The top-ranking American military official and the civilian head of the North Atlantic alliance believe the war in Ukraine will continue for years if Kyiv is to achieve its military goals. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has signed a decree outlawing talks with Russia and plans to restore Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders.
In an interview published Sunday by German outlet Funke Media Group, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance must prepare for a long war. “Most wars last longer than expected when they first begin. Therefore, we must prepare ourselves for a long war in Ukraine.” He continued, “We must recognize that if Zelensky and the Ukrainians stop fighting, their country will no longer exist. If President Putin and Russia stop fighting, we will have peace.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley spoke with CNN about his outlook on the war. “There’s well over 200,000 Russian troops in Russian-occupied Ukraine. This offensive, although significant, has operational and tactical objectives that are limited, in the sense that they do not — even if they are fully achieved — they don’t completely kick out all the Russians, which is the broader strategic objective that President Zelensky had,” the general said. “That’s going to take a long time to do that. That’s going to be very significant effort over a considerable amount of time.”
“I can tell you that it’ll take a considerable length of time to militarily eject all 200,000 or plus Russian troops out of Russian-occupied Ukraine. That’s a very high bar. It’s going to take a long time to do it,” he added.
The assessments come as Kyiv’s war machine has stalled. Last year, Ukraine’s military was able to recapture a significant portion of the Kharkov region. However, Kyiv’s summer offensive has failed to meet its objectives, and Ukraine has sustained substantial losses of troops and equipment.
The primary goal of the offensive was to capture Melitopo and sever the Russian territory in southern Ukraine. So far, Ukrainian forces have only advanced a few kilometers in that direction. Milley recently predicted Kyiv would only have about a month before weather conditions would cause the offensive to end.
Zelensky’s overall goal is far more ambitious: to retake Crimea, the Donbas, and southern Ukraine. Kyiv has said it will not compromise on the issue, and the Ukrainian president issued a decree preventing talks with Russia so long as Vladimir Putin remains president.
It is unclear how long Kyiv and its Western backers can continue to fight a war of attrition against Russia. American defense officials have warned that arms transfers to Ukraine have depleted US arms stockpiles.
One concern is a lack of artillery for Kyiv. In July, President Joe Biden decided to send cluster bombs to Ukraine because America had reached its minimum stock of 155mm shells. The transfer of cluster bombs likely violates US laws, and the bomblets spread by the munitions are notorious for killing civilians for decades after the war ends.
Currently, US arms manufacturers produce around 28,000 155mm shells each month – well below the number Ukrainian forces typically fire. While the Pentagon’s deputy chief for acquisition, Bill LaPlante, said US weapons firms hope to turn out over 1 million rounds per year by 2025, that would still fall far short of Russia’s current output: an estimated 2 million annually.
The US has pledged over $43 billion in military aid to Ukraine, including over 1.5 million 155mm rounds. Still, Ukrainian officials say Kyiv requires significantly more aid to achieve its war goals. On Sunday, the head of Ukraine’s Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, published an op-ed outlining how Kyiv would win the war.
“I am deeply convinced that there is only one effective solution to this problem: de-occupation of Ukrainian lands by military means. Russia and its ruling clique don’t understand any other language than the language of force and weapons. Therefore, the peace formula is the weapons formula.” He wrote, “The sooner Ukraine receives enough modern weapons, the sooner we will return to peace, which will be safer for Europe and the world. The practice of dosing military assistance to Ukraine due to fear of irritating Putin and provoking Russia to further escalation is fundamentally flawed. Refusing or delaying the transfer of modern weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces is a direct encouragement to the Kremlin to continue the war, not the other way around.”
Zelensky is expected to travel to Washington later this week to lobby Congress to approve a $24 billion aid package for Kyiv proposed by the White House. It’s likely the Ukrainian leader will also meet with Biden.
The war also has the potential to spiral into a conflict between nuclear powers. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the US is already at war with Russia. On Sunday at the Eastern Economic Forum, the Russian diplomat explained Moscow’s position. “No matter what it says, it [the US] controls this war, it supplies weapons, munition, intelligence information, data from satellites, it is pursuing a war against us,” Lavrov said.
The stalled Ukrainian counteroffensive has led Kyiv to step up strikes inside Russia. Over the weekend, Ukraine launched a series of drone attacks on Crimea and Moscow. The Kremlin slammed Kyiv for launching terrorist attacks. Moscow claims its air defenses thwarted the attack.
Kyiv’s strikes on Russia are likely to increase as Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave Ukraine a green light last week. When Washington’s top diplomat was asked if he approved of Ukraine using American weapons to hit targets deep inside Russian territory, he responded by stating “In terms of their targeting decisions, it’s their decision, not ours.”