A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 23, 2023

Why This Might Have Been the Week When Ukraine Really Won the War

Training Ukrainians pilots on the F-16 with the expectation of planes to follow provided an obvious benefit, but, more importantly, it signaled that the US no longer fears Russian escalation and - probably - that China has indicated quietly it wants this war over so will not do anything significant to aid Russia.

The US and NATO have also now provided Ukraine with powerful new weapons that can strike anywhere in their country as well as in much of Russia. This suggests a strategic allied determination to bring this war to a close by further backing the side perceived most likely to win anyway. JL

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

Why can this be the week that Ukraine won the war? (In) the US and internationally, Ukraine (will be) allowed to win the war on its terms. This is (reflected) in the F-16 decision, but also the international recognition being given President Zelensky. Fears of Russian escalation no longer impact US policy. Ukraine is being given a public green-light to do what it needs in Crimea. Ukraine will continue to grow its technological advantage over Russia. When operated by Russians, Russian equipment has performed below expectations, while NATO equipment has over-performed. Ukraine is going to get what it needs to fight the war that it wants—and Ukraine is going to be treated as an ally.

Once again, the line barely moved this week, but it might have been the most momentous week of the war since February 24, 2022. After months of delays, obfuscations and, quite possibly, deliberate distortions, the US administration okayed plans for Ukrainians to be trained on F-16s and, it seems, for such aircraft to be transferred to Ukraine in the near future. For the Ukrainians this has been a moment of great celebration, as their General Staff made clear today.


Was this the Week that Ukraine Won the War?

Now, why can this be said that this is the week that Ukraine won the war? Arguably because before this week, what we knew was that Russia had lost it, but we had no idea what shape Ukrainian victory would take.

That Russia could not win the war was clear from very early on. On February 28, 2022 I tweeted out, in a basic argument that I still stand by, that Russia had already lost the war as it lacked the economic strength to prosecute it to a successful conclusion.

Russia was and is too weak to have ever conquered even half of Ukraine, let alone achieve the kind of maximalist goals that Putin possessed, and we see now that the Russian economy cannot even produce the kinds of weaponry needed to hold on to 18% of the country. It was why I thought if Putin had any idea of the situation he was in, he would have tried to back out back at the start.

But of course he did not. He has continued to fight this disastrous war, which Russia has no chance of winning. That being said, what we have not known for the last 15 months is what Ukrainian victory would look like. Its been safe to assume that the large majority of Ukraine would emerge from the war free and independent, but there were major questions left about its international positioning (in the EU or NATO, or forced into some non-aligned status) and whether it would be forced to sign over some of its territory to the Russians as part of a final settlement.

Indeed up until this week, it was arguable that a number of people in high political positions in major NATO powers would have been content to end the war with a deal that transferred a large amount of Ukraine to Russia (most obviously Crimea) and stymied any move of Ukraine for NATO membership. However, this week it might be said that, both for the US and perhaps internationally, people are coming to understand that Ukraine should be allowed to (and helped to) win the war on its own terms. This is most famously with the F-16 decision, but could also be seen in the international recognition that is being given to President Zelensky.


Its impossible to exaggerate the intensity with which Ukrainians from all walks of life, from the top of the state and military to civil society, were focussed on getting F-16s for the Ukrainian Air Force. The reasons are too many to list here, but I’ve written a number of times in different substacks, (including last week’s weekend update and the one below) about their reasons.

F-16s for Ukraine: The Players and Their Positions
I’d like to start with an apology. Earlier in the week I had started writing the third piece on the understanding of power (ideas are evolving—more on that later) but then I had to throw all my energies into completing this piece on F-16s and Ukraine. The piece was released just a few hours ago, co-written by myself and RAF Air Marshal Edward Stinger (retd), and goes into some detail about why we believe Ukraine can indeed operate F-16s usefully and why they should be given them. We were also very pleased to get some strong quotes from USAF General Phil Breedlove (retd) who served as SACEUR and worked very closely with the Ukrainians. Phil is entirely convinced of their ability to make good use of the aircraft…
Read more

Though the Ukrainians were desperate for the platform, the were extremely worried that the Biden Administration would not provide them, because elements in the administration were too worried about antagonizing Russia too much. To be frank, the Ukrainians had reasons to fear this, not least because major figures such as Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl, were publicly going to extreme lengths to to knock down the idea—using arguments that are at best inane. In late Feb/early March Kahl said it would take 18 months to get F-16s ready for Ukraine, and so it made no sense to start training Ukrainians to fly them.


