The attrition of Ukraine

June 5, 2022 • 10:30 am

I, for one, never thought deeply enough about the Ukraine/Russia war to think about the simple issue posed by this Quillette piece (no, it’s not a right wing rant). Click on the screenshot to read it:



The dilemma is expressed in the title and in this paragraph by Lloyd, a contributing editor at the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:

An existential choice faces Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine. It is perhaps the worst choice facing any head of state in the world—between capitulation before Russian President Vladimir Putin and continued resistance to the Russian invasion. If Zelensky chooses the former, there is no guarantee—or even a realistic hope—that any agreement to end hostilities will be honoured a minute longer than Putin finds convenient. On the other hand, continued resistance guarantees that many more Ukrainians—military and civilian—will die and many more cities and towns will be reduced to rubble, even if victory (whatever that looks like) is achieved eventually.

Although I thought the war would be over quickly, with Russia the victor, I still think Russia has the upper hand. As the NYT reports today, Russia is firing more missiles at Kyiv, and Putin has threatened to stat firing at new targets if the West supplies Ukraine with longer-range missiles. The Donbas region is well on its way to complete control by Russia, and reports of Ukrainian advances are rare.  This makes the “existential choice” more likely. Is there anyone who still thinks that Ukraine will expel Russia entirely?

The West, too, is starting to pressure Ukraine to settle. Germany has failed to come through with promised weapons, probably because it stands to lose the most in terms of Russian gas. France is waffling too; from the NYT:

President Emmanuel Macron of France’s assertion that Ukraine and its allies should refrain from humiliating Moscow to improve the possibility of a negotiated settlement touched off a fiery response from Kyiv. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said that such statements “can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it.”

Refrain from humiliating Moscow? They conducted a brutal invasion, killing thousands of civilians, and committing numerous war crimes, and we shouldn’t “humiliate” them?? There’s only so far you can go with Realpolitik, and giving in to Putin doesn’t include that. But what’s the alternative?

Lloyd gives two reasons why Putin invaded:

So, why did Putin do it? For two reasons, above all. First, he was tormented by the prospect of Ukraine becoming wholly democratic and pro-Western—an example he feared would inspire the very many Russians who wish to see their own country develop an active civil society. Second, were this to happen, it would thwart Putin’s clearly expressed aim to merge the three Slav states of the former Soviet Union into a partial reconstruction of the Russian empire—Belarus is already in Putin’s pocket; Ukraine is now fighting to stay out of it; and Russia has allotted itself the role of imperial master. In a 5,000-word essay published in July last year and titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin denied that Ukraine is a separate state, and warned that Russia could not permit it to drift into the West’s orbit.

He suggests, giving a link, that Putin may be seriously ill, and thus trying to cement his legacy:

He has come to see the reconstitution of the most important part of the Russian empire as his legacy. If rumours of Putin’s failing health are true, that legacy may soon become operative, which has led observers to speculate that the precipitate invasion was the decision of a sick man in a hurry. Putin’s imperial ambitions and iron determination make him an impossible interlocutor—a man determined, as Emmanuel Macron has discovered, not to give an inch.

The more I watch this war (and remember, I’m no pundit), the more I think Lloyd is right. Every day 100 Ukrainian soldiers die—and there’s a finite number of them—the more I think that Zelensky will have to cut some kind of deal with Putin. The problem, of course, is that Putin is a liar and a cheat, and his promises are worth nothing,

It’s a bad business all around, but I don’t think Ukraine will do anything more than survive as a smaller portion of itself (and without NATO membership). But let’s take a poll, and explain your opinion below.

What will be the result of the Russia/Ukraine war?

View Results

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h/t: Steve

73 thoughts on “The attrition of Ukraine

  1. I’ve voted for an eventual settlement, partly because l realise that Ukraine beating Russia off completely is just wishful thinking, but mainly because I sense a note of tiredness in world leaders, and a growing acceptance of the inevitable. It’s all very well that Ukraine is entirely in the right, but the loss of life has to be acknowledged also.

