Foreign Policy

What’s next in the Ukraine conflict? A conversation with Daniel L. Davis 

May 26, 2023

As the Ukraine-Russia conflict nears its 15th month and the Ukrainian people continue to suffer loss of life and destruction of their cities, discussion about diplomatic resolution is curiously absent from the conversation. Now that Ukraine has secured a limited number of modern NATO tanks and other military equipment from several countries in the West, strategic focus seems to have turned toward a potential spring offensive launched by Ukraine. Whether that offensive happens and what happens next is of paramount importance for the future of Ukraine and its people. 

To understand the current situation in the conflict and the implications of an offensive, we spoke with Daniel Davis, a Senior Fellow at Defense Priorities and a grantee of Stand Together Trust. Davis is a former Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army. He retired in 2015 after 21 years of service that included fighting in the largest tank battle of Desert Storm (The Battle of 73 Easting) and a tour of duty as the second-in-command of an armored cavalry squadron for 1st Armored Division. He is the author of “Eleventh Hour in 2020 America: How America’s foreign policy got jacked up—and how the next Administration can fix it” and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive

Stand Together Trust: Let’s give a general update of the Russia-Ukraine conflict for those who haven’t been able to keep up with the ongoing news coverage. What’s the general state of the conflict? 

Daniel Davis: I wouldn’t say it’s at a stalemate per se, but it has been in a lower state of activity since really October. Last fall there was a big Ukraine push that captured tens of thousands of square kilometers that drove Russia back about 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) to the east. Once Russia brought up enough reinforcements to halt Ukraine’s eastern drive, a new line of contact was formed near  Svatovo/Svatove and, since then, most of the fighting throughout the entire 1,000 kilometer line of contact has been incremental, changing just a handful of kilometers any direction. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine has been building an offensive capacity. The West has promised, and delivered, quite a lot of heavy artillery, armored personnel carriers, and some of the modern tanks. They’ve been training the Ukraine troops, some on Ukraine soil and some in the Western part of the alliance. Now Ukraine is reportedly on the verge of launching a spring offensive. 

Russia has not only continued to keep the pressure on Ukraine all along the line of contact, but it has also been reportedly building up a strong striking force  that’s been out of contact. We can only speculate how accurate some of these reports are — some come from Russia, some come from Western intelligence — but presumably, somewhere around 100,000 Russians have still not been engaged in combat but are in position to do so. 

Now, everyone is waiting to see what’s going to happen. Is Ukraine’s likely offensive going to break through Russia’s hardened defensive lines? If so, what happens after that? 

Many reports in the media suggest that Ukraine is planning for a spring or summer offensive. What would that offensive look like? And where are these reports coming from? 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said his objective is to drive Russia completely out of all Ukrainian territory. The question then is does Ukraine have the capacity to do that? Are the armed forces of Ukraine prepared and capable of making good on that objective? 

I argue strongly that there’s virtually no chance that they can eject Russia entirely from Ukraine with the size of the force, the level of training, and the hodge-podge mix of equipment operated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which are difficult to coordinate and maintain. They can probably capture some territory, but it will likely come at a high cost. For a number of practical reasons, it is unlikely Ukraine could match or exceed the success it enjoyed last fall near Kharkiv. Let me give you a personal example of why I say that. 

In 1991, I fought with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in the battle of 73 Easting, the largest American tank battle since World War II. We spent more than a half year conducting intense training and preparation before engaging enemy forces. We trained as a tank crew, a tank platoon, a tank company, then a squadron, and then eventually an entire regiment trained together. All of that led to a tremendously positive result because we were well trained at every level. Not only were we trained as a unit, but also at every level you had sergeants who had three to five years of experience. You had company commanders who had three to five years of experience and multiple formal training schools before they were elevated to command. You had battalion commanders with 13 to 15 years of experience. 

Ukraine has exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations during this war and fought valiantly, but building this force during wartime, it hasn’t had a chance to train at anywhere near that level, much less replicate the experience of U.S. Army commanders. In fact, Ukraine’s army hardly existed before 2014. In the last 14 months, according to even Western analysts, Ukraine has lost the majority of all the trained troops it had. So now they’re fighting with even fewer trained troops than last fall and are tasked with one of the hardest things in modern warfare: Execute combined arms operation attacking a mechanized enemy that has had months to build elaborate defensive positions. 

What are the stakes involved in this upcoming Ukrainian offensive for Ukraine? 

The stakes for Ukraine couldn’t be much higher. It has taken about a year for them to build the capacity to launch an offensive operation. They have spent months with NATO training. NATO countries have spent months getting all the gear to the Ukraine side. Whether the offensive succeeds or not, Ukraine likely won’t have any more striking power. 