Serious air force people I know laughed at these statement, and my guess is that we will see F-16s up and running in Ukraine sometime in 2023—but the reality was that the Kahl and others making these arguments seemed determined to do what needed to be done to keep Ukraine from getting the aircraft.

Even as late as early last week, the mood music was negative about Ukraine and F-16s, and then boom, in a stunning day, the Biden Administration changed tune and yesterday publicly endorsed the training of Ukrainians to fly the F-16s and, it seems, the transfer of the aircraft as well (whether from US stocks or European allies remains unclear).

The swiftness of the change of direction in the administration is the hallmark of the President himself changing his mind, and if that has happened for such an important issue it has to be meaningful. A number of different issues seem to have combined to swing Biden over to backing F-16s for Ukraine. They are:

  1. Europeans were starting to press hard. If this war has revealed anything the old cliche that Europeans are soft and Americans are tough no longer holds. For months now its been Europeans who were more convinced that Ukraine should get F-16s, the sooner the better. The coalition supporting this move was large and growing, including not just Ukraine’s staunch friends in Central/Eastern Europe and the Baltics, but also the UK (very strongly—let me tell you that) and the Netherlands. Indeed the desire that these Europeans had to provide Ukraine with F-16s materially undercut the arguments by those who said that they would be too escalatory. If the countries closer to Ukraine and Russia are less worried about escalation, it helped pull the run from under the blocking group.

  2. The blocking group which almost certainly included Kahl, and its been said NSA Jake Sullivan and CJCS Mark Milley, had delayed the process enough to fit their world view. At this point, there is no way to get F-16s to Ukraine to help with the Spring/Summer fighting. I think this was a major mistake, but that was the view of the anti-group—and in this way they succeeded (perversely). On the other hand, while this group had gotten their way in the short term, their argument were looking ever more absurd and frankly deceptive. Stories were coming out (shout out to Michael Weiss and Jimmy RushtonL https://uk.news.yahoo.com/exclusive-us-could-train-ukrainian-pilots-to-fly-f-16s-in-4-months-184136820.html) that US Air Force documents were claiming it would take only 4 months to train experienced Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s. Basically the arguments by the blocking group were looking more and more farcical so they were forced to retreat.

  3. The international mood music (more below) made it seem more plausible. In writing the piece in the Atlantic that I just did with Air Marshal Stringer, he made the point that China might very well have told the US that they believed sending F-16s could result in a Chinese response to aid Russia. I can see the power in that. However over the last few weeks, Chinese support for Russia continues to be muted at best. Though evidence is lacking, I would not be surprised if the administration calculated that the Chinese would now not be soo aggressive. Certainly the Chinese seem to want this war over asap.

So adding it all together, it seems like the top of the Biden Administration changed its mind and this is the kind of decision that cant go back in the toothpaste tube (to mangle an expression). More and more, Ukraine is going to get what it needs to fight the war that it wants—and more and more Ukraine is going to be treated as an ally. That is why I think the F-16 decision is so important. It militarily gives Ukraine a tool that it desperately needs to fight the war to a victory that it wants, and it is an important sign that Ukraine is heading to NATO membership when the war is over. More and more, we see a Ukraine that can win the war on its own terms.

Zelensky’s Foreign Trips

Something that would also have been inconceivable on Feb 24, 2022 happened this week. President Zelensky played a prominent role in two high-level international gatherings. First, he was invited to address the Arab League.

