Ukraine Is in Worse Shape than You Think
Yout 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. Even though you may not win, it is not a loss. Ukraine is far more in trouble than it seems and has a great deal of assistance and support needed to win.
An underdog is a favorite of ours. It is amazing to see a determined, little boy overcome the odds. It gives hope to our normal selves, and it makes us feel better morally. The world has been so impressed by the appeal made to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. We had someone to cheer for in the face of bullies thanks to his defiance. 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 did not fall and that Russian troops have fled to the east does not indicate that Ukraine is in any better shape than the media portrays.
Recall that Ukraine was fighting the Russian invasion since 2014. In the Donbas conflict, nearly 10,000 died between 2014 and 2022. But, there was little to no military progress. Today, Ukraine fights with the same army against an even larger enemy force in an expanded theatre. The sheer valiance and determination of the troops in Ukraine is evident by the fact that they have managed to not only hold their line, but also force the Russians to retreat from Kyiv Kharkiv Chernigiv and the surrounding regions.
However, Russia controls significantly more territory in Ukraine than it did 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 instance, while the Ukrainian authorities held approximately 60% of Luhansk prior to the Russian invasion, the Russian forces now control over 80%. The Russian forces also control 70% of Zaporizhye. The cumulative effect of this is a more Russian-occupied territory than the 7% that was before February. This includes Crimea. It’s almost twice as much now. This makes it seem that losing is more common 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.
Read More: Inside Volodymyr Zelensky’s World
Ukraine’s relative success is due in part to the weapons at least 31 western governments have been donating. The U.K. donated anti-tank, aerial, and missiles against ships, as well as other weapons. Slovakia has the S-300 air defence system. U.S. drones have sent howitzers and missiles to the U.S., along with anti-armor and anti-armor equipment. 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. This donation would have allowed Kyiv to fall without it.
While Ukraine may be stocked with military supplies and weapons, the Ministry of Defense as well as volunteer fighters admit that they are unable to absorb this much assistance. To use a lot of this equipment or weaponry, you will need to learn new skills. It takes time, even if that training is readily available. The 16,000+ foreign volunteers who arrived in the country to fight would appear like a great boon. But, they had almost no military experience and training. According to some of the soldiers from the voluntary foreign special forces and the Ministry of Defense, most of them were just extra food for the hungry.
Ukraine is doing well economically, but that’s not all. The expected GDP contraction of less than 7 percent due to sanctions against Russia is quite a contrast to the collapse in Ukraine’s GDP by 45-50%. At most 25% of the businesses have been closed. However, this number has dropped from 32% to 17% in March. 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. Russia continues to attack Ukrainian fuel storages and grain silos as well, inflicting damage on already fragile supply chains. Because so few Ukrainians and businesses are able pay their electricity bills, the power sector faces default.
May is an important month in agriculture. Naftogaz buys natural gas for storage during winter. The $4.6 billion rescue package requested by the Ukrainian government was enough to save the state-owned power giant. It is now unclear what the country will do to prepare for winter when it has gas shortages and lack of funds. 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.
Reports suggest that the White House might consider forgiving Ukrainian sovereign loans. This would help Bankova, the equivalent of Bankova in Ukraine. 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. But this won’t be enough to bring back six million people, mostly women and children, who fled Ukraine. The numbers could almost double if men were permitted to flee.
While it is encouraging to hear that as many as 25,000 to 30,000 Ukrainians are now returning from abroad every day, the country also faced an issue with brain migration before the invasion. Many citizens tried to flee the poorest European country. The Ukrainians were third in immigrant populations of the E.U. before the war. They trailed only Turkey and Morocco. The International Labor Agency now estimates that Ukraine has lost 4.8 million jobs. This number will increase to seven million, if war continues. After many months of conflict, the children will have settled at new schools in foreign countries, their mothers will integrate in their new lives, while their fathers will wait for them to return. Some will return to Ukraine, of course, but many will prioritize their family’s comfort and children’s opportunities over the calls of patriotism.
Worst of all, many Ukrainians who remain in Ukraine are beginning to question how they will rebuild their country. This war has torn apart the social fabric. One mother living in Poltava claimed that the neighbor she had lived alongside for forty years is no longer trustworthy. They were people she thought she knew well before the invasion. One young volunteer who was formerly involved in civil society described how he started to find Russian sympathizers around every corner and hunting for saboteurs. The majority of native Ukrainian Russian speakers are fearful or uncomfortable speaking their mother tongue. While nationalism continues to be motivated, trust is being eroded. Rebuilding communities is not easy, no matter how fast Russia is defeated.
In May, the U.S. government decided to symbolically move some diplomatic staff into Kyiv. This partially reversed its quick, defeatist withdrawal that assumed Kyiv would collapse within days. Finally, after a more than three-year gap in leadership, President Biden nominated the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. This and the E.U. are important messages. Important messages are sent by these and other E.U. gestures. 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 is more than symbols. It needs weapons. It is important to remember that not losing does not mean you are winning. To help Ukraine win, it will require a deep and long-lasting commitment from the west.
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