Donetsk but the entire Donbas Oblast. For example, whereas Ukrainian authorities controlled approximately 60% of Luhansk before the recent Russian invasion, now Russian forces control over 80% of the region. They also have about 70% of Zaporizhye region. Cumulatively, this accounts for an increase of Russian occupied territory from approximately 7%, including Crimea, before February more than double that now. Viewed this way, not losing looks a lot more like losing than winning.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense is not releasing combat casualty numbers to maintain morale, but experts believe it has lost at least 25,000 troops — up to 11,000 deaths and 18,000 wounded —since the February 24 invasion. Over two and a half months into the war, Ukraine’s losses are at least 10% of their now undoubtedly exhausted army of under 250,000. This is, however, many, many fewer than Russia’s casualties, believed to be over 35,000, and buttressed by an astonishing loss of weapons and equipment, such as tanks and warships.
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Ukraine’s relative success is due in part to the weapons at least 31 western governments have been donating. The U.K. has sent anti-tank, anti-air, and anti-ship missiles, air defense systems, and other weapons; Slovakia the S-300 air defense system; the U.S. drones, howitzers, missiles, and anti-armor systems; and this is just a sampling. These weapons have allowed Ukraine to maximize its home field advantage, leverage its troops’ greater resolve, and exploit Russia’s military weaknesses and apparent lack of adequate planning and preparation. Without these donations, Kyiv may well have fallen by now.
While Ukraine is flush with weapons and other military supplies and equipment, however, Ministry of Defense officials and volunteer fighters are both quietly admitting that they lack the capacity to absorb so much aid. Much of the equipment and weaponry requires new training to be used. Even when that is available it takes time. Similarly, the influx of 16,000 or more foreign volunteer fighters would seem like a decisive boon, but in fact almost none of them had any military experience or training. They proved little more than extra mouths to feed in most cases, according to Ministry of Defense staff and some of the volunteer foreign special forces soldiers on the ground.
Economically, Ukraine is surviving, but only that. The sanctions on Russia that are expected to cause a less than 7% contraction in GDP compare rather unfavorably to the 45-50% GDP collapse Ukraine is facing. At least 25% of businesses are closed, although the number that have completely stopped has fallen from 32% in March to 17% in May. But a Black Sea blockade of Ukraine’s ports—Mariupol, Odesa, Kherson, and others—by Russia’s navy is preventing both the import of fuels to power the agricultural sector, and also the export of grain and other Ukrainian products. The inability to export is costing Ukraine’s economy $170 million per day. Meanwhile, Russia is targeting Ukrainian fuel storages, grain silos, and agricultural equipment warehouses, damaging already tattered supply chains. The power sector is facing default because so few Ukrainian citizens and companies are able to pay their electricity bills.
Not only is May a critical agricultural month, but it is when Naftogaz usually starts buying natural gas to store it for the cold Ukrainian winter. The state-owned energy giant was already in bad shape before the invasion, with the CEO asking the Ukrainian government for a $4.6 billion bailout in September 2021. Now, with very tight gas markets and no funds, it is unclear how the country can prepare for winter, when temperatures can fall to below 20 Fahrenheit. Adding to the prospect of a tragic 2022-2023 winter, most of Ukraine’s coal mines are in the Donbas, where Russia’s offensive continues.
The White House is reportedly considering forgiving Ukrainian sovereign debt, which would undoubtedly help Bankova (the Ukrainian White House equivalent). So too will, among other efforts, the €15 billion in debt securities the European Commission plans to issue to cover Ukraine’s next few months. However, this will not coax back the over six million mostly women and children who have fled Ukraine. If men were allowed to leave, the numbers would almost certainly be double.
Recent reports that 25,000-30,000 are returning daily to Ukraine from abroad are encouraging, but Ukraine faced a brain drain problem before the invasion. The poorest country in Europe, many citizens were already trying to leave. Before the war, Ukrainians were the third largest immigrant population in the E.U., behind only Morocco and Turkey. Now, the International Labor Agency estimates that 4.8 million jobs have been lost in Ukraine, which will rise to seven million if the war continues. And after many months of war, children will have settled in new schools abroad, mothers will be integrating in their new worlds, and both will be waiting for their husbands and fathers to join them. Some will return to Ukraine, of course, but many will prioritize their family’s comfort and children’s opportunities over the calls of patriotism.
Most troublingly, many Ukrainians still in their country have begun to wonder how it will rebuild itself. The war has torn the fabric of society. One mother in Poltava said she no longer trusts the neighbors she has lived next to for 40 years, people she considered to be family before the invasion. A young volunteer, formerly a civil society activist, described hunting for saboteurs, and how he has begun to see Russian sympathizers everywhere. Native Ukrainian speakers of Russian, who constitute at least a third of the population, are uncomfortable or even scared to use their mother tongue. Trust has been shattered, even while nationalism has been motivated. No matter how quickly Russia is beaten back, rebuilding communities will be a challenge.
The U.S. government decided in May to symbolically move some of its diplomatic staff back into Kyiv, partially reversing its rapid, defeatist withdrawal when it assumed Kyiv would fall within days. President Biden has even, finally, nominated a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine after more than a three-year leadership gap. The message this and E.U. gestures send is important. But despite our desire to see in outmatched Ukraine’s survival a tale of David beating Goliath, and to cheer ourselves for donating the slingshot, the country is seriously, dangerously weakened.
Ukraine needs more than symbols, and more than weapons. Not losing is not winning, and it will take a long and deep commitment by the western world to help Ukraine both win and then heal.
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