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Ukraine can still win against Russia, but a few very important things need to happen this year, war experts say

Ukraine troops military headquarters Bakhmut
Ukrainian troops in a headquarters and field hospital in the basement of a building in Bakhmut.Viktor Fridshon/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images
  • Military experts say Ukraine can beat Russia by prioritizing defense and seizing key opportunities.

  • A war watcher's hold, build, and strike plan would aim to weaken Russia's forces and rebuild Ukraine's.

  • Another expert has, however, questioned whether there's a path to victory.

War watchers say that Ukraine can still win against Russia's invasion if it prioritizes defense, rebuilding combat capability, and hitting Russia where it's most vulnerable as the country enters its third year of war.

"If there's going to be a vision for this coming year that I think can be resourced and has a theory of success behind it, it's an approach framed as hold, build, and strike," Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Tuesday during a Defense Priorities panel discussion.

In the "hold" phase, Ukraine would dig in and defend the front lines enough to exhaust Russian forces. If Ukraine consistently holds its own against Russia, Kofman said, this would keep Russia in a weak position by letting attrition take its toll.

While holding the line, Ukraine could "build" back its military through reconstitution, training, and the expansion of the country's defense industry, as well as support from Ukraine's Western partners. The "strike" element involves hitting Russian weak spots to degrade its capability and create opportunities for Ukrainian offensive operations later.

In a War on the Rocks article on this strategic approach written with two other experts, Kofman wrote that "attaining the necessary advantage to achieve this is feasible by 2025" but that "much depends on sustained Western support and choices made now."

Ukraine has carried out numerous successful attacks on the Russian fleet in the Black Sea using drones, specifically explosive-laden unmanned surface vessels. One-third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet has been lost, and Ukraine can build on those successes.

"Maybe in the best-case scenario, Ukraine can retake initiative next year," Kofman said on Tuesday, "and in the worst-case scenario, Ukraine can still effectively hold, and Russia will not be on track to realize its war aims by 2025 or 2026."

Russian Black Sea fleet
Russia's Black Sea Fleet warships in the Navy Day celebrations in the port city of Novorossiysk on July 30.STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Given that Ukraine lacks the capacity for offensive operations, Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center, said that Ukraine should look to a strong defense to prevent Russia from attaining more land.

"We cannot enable Ukraine to take back all its territory, but we can enable Ukraine to deny Putin further gains," she said during Tuesday's discussion.

"We advocate for increasing static fortifications, digging in Ukrainian lines, using antipersonnel mines, anti-tank mines — all of these things that the Russians have done over the last year that has made them quite effective on the defense," she said, referring to the Russian playbook that hindered Ukraine's counteroffensive last summer.

Ashford added that focusing on defense could work with the political interests of Western partners, as Europe may be able to sustain Ukraine while critical US support for the country remains at a standstill for the foreseeable future.

"This approach is cheaper. It's more effective. It helps with manpower problems because defense is easier on manpower than offense," she said, adding: "Even in the absence of US funding, this is an area where European states can actually contribute a fair amount."

While US support is important for certain key munitions and supplies, she said, prioritizing defense doesn't necessarily require the billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine the US is debating in Congress.

As for what a victory for Ukraine might look like, Ashford pointed to the continued existence of the state and the survival of its people. Ukraine already won the war in a sense, she said, because of the country's success in withstanding Russian forces.

Kofman suggested it's not necessarily about retaking captured territory but creating enough leverage to be able to negotiate a lasting peace with Russia from a position of strength.

"The goal still today is not to enable Ukraine to take back all of its territory — I understand this Ukraine official policy, but I don't think that was a theory of victory," Kofman said. "It was to put Ukraine in a position where it can attain decisive leverage to negotiate with Russia war termination, from a favorable position and then to attain a durable peace."

Two Ukrainian soldiers and a homemade mini-Multiple Launch Rocket System
Ukrainian troops firing at Russian positions on the front line of Bakhmut on October 29.LIBKOS

Despite these arguments, not every war watcher sees a path to victory for the Ukrainians, at least not through actions on the battlefield. Defense Priorities' Daniel Davis said Tuesday that the country could not win the war militarily.

Davis said that Ukraine needed to attempt to negotiate as soon as it could with Russia to end the war. Through negotiations, Ukraine could buy time to build back its national security and industrial capacity.

"This war cannot be won militarily by Ukraine, period, at any point," the defense expert said, adding: "No matter whether they get $60 billion from the US, if they got sustained funding for a long time, it will not matter because the fundamentals that go into building combat power and national military power are decisively in Russia's favor."

Ukrainian forces have been grappling with shortages of ammunition and other critical supplies, which has strained their defense.

The Russians have been demonstrating greater capacity, and as Russian forces captured Avdiivka, their air force was able to provide close air support for the advancing ground troops, in an apparent first pointing to a certain degree of air superiority. Military experts have said that if this expands, it could be devastating for Ukraine.

For now, though, Ukraine is still in the fight, and Russia is still taking losses. The future of the war is uncertain.

Read the original article on Business Insider