Sad Realities but Plenty of Reason to Hope As Russia’s Escalatory Ukraine Invasion Enters Third Year

The U.S. was Ukraine’s strongest ally until Trump MAGA Republicans began blocking aid, resulting in Ukraine struggling in ways not seen for some time, but don’t bet against Ukraine just yet: my long-overdue Ukraine update

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By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, Threads @bfchugginalongLinkedInFacebook, Substack with exclusive informal content) February 23, 2024; *Update in evening: more downed Russian aircraft; because of YOU, Real Context News surpassed one million content views on January 1, 2023but I still need your help, please keep sharing my work and consider also donating! Real Context News produces commissioned content for clients upon request at its discretion. Also, Brian is running for U.S. Senate for Maryland and you can learn about his campaign here.

A Ukrainian serviceman arrives severely wounded to an evacuation point after being removed from Avdiivka following Russian force’s seizure of the long-fought over city, Feb. 20, 2024. NARCISO CONTRERAS/ANADOLU/GETTY

SILVER SPRING—Regardless of how well one side is performing or another, the loss of life and destruction in Ukraine during the past two years of Putin’s imperialist war against our ally Ukraine has been horrific for all: tens of thousands of Ukrainian children have been taken as hostages by Russia into Russia and Ukrainian civilians and members of both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries are dying.  Yet far more Russians military personnel have been killed by the Ukrainian military than the reverse (according to Ukraine’s numbers, which I have argued should be seen as quite reliable, over 408,000 Russian military killed since February 24, 2022 as of February 23, 2024).

Yet even now, despite two years of massive embarrassment for Putin, Russia, and the Russian military, Putin shows no sign of being deterred from using that ever-so-dysfunctional military force to dismember and bend Ukraine to its will.  If anything, the U.S. failure to keep sending aid has given him and Russia a sense of hope that they can outlast the U.S. and the West, especially if insurrectionist Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican allies can keep blocking additional aid to Ukraine or even prevail in the 2024 elections.

The Asinine Politics of Aid

The U.S. aid already given is very tiny part of the overall U.S. budget: total U.S. aid since just before Russia’s late February 2022 scalation so far has been roughly $74.3 billion and the U.S. budget for FY 2023 was $6.13 trillion, so Ukraine aid only represents just over 1.2% of the budget but keep in mind that is aid over the course of two years, so divided in half to represent a one year’s aid that is only about 0.6% of the 2023 budget.  This all costs less than many, many other programs do each year, has paid for itself and then some by far, absolutely serves vital U.S. interests, and is greatly degrading the power and influence of the current largest threat to international stability, order, and Western democracy itself, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  The current proposed additional aid invests by far most of the money back into the U.S., too.

In contrast, Russia overspent its target on defense for 2023—about an entire third of its budget—and is slated to spend about 40% of its budget on defense and security in 2024!

Abandoning Ukraine and allowing Russia to de facto control and annex parts of Ukraine’s territory, to keep Ukraine bogged down in war and terror, and to threaten the entire security of eastern Europe would undermine and jeopardize three-quarters of a century of U.S. policy in Europe, successfully built upon the ashes of World War II, nation by nation, new NATO member accession by new NATO member accession.  And NATO and other U.S.-led global alliances have, without question, presided over the most peaceful era in world history since the Pax Romana nearly two millennia ago.  Not just for reasons of national interest, though, but for deeper reasons I have articulated before, Ukraine absolutely deserves our aid.

Ukraine doesn’t have to be perfect—no country ever is and no war ever has been perfectly run, from Alexander’s war on Persia to the Allies’ war on Hitler’s Greater Nazi Reich—to merit further aid from the U.S.  Mistakes will be made—goodness knows Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive plans were far too ambitious and overextended Ukraine’s offensive potential against U.S. recommendations—but Ukraine’s track record in the two years since February 24, 2022, has been amazing by any historical standard and would be amazing against any larger, more powerful opponent, let alone Vladimir’s Putin’s Russia today.  And, as an ally, for one-year-and-a-half, America’s track record on aid to Ukraine through the Biden Administration has been amazing by any historical standard: in world history, only America’s own Lend-Lease from World War II stands as comparable.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Hark Hertling—the man with my top account to follow on Ukraine—called it perfectly: for roughly 18 months, we supported Ukraine and thwarted Russia’s objectives in invading Ukraine.  And then, for roughly the past half year, we let our aid run out and failed to authorize new aid, leaving Ukraine in a lurch as it ran out of ammunition and suffered more casualties and reverses as a result, the most significant visible result of this the Ukrainian withdrawal from the small city of Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast.