  2. The European waffling in support for Ukraine that John Lloyd points out has a counterpart in the US. As soon as the Russian invasion began, the Democratic Socialists of America posted a statement demanding that the USA withdraw from NATO. On the Right, a substantial number of GOP
    congressmen have voted against military aid to Ukraine. Shades of early 1941, when Lend-Lease was opposed both by many Republicans and by the Communist Party and its associates, informally allied in a peace movement which is now conventionally referred to as “isolationism”. [Needless to say,
    the CP underwent a sudden, mysterious change of heart on June 22, 1941.]

  3. Russia is also taking high losses, which is not sustainable. Putin won’t negotiate, and defeat is not an option for Zelensky. It’s more likely that a standoff, stalemate war will continue as has been the case in Donbas for the last eight years.
    Even if Russia were to succeed in taking over the country, they’d have a difficult time holding it, much as what happened to them (and to the US) in Afghanistan.
    In a couple of years Europe will have been able to rid itself of Russian oil dependency, but Russia will find other ways to sell it.
    The West will continue to supply Ukraine with weapons, enough to hold the stalemate. It’s essential to NATO that Russia not succeed.

    However, if Trump is reelected in 2024, he will probably cease support for Ukraine, in which case the game is over.

    1. Stalemate war without settlement as most likely outcome. This option was not included in the vote.

  4. He [Putin] has come to see the reconstitution of the most important part of the Russian empire as his legacy.

    Jeez, once upon a time there was a failed Austrian artist who wished to pursue a irredentist policy of unifying the German speaking people. But, luckily for peace in our time, he was placated by ceding him a chunk of Czechoslovakia.

    It convinced him to forgo his goal of pursuing Lebensraum for the volk, and Europe lived happily ever after. The end.

  5. I put in No opinion, since I don’t know what will happen. The Ukrainian and Russian leadership seems determined to hang on grimly, while they and Russia are experiencing military. attrition, albeit at differing rates. There are all those other variables to consider (Putin’s health, wavering support from the West), and so the needle of prognostication goes back and forth. Putin did insist that he saw Ukraine as a state to be absorbed in its entirety. That is one thing I believe about the guy. So even that Ukraine will ultimately have to cede some of its territory is not a sure thing.

  6. I doubt Zelensky sees it as a real choice. If he does, it is in private.

    I voted for complete withdrawal of Russian troops. Partly, it’s from wishful thinking but my guess is that Putin will do something soon that will re-unite the world against him. Perhaps it will be nukes, biological weapons, starving the rest of the world of Ukraine’s wheat, or some other horror. He may well retaliate against the West, if only to prove that his threats aren’t hollow. This will also serve to rally the forces against him. A general war between the West and Russia isn’t off the table either.

  7. It was interesting talking to my Dad about Ukraine recently. He’s former career military, was a Russian Studies major, did a bunch of cold-war secret Russia stuff and was a military attaché to Russian neighbors. He’s also quite Trumpy. So, I was fully prepared for him to be full ‘west provoked it, Putin’s response is understandable’. But such was not the case! He put forth the sickness theory, that Putin is legacy building now potentially. He said that even though there is no historic Ukrainian identity, the people of Ukraine have clearly manifested one and so it is their right to self determine and remain an independent nation-state. He also thinks WWIII is possible and a bad idea.

    So, goes to show sometimes expertise overrides partisan positions and it was a very interesting discussion.

    1. Oh, my goodness! There is historic Ukrainian identity. And has been since nations started to recognise themselves as something separate from others. Ukrainians have their own language which is different from Russian and other Slavic languages. Ukrainians had their states and para-states (Cossack Sich). Ukrainians have distinct culture with traditions, songs, poetry, embroidery and so on.
      “Ukrainians are not a nation” is a centuries-long narrative which is completely false like all the myths Russia is built on.

      1. Oh, I certainly don’t mean to endorse his opinion – but rather to reflect on how it parts ways with the Republican talking points.

        1. I seem to recall, without consulting, that Moscow in some form, maybe not capital of whatever was there, was founded about a millennium ago, by Vikings from what is now Sweden.
          Perhaps “prince” should be ‘Viking leader’?

