January 18, 2023

How and Why to Win in Ukraine

Ukraine has the momentum, the moxie, and the moral high ground. Our help tips the scales.

The U.S. has allocated nearly $70 billion in aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion last February. That’s a significant chunk of change by any measure. But it’s a relatively small price to pay to defend freedom and defeat a malevolent dictatorship without putting any of our own service members at risk. Without some relatively minor adjustments, though, the aid will not have maximum impact and the conflict will drag on indefinitely, increasing the financial and human costs to all parties.

While the case for continuing to support Ukraine can be made on economic grounds, the more compelling argument is simply that it’s the right thing to do. There has not been a clearer case of good vs. evil over the 30+ years since I was first commissioned into the Marine Corps, and arguably extending back to World War II. From targeting maternity hospitals to blowing up prisoner of war camps to widespread rape, kidnapping of Ukrainian children, and summary executions of civilians, Russia’s conduct since February has been marked as much by criminal activity as military. Regardless of who holds what terrain when hostilities end, Russian soldiers and government officials must be held accountable and prosecuted for their war crimes and crimes against humanity.

From Stinger anti-aircraft and Javelin anti-tank missiles stymieing Russian advances during the initial invasion to HIMARs rockets wreaking havoc on supply and ammunition depots that enabled Ukrainian offensive operations last fall, there is no question that the lethal aid provided by the U.S. is making a difference and being put to very good use. While there’s still a long way to go before anyone can declare victory, with our help the Ukrainians have already dealt Russia a blow that will take decades to recover from — over 100,000 Russian casualties (dead and wounded) and nearly 10,000 pieces of military equipment destroyed. And again, this has been achieved without the loss of, or even serious risk to, a single American serviceman’s life.

Russia’s losses are unsustainable. The quality and quantity of equipment and personnel will decline at accelerating rates the longer the war continues. While they have a substantial population base to draw conscripts from, the Russian training model relies on experienced soldiers to provide most of the tactical and technical training for recruits after those recruits arrive at their assigned unit (in contrast to the Western model, where most individual training is completed at formal schools prior to arriving at an operational unit). Between the casualties that they’ve sustained and the number of troops committed to the front lines, there aren’t enough experienced soldiers available to turn the conscripts into competent fighters in the numbers required. While Russian leaders don’t seem to have any reservations about throwing their untrained young men into the meat grinder, those soldiers have families and friends who do.

Sanctions will make it difficult for the Russian military to acquire the materials required to replace damaged and destroyed equipment. They will also cause the overall economy to shrink, increasing the share it takes to generate more “guns” and reducing the amount available for “butter.” These parallel pressures — communities losing their young men at alarming rates and economic hardship — will make even the most devoted “patriotic Russians” question whether the “special military operation” is worth it and whether Vladimir Putin and his henchmen should remain in power.

While the aid the U.S. and allies are providing is effective — and greatly appreciated by the Ukrainians — there is a piece missing: training. Because the Ukrainian military is still relatively immature — still in the early stages of a decades-long transition away from a Soviet-era mindset and procedures — there is virtually no institutional training capacity. An unfounded fear of provoking Russia means all the training funded by the West takes place outside Ukraine. This arrangement requires Ukrainian soldiers to spend an excessive amount of time away from their units at a point in the war when every single body on the lines counts. It’s also asking a lot of the Ukrainian soldiers to move to the relative safety of Germany or the UK and leave their families between them and their enemy.

The same governments contributing billions in equipment continue to resist sending the real difference makers: people who understand how to operate, employ, and maintain the lethal aid and who can advise the Ukrainians on how to do the same. The U.S. in particular has refused to request proposals for or award contracts for training and related services in Ukraine. These contracts are generally paid for out of the State Department budget (they’re considered an element of diplomacy) and thus officially connect the people the companies hire — contractors — to the U.S. government. The Biden administration is concerned that contractors in Ukraine would be seen as an escalation and would risk some sort of parry from the Russians.

First, our operating philosophy should be that we are going to base our actions on what’s best for Ukraine (and us), not out of fear of how we think Putin and his cronies might interpret the decision. Recent events suggest he may not be the strategic mastermind he was once presumed to be, but let’s give him a little credit: sending a handful of civilians to help train on and track equipment is nowhere near as provocative as sending the weapons in the first place. Second, we don’t have to send a spokesperson out or put out a release to announce everything we do to keep the Russians in check.

We should quietly deploy small teams of contractors to key nodes throughout the country to train Ukrainian trainers, maintainers, and specialists. To be clear, these civilian contractors are NOT combat advisers who will accompany units into battle; they are experienced subject matter experts who are positioned so that there’s an appropriate approach to risk: close enough to the lines so that the soldiers being trained aren’t wasting time commuting and far enough away that the trainers and students can focus on training, not on looking over their shoulder for Boris. Ukraine is not Afghanistan or Iraq, where everything “outside the wire” is bad guy country; the lines in Ukraine are clearly demarcated and relatively static, making movement in Ukrainian-held territory low risk. I feel safer walking the streets of Kyiv — at night in near-total darkness (thanks to Putin’s attacks on the energy infrastructure) — than I did in broad daylight on recent trips to New York City and Washington, DC.

Ukraine has the momentum, the moxie, and the moral high ground. It will be a difficult, bloody struggle, but the Ukrainians have vowed to keep fighting until the Russians are pushed completely out of Ukraine, back to the pre-2014 borders. With the continued backing of the U.S. and our NATO allies, the relative balance of power will continue to shift in Ukraine’s favor and accelerate Russia’s relegation from superpower to also-ran. Hedging and half measures will only prolong the conflict and increase the costs to all parties. Training, advising, and continuing to equip the Ukrainian military is economically and morally the right thing to do.

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