Why Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky Won't Say Ukraine Is Winning the War

Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky won't say it, and Vladimir Putin can't. But Ukraine is winning the war.

Russian propaganda leaflets fluttered from the sky north of Kyiv last week. "They are trying to force you to defend the interests of others!" they declared, encouraging civilian to resist service in the military. The leaflets labeled the local regime "tycoons," "gangs" and "terrorists," claiming that the war-makers were serving only their own interests in fighting.

One problem with these leaflets: they were addressed to "Citizens of the Chechen Republic!", intended for a different audience, from a different era, for a different war. Taken out of deep storage and shipped to Belarus, they were shot across the border by Soviet-era artillery, echoing an earlier time, representing a sloppy and uncoordinated war effort, speaking to no one.

"Whether the Russians have confused them, or just do not bother, these leaflets fell on the heads of Ukrainians," Yevhen Yenin, first deputy in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said last Thursday, displaying the relics.

Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden
This composite image shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) pictured in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 3,2022 and U.S. President Joe Biden on November 1, 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom.

That's been the story of Russia's war against its smaller neighbor, now 120 days old. An old-fashioned invasion following a highly scripted choreography, tanks and armored vehicles grinding forward, with guns, lots of guns, pounding away. The Russian military machine, fearsome in numbers, backed by bombers of unimaginable power, with modern missiles and all of the accoutrements of cyber warfare, was predicted to win in 72 hours.

And then came the great reckoning. Russia had lots of guns and materiel but it proved to be a hulking monster on the ground: poorly led, badly trained. Seventy-two hours became a week, then another, then the week after, then right after the next victory, then next month, and now, in the words of NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, "years."

Yet despite the setbacks, somehow the widespread notion has remained that mighty Russia will inevitably prevail over a weaker Ukraine.

It won't. At some turning point, after those 72 hours, after the bogged-down convoy, after the valiant and heartbreaking defense of Mariupol, after the failure to establish air superiority, after running low on precision weapons, after the withdrawal from the north, after more and more friends entered the fight on Ukraine's side—Javelin, Stinger, Switchblade, M777—after deaths and injuries in the thousands, after desertions and refusals to fight, after failure upon failure on the battlefield, after one month, after two, after 100 days, the tide turned.

Yet scarcely anyone wants to say that Russia has lost. Ukrainian President Zelensky, desperate for external support and more guns, motivator of the people and rouser of the troops, has to keep the tension high and the prospects dire, lest all of the urgency and attention dissipate. President Biden and his fellow Western leaders speak of the defense of freedom and democracy, of the heightened threat to Europe and the free world, of the inevitability of China following Putin's path, all to feed the military beast, excite the public, keep "national security" at the top of everyone's agenda. And Putin obviously can't admit it, determined equally to stay in power and to avoid the humiliation and danger of defeat.

Putin doesn't motivate the troops—he sends them. For weeks, Ukraine has been releasing snippets of intercepted conversations between these lowly soldiers and their parents, wives and girlfriends back home. The soldiers complain that there is no information and no support. They are confused about the point of the war and its objectives. They are not allowed to take a break from fighting. They are poorly equipped and supplied. There is not enough medicine or doctors.

"Our command has left," one soldier told his wife, referring to platoon and company commanders who were deserting their units and the battlefield. "Well, they didn't leave-- they dropped their weapons." It's a myth, the soldier says, that "Russians do not let Russians down." They've been let down and they all know it.

Morale is so bad, British intelligence says, that there have been armed standoffs between political enforcers and individuals and even units on the battlefield that have refused to follow their orders. Russia is suffering "very heavy casualties, combat stress, continued poor logistics, and problems with pay," the U.K. reported. "Morale problems in the Russian force are likely so significant that they are limiting Russia's ability to achieve operational objectives."

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, head of the British Armed Forces was more blunt. "Russia will never take control of Ukraine," he said.

Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, head of the British Armed Forces "Russia will never take control of Ukraine," In this combination image, Local resident, Vladimir, 70, inspects destroyed Russian military vehicles on April 18, 2022 in Bucha, Ukraine. He, his disabled wife and adult son had stayed in Bucha during the Russian occupation, hiding in their basement. Inset image, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin attends the National Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul's Cathedral on June 03, 2022 in London, England.

"Ukraine has shown how courageous it really is. Russia has vulnerabilities because it's running out of people, it's running out of hi-tech missiles," Radakin said. "Any notion that this is a success for Russia is nonsense. Russia is failing. It might be getting some tactical successes over the last few weeks. And those might continue for the next few weeks. But Russia is losing."

"We will not give away the south to anyone," President Zelensky said on Sunday after another visit to the front. "We will return everything that's ours and the sea will be Ukrainian and safe."

"It is unrealistic to suggest that Ukraine sacrifice its people, territory, and sovereignty in exchange for nominal peace," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote in Foreign Affairs this week, admonishing those in the West who think Kyiv should sue for peace. "These declarations are premised on the idea that Ukrainians, no matter how well they fight, cannot defeat Moscow's forces. But that notion is wrong."

The Russian troops on the ground know this. "There is no other way to go home" except by shooting oneself, one frontline soldier said in another intercepted cellphone call. Commanders are telling the men in the trenches that there will be no reinforcements to relieve them and no rest, that they will be fighting until the Fall. "Even those whose contracts are about to expire will still be there until the end of hostilities," he says.