      2. Any language reflects a specific national identity. I can understand why the population of Barcelona want to form an independent state, and separate from Spain.

  8. Many in the West are not aware that Zelensky is very unpopular in Ukraine. The moment he insinuates that he’s considering to cut a deal with Putin, he goes to jail or gets killed by the Ukrainians. I voted that Russia will be completely pushed out.

      1. They support him because they’re at war right now, and because they recognize that he’s doing great PR, but he’s very unpopular – one of the main reasons is that he didn’t prepare for war, something that most Ukrainians wanted.

            1. Here’s some more context from the same article:

              “In July 2020, the number of those who did not trust Zelensky exceeded the number of those who still believed in him (51 percent versus 43 percent). Despite these sobering poll figures, however, Zelensky has personally remained the politician with more support by far than anyone else: in August 2021 his support from likely voters was well over 30 percent, while his closest contender for a future presidency, Petro Poroshenko, was supported by just 13 percent.”

              It seems that support is split among many politicians but even back then he was the most popular. It also probably reflects skepticism and distrust based on the country’s recent history. Regardless, it certainly doesn’t justify the “very unpopular” label.

              1. But he was very unpopular before the invasion, Paul (about 20% is pretty low). You can be very unpopular and the most popular at the same time! You can be supported by 88% of people who mostly don’t like you, too, there’s is no contradiction.

              2. The point is that the 20% figure is against a gaggle of politicians, if I’m reading this right. He got the highest percentage among all those mentioned in the poll! That makes him the most popular politician.

              3. I have to defend FB’s position here. I didn’t know this until FB posted about it in this thread, but the poll clearly says “approval ratings,” rather than being a comparison between him and various other politicians (a question more like “whom do you prefer among these candidates”). It appears that his approval rating was astonishingly low.

              4. I really don’t understand how you can make the claim he was very unpopular. The article says that Z. got the highest rating of any politician that was on the list offered by the polling question. I don’t see how one can take that as disapproval. If it were a first-past-the-post election, he would have won.

            2. You coulda stopped at “my wife,” FB; I’d never ask a fella to challenge that sort of authoritative source. 🙂

        1. I can certainly believe that Zelensky has gotten a bump in popularity since the war started, but it seems unlikely that it would take him from “very unpopular” to 88%. Where’s your proof?

            1. Knowing how well Ukraine had been preparing since 2014 and making an educated guess at the state of the Russian military and its true strength, it would be rational to assume Russia wouldn’t invade. I didn’t think Russia would invade right up until the moment they did.

              I would certainly cut Zelensky some slack on that. The only miscalculation seems to have been that Putin didn’t act rationally.

              Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear now, after three month ,that Ukraine was extremely well prepared for the invasion and it looks like Zelensky must have been in the “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” frame of mind.

              1. Whatever Ukraine did well before the invasion, it has nothing to do with Zelensky. What Zelensky did after the invasion was great – he risked his life -, and the PR was first-class.

            2. I think Zelensky was going what other world leaders were doing at the time. They were giving Putin the option of just declaring the buildup along the Ukraine border as an exercise and back off from war. Whether such a strategy could possibly avoid war is academic. In this case, it didn’t. Perhaps they should have used so-called reverse logic.

  9. I voted ‘Other’. I think that Russia will end the current campaign in control of around a fifth of Ukraine, but I also think that Ukraine will not accept that as a final solution (apologies for the unseemly historical reference). We will then be in for a long Afghanistan-style guerrilla operation, which might eventually result in the Russians being forced to withdraw.

    But all this depends on the US, the UK and the EU staying the course. I wish I could be sure that they will.

    1. As a Yank living 6,000 miles from the front, I’m all for fighting to the last able-bodied Ukrainian.

      On a serious note, so long as Ukraine wants to carry the fight to the Russians, I say we give ’em all the aid they ask for and let ’em use it however they see fit.

      1. I say we give ’em all the aid it’s in our interest to give ’em, which may be less than they ask for. Anti-tank missiles and similar military hardware, sure. But if they ask – as some of our Senators and Congresscritters have suggested offering – that we “establish a no fly zone”, forgetaboudit.

