Is Ukraine the 21st Century Forever War?

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (Getty Images)
February 7, 2024

Ukraine’s war to repel Russia’s illegal and brutal invasion will soon be two years old. Many of those who watched the Russian military build-up back then are surprised Ukraine is still here and fighting. Very few could imagine the former Soviet republic fighting Moscow’s military to a standstill.

But regardless of Ukraine’s heroic performance and the military’s mounting losses, Russian president Vladimir Putin shows no sign of backing down. In a rational world Russia would pull out of Ukraine and find a way to exit the conflict, but Putin shows no willingness to admit this "special military operation" has failed.

There is instead a discouraging sense that "Putin has no reverse gear," one close friend told me. "Therefore, no one knows how long this war could last." Speaking with longtime colleagues in Ukraine’s defense community, it's clear people are beaten down, exhausted, and unsure of how to break out of the current deadlock.

Since the 2014 invasions of Crimea and the Eastern Donbas regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, this same friend has been running a company supplying combat equipment. "No one can see the end point," he said. "Ukraine’s troops cannot keep fighting at this pace for forever. They are trained, performing, equipped, and so on superbly. But the Russians have no end of low-quality personnel to throw into human wave attacks. Our soldiers have been fighting for two years without a break, without any rotations out of the front line. They cannot maintain this op-tempo indefinitely."

Russia’s human wave "meat assault" tactics, as they are called, are incomprehensibly barbaric. One Ukrainian sniper interviewed this week stated Russian soldiers in these attacks have no visible task other than to "go and die." Near the heavily contested village of Avdiidka he recounted Russian forces leaving snow-covered bodies where they are killed and not even collecting the dead. They "just lie there frozen."

One reason Ukraine has inflicted high losses on Russia’s military is "a far higher morale than their enemies" said a leading member of the anti-Moscow Belarus government-in-exile (he spent the immediate weeks after the invasion in Kyiv and is now based in Washington). Echoing him is a March 2023 Atlantic Council assessment: "Putin’s complete misjudgment of Ukrainian morale was one of the most remarkable intelligence failures of the modern era."

Putin’s inner circle was certain Russian troops would be welcomed with open arms. But as the report reads, "far from greeting Putin’s invading army with cakes and flowers, the Ukrainian nation rose up and united in defiance against Russian aggression. Tens of thousands flocked to enlist in the Ukrainian military and territorial defense units, while millions more mobilized to support the war effort through fundraising, donations, and the improvised production of essential items such as anti-tank obstacles and Molotov cocktails."

This determined and more motivated resistance is not the only factor behind the high casualty figures. Moscow’s military machine also turned out to be a creaking, corrupt-ridden, parlous organization.

Eight days into the war convoys from Russian bases in Belarus stretched out for miles on the main road leading to Kyiv. They all broke down from tires falling apart, poor maintenance, and a lack of adequate logistics and supply. By March 7, 2022, these columns showed no forward movement and were under constant attacks from Ukrainian guerrilla formations.

Ukraine territorial defense units fell upon these convoys with a vengeance, using whatever weaponry and hardware was available. In the months since, Ukraine’s demonstrated prowess on the battlefield progressively improved with increasing deliveries of Western weapon systems. In the beginning these were limited to small, portable infantry weapons largely defensive in nature—like the U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missile.

But as the battles raged on, Ukraine’s military was supplied and has proven adept at using much larger, advanced, and longer-range offensive systems. These include the HIMARS long-range rocket artillery, main battle tanks like the German-made Leopard II, the U.S. Army’s Patriot air defense system and M2A2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle.

But not all the victories are made possible by U.S. and Western European weaponry. Ukraine’s defense industry has a few of its own tricks. In April 2022, a locally designed anti-missile ship sank the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship, the guided missile cruiser Moskva. Subsequent missile and drone attacks by the Ukrainians have since rendered the Russian fleet almost inert.