It will take another nine months, at the minimum, to form a new offensive force of sufficient size to launch another major offensive. And that assumes they would be able to assemble all the raw materials necessary to build such a large force. So, this is likely their one shot here. Many in the West are talking about that, but people aren’t talking about the “what next?” and the ramifications. If Ukraine’s offensive were to achieve the improbable and reclaim the entire Donbas, even that won’t necessarily end the war. And they will have spent their last striking power. The best they can then do is hold onto whatever they have gained and hope in the next 9 to 12 months they can build a new force to launch another offensive. 

Russia has shifted increasingly to a full wartime footing and worked to build up its military industrial capacity over the past six to nine months. They’re working six days a week, triple shifts, to produce artillery rounds, refurbishing armored vehicles, building some new ones — and expanding their drone capaybility. In other words, Russia is increasing its ability to wage war. Their ability to fight will likely expand and be sustained over an extended period. 

The United States has given Ukraine large numbers of weapons and platforms, and there are dwindling supplies of available inventory to deliver to Kyiv. We don’t have enough existing spare capacity in the collective West to give another 300 tanks, another 400 artillery pieces, hundreds more armored personnel carriers. The Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) would need a 1,000-plus mechanized pieces to credibly form another offensive once this spring offensive plays out. 

So, in the immediate term, regardless of what happens in the offensive, it seems unlikely Ukraine will be able to muster a second offensive within the next nine months at least, while Russia may have that capacity. And even if Ukraine’s offensive goes well, there’s a risk their defensive lines will be vulnerable to a Russian counter. 

Given this offensive is unlikely to achieve Ukraine’s military objectives, it is not clear how it could conceivably achieve desired political objectives, like forcing Russia to negotiate and agree to terms favorable to Kyiv. 

What role is the United States playing in the forthcoming Ukraine offensive? Is that an advisable role given our national interests and involvement up to this point? 

That’s the key point right there. What is the American national interest and objective? What is U.S. policy designed to accomplish in Ukraine? 

One strategic goal, as has been stated by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, is to weaken Russia. That’s already been successful, for sure. Russia was weaker than almost anyone assessed, and thanks to Ukrainian fighters and U.S. support — training, weapons, intelligence, and more — it has been weakened further since launching this illegal preventive war in February 2022. What hasn’t been articulated by the Biden administration is how much further Russia must be weakened, nor have they addressed the risks of “catastrophic success” — Russia’s military and perhaps political collapse, which would run unjustified risks of nuclear war. There should be more definition around the actual goal and a more robust debate about the wisdom of this strategy along with the level of resources required to succeed. The American people should know what “successful” means and when we should stop. 

To have sent thousands of various types of American armored vehicles and other military machines to Ukraine, the tens of thousands of various missiles, the millions of artillery shells, and the tens of millions of small arms ammunition we’ve sent to Ukraine — those things are zero sum. They have to come out of somewhere and we’ve gotten through the fat. Now we’re mainly into the muscle. We’re trying to draft contracts to build new vehicles, weapons, howitzers but that will take years to get in the required numbers. It is unclear if the United States would be able to continue providing Ukraine with the thousands of armored vehicles per year and millions of rounds of ammunition and not degrade our own military’s ability to defend our interests in a crisis that’s core to our national security. 

Are there other avenues the United States could explore that might be productive next steps toward a resolution of the conflict? 

U.S. military aid has helped Ukraine blunt Russia’s invasion, but it is unlikely to help them eject Russia entirely. That means U.S. policy is trending toward a long war of attrition, or a stalemate, or some negotiated settlement to end the fighting. The most prudent policy would seek to leverage Ukraine’s battlefield victories to press Russia for the best possible settlement. 

Ukraine has demonstrated it can pursue a policy of armed neutrality and maintain its autonomy, their best option given that the United States and NATO wisely would not fight a war with Russia over Ukraine — a reality demonstrated every day we wisely stay out of the war. U.S. policy goals should reflect this reality, and President Biden should communicate this clearly, directly to President Zelensky. That way, Kyiv can make an informed decision about when it’s best for them to negotiate with Moscow and work toward bringing this war to a conclusion, stopping the killing of the Ukrainian people and the destruction of Ukrainian cities. 

Generally speaking, the U.S. government does not seem very focused on doing what is useful and effective for our country. Our national security has not been improved by anything that’s happening in this conflict to date because, as has now been made painfully clear, Russia was not a genuine conventional military threat to NATO. And Russia’s performance is further proof that our wealthy European allies can balance Russia and deter its aggression, especially since the United States has higher priorities at home and in Asia. 

We don’t have to worry, for the foreseeable future, about an attack on the ground from Russia. What we do have to worry about is a mistake or miscalculation from almost any party in this war that could spiral out of control and end up in a nuclear exchange. We keep playing a dangerous game to think we can always manage everything and keep it under control. Every day that passes is one more day that something unexpected could happen that spirals this war into a dangerous direction, where we do not want things to go and may be powerless to stop. That’s the biggest danger and why I’m so adamant that we should do everything possible to avoid U.S. involvement in an endless war in Ukraine.