        1. Yeah, when I say “aid,” I’m talkin’ money & matériel, not manpower.

          That’s how nouveau cold wars turn hot all of a sudden.

          1. Well, do you really want to give them missiles with enough range to strike targets within Russia? It’s awfully dangerous to hand such weapons to an unstable country just because they super-duper promise not to fire over the border. And, even if our intelligence agencies are 100% sure that the country and its military as currently constituted won’t do it (though I don’t know how they ever could be), what happens if the current government falls to a hard-line regime?

            I’m all for giving the weapons and monetary aid we’ve provided to Ukraine so far, but I think people should be giving a lot more consideration to upping the ante like this. Great powers so often don’t learn from their mistakes, like that one where we gave a bunch of religious zealots in a far-off country weapons back in the 80’s, only for them to use them on their own population after driving out their invaders, and then on our military from 2001 to 2021.

            1. Ukraine has hit targets in Russia already, probably using drones, but did not take credit for it (So, I guess we’ll never know for sure). But if we give them new weapons that occasionally fly off-target and hit a Russian fuel depot or train load of T-90M tanks, I wouldn’t feel to badly about it.

              1. We’re not talking about weapons that might occasionally fly off target and strike some mountainous, unpopulated area just inside Russia’s borders. We’re talking missiles that could go far further into Russia, allowing attacks over a significant area. Do you really want to give that capability to an unstable nation with a hobbled government, especially when the nation on the other end has nukes? I don’t.

            2. I’m not advocating needless provocation. But Ukraine is a sovereign nation invaded by a hostile neighbor. It has a right to self-determination, with all that entails in terms of self-defense. Some spillage is to be expected in a border war. After all, Putin can’t be allowed to believe he can mass troops and equipment just over the Russian side with impunity. Ukraine should be allowed to defend itself as it sees fit (within broad rule-of-reason parameters, of course).

              Plus, fuck Putin. He’s a bully and, like all bullies, he has no stomach for a fair fight. He’ll cower if a unified NATO shows him the mailed fist. (We’ve already seen signs with his waffling over Finland’s joining NATO.)

              1. I mean, it’s nice that you’re so certain of the outcome, but I’m a little more conservative about risking WWIII and/or nukes being launched. When it comes to that kind of risk, yeah, I think it’s better to stay on the conservative side, rather than being driven by emotion.

              2. … it’s nice that you’re so certain of the outcome …

                You know me, man: frequently wrong, rarely in doubt. 🙂

    2. To no one’s surprise, Germany will find that there aren’t enough windmills to keep the lights on and its houses heated this winter without Russian gas. So they aren’t much use to anyone. Besides, no one wants Germany to become too bellicose, do we.

      Remember, NATO’s mission has always been to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.

      1. … no one wants Germany to become too bellicose, do we[?]

        Pfft, it’s always worked out before, hasn’t it? 🙂

        Personally, I was a bit iffy on East and West Germany getting back together after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But so it goes.

        As I once heard a renowned historian note, “the rest of the world’s never been certain how many Germanies there should be.”

  10. Well I don’t know how it will end but it shouldn’t end with anything short of Russia being pushed out of Ukraine entirely. It’s not just about Ukraine alone. Russia has invaded or threatened to invade many countries. If Putin/Russia is intent on regaining what was the USSR then many more are targets. What the war in Ukraine will say to Putin (and others) is that people are too scared to protect each other. That as long as you don’t go after a powerful country with strong allies you can invade and take land as you please. That is a precedent that can not be allowed.

    This seems like the sort of situation where the United Nations needs to step up. They should extend help to Ukraine and if Ukraine accepts then a United Nations peacekeeping force should be deployed to Ukraine to secure its borders. It must make clear that it is not NATO or some other force attacking Russia, that this is a global peacekeeping mission and invasions will not be tolerated.

    1. Russia is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It would certainly veto any Korea-style armed police action against itself. It would also annihilate any conceivable rag-tag collection of hired Sri Lankan and Ghanaian Blue Berets in white-painted Jeeps armed with radios, pistols, and notebooks crossing its lines to document cease-fire violations. Did someone say cease-fire? Sorry, couldn’t hear over the artillery explosions. Since Korea, the UN goes in only after the fighting has stopped.