Help Protect Our People': Zelensky Addresses Arab League Summit

This first invite was quite unexpected, as Russia has put a great deal of effort into cultivating Arab states. Zelensky not only showed up, however, he also made an open criticism of some of his hosts when he stated afterwards that certain states were turning a blind eye to Russian atrocities.


After the Arab League, Zelensky was far from done, he flew on to Tokyo for the G-7 meeting, where we was treated as a honored guest and partner. The G-7 is the economic and military backbone of Ukraine’s support (The USA, Japan, Germany, UK, France, Italy and Canada). That they went out of their way to invite him to this meeting. The official communique issued by the G-7 leaders put the issue of Ukraine first and promised to keep supporting Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes…’


What does Zelensky’s visits to these two very different international summits mean—that a wide range of the world’s leaderships, from very different backgrounds, have concluded that Ukraine is going to come out of this war as a strong, independent nation—one that is worth engaging with now. In other words, Ukraine is going to win this war. And when it comes to the G-7 (six of whose members are in NATO and one, Japan, who is talking about establishing a relationship with NATO), this is another sign that Ukraine will be taken into the western alliance when the war ends.

Military Advantage

The last reason this week might herald Ukrainian victory is because in getting F-16s, Ukraine will continue to grow its technological advantage over Russia. This war has shown that, at least when operated by Russians, Russian equipment has performed far below expectations, while NATO standard equipment has, if anything, usually over-performed. Giving Ukraine F-16s gives them a tool they will use to their advantage. Again, something bringing them closer to victory.

One last minute additions

While putting this together, one thing came to my attention that I think you might find interesting. It is interview with Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov.

Its from the same interviewer that did the great interview with Zaluzhny last week. Its perhaps not quite as good as that interview, but there is still a great deal of interest. I was most interested around 30 minutes in when he started speaking about why he thinks Ukraine will win the war (and why Russia is weak).

Today, I think we can say final doubts should be answered. Ukraine is getting F-16s, and not only that, the administration is significantly firming up its position on Ukraine having the right to take back all of its territory.

We must start with this extraordinary comment by the President himself. When asked by a reported at the G7 whether sending F-16s to Ukraine would be a colossal risk (which was what the Russian government had stated in a way to try and keep the aircraft from being delivered) the president responded with a dismissive—”It is for them."


It is really hard to underrate what the president is doing here. He is not only making it clear that Ukraine will get F-16s, he is basically belittling Russian threats. The Russians have been, as usual, making their nuclear threats about aid to Ukraine, and they raised their rhetoric up a notch yesterday when the F-16 announcement was made.


And here is the US President basically telling the Russians to go to hell—no other way to read this. It speaks of a few things. Most importantly, the administration must really believe the chance of Russia using nukes is non-existent. My guess is both good intelligence on the subject and some words with the Chinese (as I wondered about in the update yesterday).

So that alone would be enough to mark a major change. However, that was not all. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who had been reported to be the most escalation-averse member of the administration, at exactly the same time came out with a statement to CNN that the Ukrainians are more than able to attack Crimea with weapons the US has provided it.


What makes this important is the clarity of the position, and the fact that it is Sullivan making it. As late as February/March the rhetoric coming out of Washington was very skeptical on Ukraine retaking Crimea, and it was regularly floated that Crimea was a red-line for Putin.


Even Secretary of State Blinken, reportedly one of the more hawkish members of the Biden Administration, was said to have poured cold water on Ukraine taking Crimea from the Russians.


Now we have one of the supposed doves talking about US weapons being used by the Ukrainians to retake Crimea.

So yes, these changes in rhetoric seem to be extremely important, and point even more explicitly to the answer that last week was the week Ukraine won the war. In short:

  1. Fears of Russian escalation are no longer having any real impact on US policy, and if anything, the administration is mocking the Russians.

  2. Without a fear of Russian escalation, this war can be fully won by Ukraine.

  3. Ukraine is being given a public green-light to do what it needs in Crimea.

  4. All parts of the Biden administration are singing from the same hymn sheet (finally).


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