On land and in the air, Russia has lost its most modern and high-priced military hardware: significant numbers of fixed- and rotary-wing combat aircraft, several S-400 air defense batteries, almost all the tanks that were in Russian inventory when the invasion began, and previously unimaginable numbers of human casualties. By December 2023 the total number of Russians killed, wounded, or missing reached 317,000.

This is close to 90 percent of the standing army that marched into Ukraine in February 2022, but is not the end of the bad news. These numbers are rising to where the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense calculates "the average daily number of Russian casualties in Ukraine has risen by almost 300 during the course of 2023. If the [increasing] numbers continue at the current rate over the next year, Russia will have lost over half-a-million personnel in Ukraine."

By comparison, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turned into a 10-year war of occupation and resulted in 15,000 soldiers killed and 35,000 wounded. The cost of the only two-year old Ukraine conflict could reach 10 times this aggregate figure by the end of 2024. Only five days of Russians killed now equals total U.S. losses in Afghanistan over 20 years.

Christian Freuding, who oversees Germany’s military assistance to Ukraine, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung at the end of December 2023 that "the Russian armed forces will emerge from this war weakened, both materially and in terms of personnel." At present Russia continues to mobilize new recruits but only by "the use of [conscripted] prisoners."

Unfortunately for Ukraine’s troops, Moscow does not seem to be deterred by this grisly reality.

Kyiv is trying to mobilize and train replacements, but it has little impact explained "Yuri," another close friend who asked not to use his real name. He has been ferrying personnel, equipment, and spare parts from rear areas to the front lines for two years now. This has included multiple missions during the siege at Bakhmut where he often spent nights in an underground bunker sheltering from artillery barrages before the dangerous drive back to Kyiv early the next morning.

"Our guys on the front lines—all of them—they realize that there is no way to push the Russians back any further due to sheer numbers. Without some dramatic improvement in new weaponry that would give the Ukraine side a technological edge there is no way to overcome their numerical advantage," he explained.

"Slowdowns in deliveries of ammunition due to funding problems in the U.S. Congress is really starting to hurt," he continued. "I ferried a group of 17 new soldiers to the front recently. They were still moving from my vehicle to the front line when they were hit by a Russian mortar barrage. One of them was killed and 11 others wounded before they could even reach their posts."

"It is bad enough the Russians were able to target them out in the open, but what is even worse is the enemy fires as if ammunition shortages are never a problem. The total barrage was around 100 rounds of 120mm mortar shells. That is incredible. Our troops are lucky if they can shoot back 30 rounds a day and usually it is less. Without some resurgence in U.S. support and return to a higher rate of ammunition deliveries I am not sure what we are going to do," he said.

There is uneasiness among many European leaders caused by the realization that if Russia is allowed to achieve any measure of victory the long-term consequences could be disastrous. Writing in the London Telegraph last month, former European Parliament member Daniel Hannan warns this could be "a Suez-level disaster for the Western democracies."

"We are not ourselves at war this time, [but] we are so invested in the Ukrainian cause that a Russian victory—and absorbing conquered territory is a Russian victory, present it how you will—would mean a catastrophic loss of prestige for the West and the ideas associated with it: personal freedom, democracy, and human rights." Russia will then reconstitute its military, launch another all-out invasion of Ukraine in another 2-3 years, and most likely attack one of its smaller NATO neighbors.

"Conflicts will spread as regimes that never cared for liberal values in the first place realize that there is no longer a policeman on the corner," concludes Hannan.

Ukrainians like Yuri worry about this scenario—a conflagration engulfing the entire world. A war that never ends and leaves Ukraine a devastated and broken nation that will take decades to rebuild.

But like many he worries most about his young son—now age 12. "This is our greatest nightmare," he told me. "That in a few years our children will be grown and will have to go to the front lines and fight these Russian murderers, rapists and criminals. That this war will pass from one generation to the next. If it does, we may win, but all that we fought for will be destroyed."

Reuben F. Johnson is a correspondent for Breaking Defense who survived the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He is currently based in Warsaw.