      The Canadian Army knows a thing or two about UN peacekeeping. The best you can say is that it’s a good place to be from. The worst you can say is Rwanda, but we had more guys shot in Yugoslavia for getting in the way.

      Someone, a woman I think, yelled at me for making fun of her call to send the U.N. into Mariupol to rescue civilians under Russian guns. So I’m obligated to be equitably dismissive of unworkable ideas from men. Anything involving the UN is by definition unworkable and dangerous to the participants.

      Slava Ukraini.

  11. I’d love two more options:
    * Full occupation and integration with Russia, with little ongoing Ukrainian resistance and
    * Full occupation and integration, with significant ongoing Ukrainian insurgency.

    It brings to mind the argument that ‘freedom fighter’ is another word for ‘terrorist’, a line that people quickly forgot in 2001. It’ll be interesting to see what foreign powers support Ukrainian insurgents and by what means.

  12. I selected the “settlement” option but the “other” option ran a close second. It is very difficult to predict any positive outcome. This is a war of attrition and there are no winners.

  13. I wasn’t able to vote…I can see the poll questions and results, but can’t vote for whatever reason.

    At this juncture, I would have sided with the majority that Ukraine will let Russia have a portion of its land. But if Putin is terminally ill, then I’d vote that Russia will be expelled altogether.

    The US has sent or is in the process of sending Ukraine missile systems that have a 40 mile range, so who knows what Putin’s response to that will be. I wouldn’t be afraid, like Macron is, of humiliating the evil prick.

    1. After refreshing, my post showed up and so did the poll, so I was able to vote. I remain with the majority of voters.

    2. I wasn’t able to vote…I can see the poll questions and results, but can’t vote for whatever reason.

      It’s hell being denied the franchise, isn’t it? Now you know how lotsa folks felt after Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act.

      1. Yup, just another idiotic SCOTUS decision coming out of Roberts’ court; another decision that shows how out of touch from reality the majority of this court is. I find it beyond amusing that the conservative justices are still telling everyone they’re not partisan hacks. All evidence to the contrary, hacks.

  14. I voted for Russia being completely pushed out of Ukraine. It may be wishful thinking but I see a parallel with the situation of Israel: the lack of tolerable alternative is a strong weapon. They have already tried ceding land for peace (in 2014), and seen that it does not work. Indeed, there is a limited number of Ukrainian soldiers but the same can be said about Russian soldiers. And soldiers are better motivated to fight defending their own country than destroying another country.

  15. As a matter of principle, I abstain from participating in polls of all kind, but if I did, I would waiver between settlement and no opinion. I’m currently on a driving trip to Geneva (NY), my childhood summer home, and I’ve been listening to an audiobook of “The Gates of Europe” by Serhii Plotkhy, a history of Ukraine from 700 BCE to the present, and while keeping track of names, regions and ethnicities is difficult, it is a fascinating read (or listen in my case). A key point to bear in mind is that prior to WWI, modern day Ukraine was divided between Austria- Hungary (west of the Dnieppe) and the Russian empire (to the east of the river, providing at least some historical context for Putin’s claim. Also, over millennia, this has been an area of great power competition and ethnic migration. Thus, to the extent that history matters, there are no obvious answers. I recommend the book highly.

    1. I’d be interested to see the results if Jerry did a poll to determine how many people abstain from participating in polls as a matter of principle.

  16. I voted that Ukraine will remain independent, although that is just optimism. I don’t see the Ukrainians surrendering unless they have completely exhausted their ability to resist. If they surrender or even negotiate terms, they will not transition from war to peace. They transition from the active combat stage to the being hunted down and purged as “fascists” stage.
    Most people who surrender to someone like the Russians do so because they are in denial about what is going to happen to them. The Ukrainians have experienced the harsh reality of it in living memory. Those who are not old enough to have lived it have at likely at least read Solzhenitsyn.

