• The situation for Ukraine is becoming increasingly desperate. 
  • It's running out of vital military equipment amid a block of US aid. 
  • The picture is not totally catastrophic — but Ukraine's leaders are warning that Russia could win. 

Ukraine's chances of victory in its two-year battle to repel Russia's brutal invasion appear to be fading.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine's president, is warning with increasing urgency that his country could lose the war if it doesn't get $60 billion in US aid that Republicans in Congress are refusing to release.

"Can we hold our ground? No," Zelenskyy recently told PBS of Ukraine's prospects should it not get the funding.

Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, was just as blunt in a recent interview.

"Give us the damn Patriots," he told Politico in March, referring to the US-made air defense systems used to defend Russian missiles, which are pummelling Ukrainian cities and infrastructure.

On the front line in east and south Ukraine, reports say the situation is increasingly desperate, with Russia outfiring Ukraine at a rate of three to one. Parts of the front line are also dangerously close to collapse.

Senior Ukrainian military officials, talking to Politico, said that Russia could break through wherever it focuses its anticipated summer offensive.

Russia will likely be able to "penetrate the front line and to crash it in some parts," they told the outlet.

"I would say the conditions now are probably more favorable for a Russian breakthrough than at any time since the opening stages of the war," Bryden Spurling, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, told Business Insider.

The aid block is also making it increasingly difficult for Ukraine to defend its cities and critical infrastructure, such as power stations, from waves of Russian missile and drone attacks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Foto: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Last year, Ukraine was able to shoot down 90% of Russian attacks using Patriot air defense systems, but that number has now dropped to around 30% for some attacks. Meanwhile, Russia is intensifying its air strikes to exploit the growing gaps.

Ukraine is also experiencing serious problems recruiting enough troops. It doesn't regularly release its military casualty figures, but in the fall of last year, US officials estimated that there had been up to 190,000 soldiers killed or wounded.

Russia, with its much bigger population, has boosted the size of its military, making up for steep early losses, a US State Department official said in early April.

After suffering huge equipment losses in the early days of the war, Russia has shifted its economy to a war footing, producing a steady supply of ammunition, while allies, such as Iran and North Korea, provide drones and rockets.

Putin's strategy of waiting for Western resolve to weaken, for Ukraine's crucial aid supplies to dwindle, and then grinding out some form of victory, appears to have been vindicated.

Without the US aid package, "the risk of a Russian breakthrough rises substantially," said Spurling. "Even at best, it limits Ukraine's options, and ultimately leads to more Ukrainian lives and materiel lost," he added.

The role of the West

Ukraine is on a "starvation diet" for aid, George Barros, an expert at the Institute for the Study of War, told BI.

In an interview with BI's Sinéad Baker, one US volunteer fighting for Ukraine wholly attributed the loss of the town of Avdiivka to a lack of ammunition.

Western equipment, like tanks, were sent in "symbolic" amounts, Barros said.

This doesn't just weaken Ukraine's volume of fire — it can torpedo the whole approach to battle planning.

Scarcity of equipment leads officers to treat it like "the golden goose," because they don't know when more is coming, Barros said, adding: "It forces them to operate differently, be extremely conservative, not have the comfort to be able to take acceptable losses."

The US' months-long hesitation to send ATACMS ballistic missiles to Ukraine ahead of its counteroffensive last year was a case in point.

"It was really painful to watch" Ukraine start attacking the southern region of Zaporizhzhia without them, Barros said. ATACMS would have been able to take out an air base in Berdyansk being used by Russian helicopters.

Instead, Western-supplied German Leopard tanks attempting to advance in the counteroffensive were "shredded" by the helicopters, he said.

Ukrainian soldiers work on the tank gun of a Leopard 1 A5 main battle tank. Foto: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/picture alliance via Getty Images

"From a campaign design perspective, it's very frustrating because ideally, the Ukrainians should have had the capability to strike that Russian attack helicopter base on day zero," he said.

It was the first thing they took out when ATACMS finally arrived.