All Ukraine needs, Zelensky says, is more heavy weapons, particularly artillery guns and long-range rockets. During a national telethon last week, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said that Ukraine had received only 10 percent of the weapons pledged to far. "No matter what efforts Ukraine makes today, no matter how professional our army is, without the help of Western partners, we will not be able to win this war," she said. As for the fine print, she said that the Ukrainian military was expending about 6,000 artillery projectiles every day due to shortages of guns. In the arithmetic of war, that's only 250 shells per hour, hardly enough to defeat one battalion, let alone 100.

Russia claims that it has destroyed 2,043 Ukrainian artillery guns and mortars in its attacks. That number is ridiculous: it's the same number of total guns that Ukraine is estimated to have started the war with. But Ukrainian officials concede that their country has expended almost all of its stocks of Soviet-era artillery shells from its older guns. That's why it's clamoring for the new guns. The country has received an abundance of Western shells (the United States has pledged some 250,000 projectiles) but doesn't have the NATO standard 5-inch diameter guns to shoot them.

"We have munitions of the new type, but we still lack guns" to fire them, Mariana Bezugla, deputy chair of the Ukrainian parliament Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence, said this week.

Russia "strategically lost" war against Ukraine: Radakin
Vladimir Putin has already “strategically lost” the Russia-Ukraine war, British Defense Chief Sir Tony Radakin said in an interview on Friday. Above, Putin is seen in Moscow n June 12. Contributor/Getty Images

It is indeed a precarious balancing act. Russia is poised to take the city of Severodonetsk, positioning itself to capture the rest of Donbas. But that will still take weeks. "For two months, Russia has been advancing less than a mile a day on average, with numerous setbacks along the way," a Defense Intelligence Agency senior official tells Newsweek. The official says that though Russian ground forces are getting closer to encircling Severodonetsk and its sister city of Lysychansk, movement on the ground has slowed or even stalled in most places as artillery has taken up the lion's share of the war effort—for both sides.

That's because Russia is estimated to have about 1,000 guns and mortars on Ukrainian soil, about half in the Donbas area. As part of Ukraine's plea to the West last week to speed up its delivery of guns, Kyiv officials couldn't resist citing this supposed bad news. Russia has ten times as many guns as Ukraine, they said. "In some places," Deputy Defense Minister Malyar said, "Russian forces are using ten times more" projectiles than Ukrainian forces.

Most news media outlets simply reported that Russia has ten times more guns than Ukraine, ignoring that Russia has had numerical superiority from the beginning and that Russian guns have proven unreliable and inaccurate. Ignoring, too, the entire question of their location and their density. There are only so many guns one can operate effectively in a small area.

That same density issue also governs how many tanks and armored vehicles, and how many troops, can be stuffed into any small battlefield before various factors like creating too many targets for the enemy, or increasing the likelihood of friendly fire, kick in.

When the Ukraine war started, Russia was said to have 2.9 million men under arms to Ukraine's 1.1 million. This, and other simplistic numbers, created the impression of practical superiority. But all three million troops could not, and did not, invade Ukraine. Russia was never able to take advantage of its numerical superiority in men under arms.

Today, Moscow has only about 150,000 soldiers on Ukrainian territory, spread out over the 1,000-mile front. U.S. intelligence says units have been reduced by an average of one-third of their personnel. Combat readiness and capacity has declined proportionately.

Meanwhile the poor performance of the Russian air forces has continued (the planes essentially relegated to being flying artillery) while the low supply of modern missiles and precision weapons has reached a crisis stage. Russia has been firing old Soviet-era missiles, some over 50 years old.

ukraine russia putin war zelensky severodonetsk
The Russian propaganda leaflets dropped over Kyiv were addressed to "Citizens of the Chechen Republic"—relics of the Soviets' former military might. Ukrainian Ministry

The truth is that in the actual war, Russian troops on the ground are far outnumbered by Ukrainian forces, locally and overall. The Ukrainians are more motivated, better trained, better led and better equipped, especially since Western guns and equipment started to arrive in the field in May. From artillery to newfangled weapons that can shoot down drones overhead, Ukraine is once again showing its superior military prowess.

There are Ukrainian setbacks. British intelligence reported this week that there were some desertions in Ukrainian ranks, and indeed both sides are exhausted and battered. It's become a war of attrition more than anything else. Ukraine's supplies and supply lines are constantly under pressure. That's why Zelensky has to constantly exhort the fighters on, glorifying their efforts and their sacrifices, predicting success while also maintaining enough of a boil to suggest catastrophic failure if they let down their guard.

That's also why NATO chief Stoltenberg says, "We must not weaken in our support of Ukraine, even if the costs are high—not only in terms of military support but also because of rising energy and food prices."

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin can say nothing that is truthful to the Russian people. He has been able to mostly hide the gross failures of his invasion from the public. But it is harder to hide that Russia is scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for people to fight, or the fact that there have been enormous numbers of deaths and injuries. The bodies may be left behind on the battlefield or hidden from sight, but the soldiers and conscripts are someone's sons, husbands and lovers. Word gets out.

This week, in an interview with CNN, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov laid out Kyiv's three-stage strategy to defeat Russia. The first, he said, is to stabilize the front to prevent further losses to Russian artillery and hold on until sufficient Western arms arrive to turn the tide decisively in Ukraine's direction. The second stage would be to push Russian forces back to their positions before the invasion on February 24, temporarily controlling all of Ukraine. Then would come the third stage, where Ukraine would accede to talks with Moscow. "We are going to liberate all our territories, all of it all, including Crimea," Reznikov said. He dismissed expanding the war beyond the February 24 borders or fighting for control of Crimea, suggesting that negotiations instead would have to be conducted to find a long-term solution.

Even without a Plan B, that indeed will take years. But Ukraine will win.