    There are a lot of things worse than death, and if you surrender to the Russians, some of them become likely possibilities.

  17. Currently, as of yesterday actually, there are almost 800 tanks from the Russian army destroyed and geo-located. Three men per, that’s 2,400 dead. That’s a high estimate of kia, but there is also a low estimate of destroyed tanks (the non-geo-located aren’t included in the list Don’t let the date on the article fool you, each vehicle has a date destroyed with the last one I saw, a T80, on June 3rd, infantry planting explosives inside to burn it.

    Anyway, there are estimates of upwards of 35-38,000 Russians kia. In just over 100 days. While Ukrainians are dying, they now have more armor than what they started with. More aircraft. More artillery. Russia is currently bringing replacements to the front built in the 1960’s. Make what you will, but Ukraine has bled them white, and they will have their vengeance. And IMO, they will have their independence. Because that’s what this is, their War of Independence.

    I apologize to the Professor for the wordy comment.

  18. Putin cannot be trusted – he was never going to invade, until he was; even then it’s only a “special military operation” and not a war, etc. etc. So a negotiated settlement in which any territory is ceded to Russia is a non-starter, because you can’t deal with a liar.

    If Ukraine can hold on and sanctions really bite, Russia’s elite will hopefully get fed up, remove Putin, and see sense. A long shot, I know. But I can’t see Ukraine giving up short of a total military defeat and that doesn’t seem to be on the cards. Meanwhile, NATO is more unified and Europe is making credible efforts to ensure it no longer depends on Russian oil and gas in the near future. It’s been a disaster for Russia and everyone knows it, not least the Russian ruling circle.

  19. Throughout this war the Ukrainians have kept pulling rabbits out of hats. We can only hope they can continue long enough for Putin to go, one way or another.

  20. Putin is an aggressive psychopath in total control of an industrialised country. Nothing more needs to be understood. A dire situation – expecting reason and honour from him is forlorn.

    1. I would replace “an industrial country” by ‘thermonuclear weapons with the potential of soon causing the elimination the human, and many other, species’.

      1. A lot of commenters here think Putin has a terminal illness. That’s potentially the scariest bit of this. As a psychopath of sorts (at least drunk on some serious power) he’s certainly dangerous, but as a psychopath dictator in a death spiral trying to mandate a legacy via war, that is something entirely new. Ukraine: “For those about to rock, we salute you!”

  21. Does “..out of Ukraine” in the 1st option include out of Crimea?

    I am adamantly opposed to Putin’s actions now of course, and his use of military force earlier re Crimea. But I do not necessarily think it is obvious that Crimea must not be part of Russia, based on my limited knowledge of its history.

    If Trump had handed over a small part of California to Mexico, it is not obvious that a short time later, say 60 years, it would make US the ‘bad guy’ if they retook that part of California, even under the presidency of some. asshole just as bad as Putin. Such a presidential outcome is far from being out of the question (even if the handing over clearly is silly).

  22. I still think Russia has the upper hand. As the NYT reports today, Russia is firing more missiles at Kyiv, and Putin has threatened to stat firing at new targets if the West supplies Ukraine with longer-range missiles. The Donbas region is well on its way to complete control by Russia, and reports of Ukrainian advances are rare. This makes the “existential choice” more likely. Is there anyone who still thinks that Ukraine will expel Russia entirely?

    Russia has been well on the way to complete control of the Donbas region since February. How long do they have to be well on the way to complete control before we realise it isn’t going to happen?

    There are only two ways this war ends: either Russia withdraws or Ukraine experiences complete collapse and surrenders unconditionally and that would mean the end of Ukraine. Pressure from Germany and France is laughable when you consider that anything other than victory for Ukraine is the end of Ukraine. Given the current situation and the sanctions, my money is on Ukraine winning this.

    Oh, and when I say “pressure from Germany and France” I mean from their political leadership. I haven’t seen the polls, but I think the populations of those countries are probably overwhelmingly supporting Ukraine.

    1. addendum: I voted for “completely pushed out” although I take Russia giving up and leaving as qualifying and I’m excluding Crimea from that because I think it’s gone.

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