But to put it more accurately and specifically, Republicans in Congress under the not so-subtle influence of insurrectionist Donald Trump—blocking wartime aid for Ukraine for political reasons again, the last time rightfully leading to his first impeachment—and his fascist MAGA movement that have overtly aligned with fascist Putin’s Russia (I do not use that term “fascist” lightly) have been blocking aid for months.  And yes, the Trumpist-Putinist bromance is real, has been for years, and is very much ongoing.

Thankfully if very belatedly, though, aid was finally passed in the Senate with 22 Republican Senators—including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—joining nearly every Democrat to pass earlier this month a massive foreign aid package, including some $60 billion for Ukraine, but the MAGA pressure on Republicans in the House is still very real and prevalent as Christian extremist Speaker Mike Johnson has decided to follow Trump’s lead by continuing to refuse to bring the bill up for an up-and-down vote.

Why U.S. Aid Will Put Ukraine Back in the Driver’s Seat

Much of the conventional wisdom is that Ukraine has been in a stalemate for some time, but I argued months ago against this on the basis that Ukraine was continuing to inflict significant casualties on Russia’s Air Force and Navy as well as on the Russian Army even if not a lot of territory was changing hands.  I still feel that is the case and that Ukraine is winning a war of attrition and I still doubt Russia’s ability to take and hold any large new swathes of Ukrainian territory, but Ukraine is currently at its worst position since the Russians were at the gates of Kyiv (to be clear, this is far, far less bad than then, part of the reason why I still think dynamics have been favoring Ukraine and still can over time).  But it does seem that Ukraine is now exhausted to without resupply by the U.S. to the point that is might have to fall back on multiple fronts if something does not change—in the words of Gen. Hertling, an “inflection point.”

So, just to be clear, America has been failing Ukraine for months because of Trump MAGA Republicans in Congress, especially now the House under Mike Johnson.  And the result has been higher Ukrainian casualties, a stalling of Ukraine’s progress on land and even setbacks, such as the fall of Avdiivka, concurrent with a minor resurgence in Russian offensive capabilities (and it is just minor).  But if U.S. aid is still withheld in the coming months, all these trends could increase to the point of reducing Ukraine’s ability to keep inflicting large numbers of casualties and thus create a genuine stalemate, or even to have Ukraine be slightly losing overall.

But even in the current context, Ukraine is not losing!  In most cases, Ukraine is still holding Russia at bay and is still inflicting horrific casualties on Russia.  In just the past week over a five day period, Ukraine has inflicted more combat aircraft losses—seven—on Russia than the U.S. has experienced in decades (*Evening UPDATE: as if to prove my point, just today Russia has apparently lost an incredibly expensive and rare A-50U advanced surveillance aircraft, an Su-34 fighter-bomber, and possibly even an IL-22M command plane, making that 9-10 aircraft losses in little over a week!) and inflicted more combat naval losses in the first half of this month on Russia than the U.S. has experienced in decades (hell, Ukraine barely even has a navy, yet has destroyed a third of the major vessels Russia’s Black Sea Fleet: embarrassingly, Russia cannot defend its navy, something I have called since the early months of this war).  And that does not even touch on the terrible losses on land suffered by the Russians.  That all sure isn’t losing for Ukraine, that’s still winning in what has become a war of attrition, but it doesn’t feel like that, not for the world, and not for Ukrainians, and momentum could swing in Russia’s direction and may be beginning to do so in the absence of further U.S. aid.

