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Ukraine can still beat Russia. It just comes down to enough Western aid.

Michael Peck   

Ukraine can still beat Russia. It just comes down to enough Western aid.
  • Ukraine can go back on the offensive, but it will require more troops and equipment.
  • A RAND expert believes Ukraine can build a strike force capable of a decisive offensive.

With 14 to 21 well-equipped brigades, Ukraine could eject Russian forces from all Ukrainian territory, according to an American expert.

The question is whether Ukraine can find the manpower, and whether Ukraine's allies are willing to spend the money to arm them properly. Yet what is remarkable is that despite Ukraine being outnumbered and outgunned by Russia, Kyiv still has a genuine chance of winning the war.

"What has really kind of disturbed me is that we're two and a half years into this war, and no one's put forth a potential theory of victory yet," Michael Bohnert, a defense analyst at the RAND Corp. think tank, told Business Insider.

Using data from a variety of sources, Bohnert has calculated the financial costs of Ukrainian victory, or at least for munitions. Ukraine's Western allies like the US and members of the EU would have to spend $54 billion to $72 billion per year to manufacture enough missiles and artillery shells to enable Ukraine to go on the offensive again.

For this potential formula for Ukrainian victory, there are two prerequisites. One is Ukraine amassing a sufficiently powerful ground combat force that can defeat the estimated 500,000 Russian troops in Ukraine. Past history isn't promising. An ill-prepared Ukrainian counteroffensive in summer 2023 sputtered amid Russian minefields and inexperienced Ukrainian troops struggling to master newly arrived Western combat vehicles.

However, Bohnert points to a 2015 RAND study of the US Army that suggests Ukraine could recapture its territory. As part of that study, researchers analyzed how big a force NATO would need to dislodge a Russian force that had invaded the Baltic States, and was entrenched on Balkan territory.

"We estimate that an additional 14 brigades and their accompanying enablers will be needed, with perhaps six brigades and 86,000 total soldiers coming from the United States, and eight brigades and a similar number of troops from U.S. NATO allies, along with supporting air and sea forces," the 2015 study concluded.

With Russian forces solidly dug in behind minefields and fortifications across eastern and southern Ukraine, that Baltic scenario bears similarities to the situation that Ukraine faces today. Or at least "close enough for ROM [rough order of magnitude] estimation," Bohnert said.

However, amassing 21 brigades of roughly 4,000 soldiers each — and training and equipping them to NATO standards — won't be easy. For now, Ukraine is struggling to contain Russian offensives that have achieved small but symbolic gains in the north and south of the country.

"To put this in perspective, 21 brigades is something like 50 to 60 percent of the active-duty US Army," Bohnert said. "Or, basically you would have to take the equivalent of the UK, German or French armies, train them and give them 100 percent of all the kit they need."

Despite fears that Ukraine is running out of manpower — which has spurred a new law to allow prison inmates to be conscripted — Bohnert believes Ukraine can find the personnel for a strike force capable of launching a decisive offensive. "If they were to rotate forces over about a two-year time frame, combined with the new conscription they're pushing, they probably could get enough brigades converted," Bohnert said.

Right now, Ukraine's biggest problem isn't lack of manpower, but lack of equipment. "Most of their battalions are still not fully equipped," said Bohnert. "NATO needs to give what they've promised and be willing to make sure that all their existing forces get supplied to at least some minimal level."

This brings up the other vital question: How many munitions does Ukraine need? While tanks and drones have been useful in the war, the most devastating weapons have been artillery and long-range guided rockets. However, these weapons devour a huge amount of howitzer shells or scarce missiles.

Russia is sending in 25,000 to 30,000 new troops per month, according to Bohnert. Which means that Ukraine must inflict more than 30,000 casualties per month — or about 1,000 casualties per day — to erode Russian strength. In 2024, Ukraine has been inflicting 800 to 1,000 casualties per day, despite being "munition-starved," Bohnert said. Given sufficient quantities of munitions, Ukraine could inflict enough losses to decisively attrit Russian forces that have already sustained an estimated 500,000 casualties.

But demand for munitions also depends on what kind of war Ukraine chooses to wage. Bohnert estimated munitions costs for two scenarios: one where Ukraine remains on the defensive, and the other where it goes on the offensive.

He started with a 2023 Estonian Ministry of Defense plan that laid out a roadmap for Ukraine to defeat Russia. "This war can be won within the next three years or less, by adjusting and increasing the Euro-Atlantic community's military production output and assistance to Ukraine, and imposing the perspective of an intolerable level of attrition on Russia," the Estonians stated.

The Estonians estimated that Ukraine would need a constant stream of munitions. This includes 2.4 million artillery shells, 4,800 air defense missiles capable of protecting cities from Russian missiles, and 8,760 guided bombardment rockets per year. Even this doesn't cover all the items Ukraine would need, such as air defense weapons for the front-line troops, Bohnert noted.

Bohnert factored in data on combat operations and munitions usage from RAND studies dating back to the 1990s, which examined conflicts such as Desert Storm. Overall, Bohnert estimated that $20 billion to $35 billion per year would be needed if Ukraine merely stays on the defensive, and $54 billion to $72 billion per year if it goes on the offensive. And still these figures are incomplete. "This is not including training, sustainment or equipment, which easily could be 50% or double that price," said Bohnert. "It's a lot of money, but actually about the same that the US spent on Iraq and Afghanistan for 15 years straight."

Despite depletion of Western stockpiles and struggles — especially in Europe — to boost arms production, Bohnert believes that NATO can meet Ukraine's needs. The US, for example, aims to produce 14,000 GMLRS rockets in 2025, and it can produce up to 700 cruise missiles per year. America and NATO together manufacture about 4,600 anti-aircraft missiles per year. And what Ukraine's allies can't manufacture themselves, they might be able to acquire from other nations around the world.

"It's not that this is impossible to do," Bohnert said. "It is very feasible. It's just going to take money."

Ample Ukrainian ammunition stockpiles would partly alleviate Ukraine's manpower crunch. "You're basically substituting metal for people," Bohnert said. "But there will have to be a pretty big increase in Western donations."

Inevitably, there will be a divergence between what Ukraine needs and what it will get. For example, US arms production may be diverted to the Pacific to face China, other American allies such as Israel also need weapons, and the US and European public may balk at the price tag. It's also unrealistic to expect that Russia will passively await a Ukrainian buildup. The recent appointment of economist Andrei Belousov as minister of defense suggests that Putin intends to mobilize his nation's resources for a long war.

Nonetheless, it is revealing that despite being outnumbered and outgunned by Russia, there remains serious belief that Ukraine could win a military victory. The question is how to accomplish it.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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