Those battlefield frustrations have worsened an already-difficult political situation back in the US.

Barros said there are "bad faith debaters and policymakers" who "point to a failed Ukrainian summer 2023 counteroffensive and then say, 'Look at all this money we've given Ukraine. Look at all the stuff we've given Ukraine.' But they don't bother to actually take in the facts of the matter."

Alternately hyping and catastrophizing around the impact of any given Western weapon system, and Ukraine's military prospects in general, is leading to "a very dysfunctional discussion," Justin Bronk, an air power expert at London's Royal United Services Institute, told BI.

It leads to "unrealistic expectations often being set and claimed by both Western partners and the Ukrainian side, in order to try and counterbalance extremely overly negative views," he said.

Speculative talks have emerged of a potential NATO-led, five-year $100 billion fund for Ukraine — conceived as part of moves designed to give the US less individual sway over the country's fate.

Such a fund and the promise of reliable aid in the long term would give commanders the ability to plan their battles far more effectively. But these proposals will only be finalized in July, diplomats told Politico — and there is no guarantee they will get off the ground.

Russian military weaknesses could hamper its advances

Ukraine is taking urgent action to shore up its defenses ahead of an anticipated massive Russian attack in the summer.

It's constructing thousands of miles of multi-layered defensive lines to protect its territory, mirroring Russia's construction of similarly formidable defensive lines last year.

But Mykola Bielieskov, an advisor to Ukraine's military leadership at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, told the iPaper that such defenses have to be defended by artillery fire to be effective — and that's what Ukraine's running short on.

"In-depth defense reinforced with obstacles only works if buttressed with proper firepower," he told the publication.

Ukraine continues to achieve striking successes despite being outgunned and outmanned by Russia, and its resolve remains steadfast.

Its long-range drone strikes are seriously impacting Russia's oil and gas sector, which it relies on to fund its campaign in Ukraine, while Ukraine's innovative, inexpensive sea drones have devastated Russia's Black Sea Fleet, helping keep a crucial maritime corridor open for Ukraine's grain exports.

A Ukrainian drone operator from the 24th separate mechanized brigade driving a drone on August 8, 2023. Foto: Anadolu/Getty Images

Analysts also say that weaknesses in Russia's military are limiting the Kremlin's ability to take advantage of the situation. Despite Ukraine's weaknesses, Russia has so far only been able to make incremental gains this year, such as seizing control of the city of Avdiivkva in February.

Russia has long suffered serious problems with inept officers, an excessively rigid command structure, and low morale among troops who are often thrown into high-casualty, head-on assaults on Ukrainian positions.

Spurling said the high loss of armored vehicles to Ukrainian drones and Russia's failure to establish dominance of the air could also hamper a planned offensive.

"These things will make it harder for Russia to exploit any breach in the Ukrainian lines," he said.

What would Ukraine's defeat look like?

But if no more US aid is forthcoming and Ukraine's European allies fail to boost supplies to make up for the shortfall, Ukraine will likely be staring at the prospect of defeat. What form that defeat would likely take, though, is unclear.

George Beebe, a former Director of the CIA's Russia analysis unit, told BI that Russia appears to have neither the resources nor the desire to seize all of Ukraine.

"Russia could not conquer all of Ukraine without mustering an invasion force many times the size of its present army, and occupying and governing that territory would be enormously bloody and expensive for Russia. The odds that it would attempt to do so are therefore miniscule," said Beebe.

He said that Russia would likely seek to seize more territory east of the Dnipro River that it sees as rightfully Russian and create a "no man's land" and heavy fortifications separating the parts of Ukraine it's seized from the rest of the country.

Despite the setbacks, Ukraine is continuing to resist Russia's attacks ferociously. Spurling said that the course of the war has so far defied predictions.

"For Ukraine to suffer total defeat, we'd need to see a major collapse in Ukrainian lines and morale," he said. "Given Ukraine's ongoing resilience and the challenges Russia's own military is facing, I think it's a low risk. But it's not zero."

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