Conversely, Ukrainians could be winning so much more with steady U.S. support.  Imagine how well Ukraine can do with a lot more U.S. aid when it has been running on fumes for these recent months and still has mostly held off Russia’s attacks while also still inflicting massive casualties on Russia, which also treats its own troops barbarically.  After all, in the end, Russian troops are in a foreign land where they are simply not wanted and where most of the locals are willing to die and take even more of them per Ukrainian to make that point (according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, seven Russians were killed per Ukrainian killed at Avdiivka, but that was said before apparent executions of captured Ukrainian soldiers after Ukraine’s withdrawal from there; still, Avdiivka was clearly a Pyrrhic Russian victory).  Given Russia’s widely visible deficiencies that I and many others have discussed at length, Russia will not be able to take over all of Ukraine and impose its will through installing a new puppet government.  And yes, while U.S. aid was coming in strong last year, Ukraine opted for an overambitious offensive strategy that spread its offensive capability too thinly and focused on some of Russia’s most heavily fortified positions contrary to U.S. advice—a planning oversight that resulted in just modest, incremental gains on the ground and led in part to the overall stellar Gen. Valery Zaluzhny being removed from overall military command earlier this month by Zelensky, all that does not mean that another, even larger round of U.S. aid will not yield far better results.  In fact, with new leadership running the military led by Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky and Ukraine’s versatility and adaptability, I would expect a new counteroffensive that would start being concocted while new U.S. aid was flowing in robustly would succeed where the last one did not and would likely focus where Russian defenses are weakest, in the south near Kherson, as I have been hoping would happen for some time.  A major thrust on the Kherson front would be able to bypass and threaten from the rear or outflank many of Russia’s most heavily fortified lines in Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, dramatically altering the dynamics from the way the fighting has unfolded for most of 2023.  And Zelensky is already indicating this may very well be the case, or at least that the south is now going to be the main objective in the next offensive; such an offensive could even threaten Russia’s occupation of Crimea

And while the lack of territorial gains from Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive did get a lot of attention, the fact that the entire time Ukraine was striking deep behind enemy lines and hollowing and thinning out Russian forces and defenses from Crimea to the Donbas did not get as much attention (even if strikes inside Russia did).  This destruction wreaked on Russian forces, bases, air defenses, equipment, and supply lines still has yet to bear full fruit but will when there is finally another successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and the heaviest frontline defenses of Russia are breached.  Then, the middle and rear Russian positions far from the current fronts will collapse more quickly than many imagine they will because of the cumulative effects described above.

The House Can Pass that Aid and Ukraine Can Still Win

Having suffered from mistakes and now being left in the lurch by MAGA Republicans in Congress, Ukrainian planners will do much better once they start receiving U.S. aid again.  And I am confident that at the least Democrats in the House will get enough House Republicans (I think even more after Putin’s killing, directly or indirectly, of the prime Russian dissident, Alexei Navalny; major new sanctions on Russia in response were just announced today by Biden) to enact a rare discharge petition procedure and force a vote on the floor of the House on the Ukraine aid bill, which should result in the bill passing soon after the House returns from the ill-timed vacation Speaker Johnson sent it on.

Over the course of months of waiting for U.S. aid, Ukraine has still inflicted punishing losses on Russia—including expensive fighter jets and naval vessels—while only losing small amounts of territory and one small city.  Ukraine is more than capable of winning this war, and with a steady resumption of U.S. aid, it will.  Putin’s main audience targets with his farcical interview with Tucker Carlson were voters in America gullible enough to take anything he says at face value: more than missiles from Iran or artillery rounds from North Korea, Putin needs MAGA Republicans to be able to block U.S. aid in Congress to “win” this war, and the reelection of insurrectionist Trump as president would not only weaken American democracy perhaps fatally, it could mean a U.S. exit from NATO, not just an end to support for Ukraine, making Europe even more vulnerable to Russian aggression. 

A win for Biden and enough Democrats in Congress to thwart MAGA Republicans who have an affinity for Putin and Russia, conversely, mean Russia will lose the Ukraine war and lose badly, Putin likely falling from power at some point as a consequence.  But very key now will be getting new U.S. aid to Ukraine so Ukraine can try again and find more success on the offensive.  All this is very possible, even quite likely, should that U.S. aid start flowing and there is every reason to be confident that a Ukraine brimming with $60 billion in a new aid, ammunition, weapons, and equipment can surprise us all again and eventually push Russian forces back into Russia, liberating every square inch of its territory.

Indeed, in many ways, the fates of Biden, Zelensky, Democrats, and Ukraine on one side are tied to each other in the way the fates Putin, insurrectionist Trump, MAGA Republicans, and Russia on another side are tied to each other, but I still believe that democracy will triumph over fascism and that Ukraine, Zelensky, and Biden will triumph together over Russia, Putin, and Trump.

Brian’s Ukraine analysis has been praised by: Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; the Ukraine Territorial Defense Forces; Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army (Ret.), former commanding general, U.S. Army Europe; Scott Shane, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The New York Times Baltimore Sun (and featured in HBO’s The Wire, playing himself); Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), one of the only Republicans to stand up to Trump and member of the January 6th Committee; and Orwell Prize-winning journalist Jenni Russell, among others.

See all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here

© 2024 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

Also see Brian’s eBook, A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia, or, Ukrainegate: A “New” Phase in the Trump-Russia Saga Made from Recycled Materials, available for Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook (preview here).

eBook cover

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