The terrible equations of war: What GOP success stalling Ukraine aid looks like on the battlefield

What can be salvaged now that Republicans have finally relented on stalled Ukraine aid?

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published April 24, 2024 6:15AM (EDT)

Mike Johnson and Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Mike Johnson and Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Both chambers of Congress, including the Republican-led and disarrayed House of Representatives, just passed a supplemental foreign aid bill that includes $61 billion for Ukraine. Passage of the bill came after months of Republican stalling on aid for the besieged nation, largely at the behest of House Republicans’ Dear Leader, Donald Trump. The immediate media analysis is already questioning if the aid will be enough for Ukraine to stave off an expected offensive push by Russia expected to begin sometime in June.

That is equation number one: Take the sum total of the U.S. aid bound for Ukraine and divide it by the per-unit cost of weapons such as ammunition for 155 mm howitzers that has been in short supply since last fall. That equation is intended to produce the number of shells Ukraine will reap from the aid package, at which point there will be yet another spate of news analysis asking if that number is enough.

In war, the bodies of soldiers are exchanged for land. How much that costs cannot be calculated back in Washington D.C.

The same sort of equation will be done with the rest of the weapons in Ukraine’s wish-basket – Patriot missiles to replace those that have been fired over the past two years in defense of Kyiv and Ukraine’s other population centers, as well as its energy infrastructure which has been underdefended since new anti-aircraft munitions and anti-missile missiles stopped being shipped over due to Republicans stalling aid funding. A massive drone and missile attack heavily damaged the Trypilska power plant on April 12, one of Ukraine’s largest. Trypilska serves the Kyiv, Cherkasy and Zhytomyr regions. The Associated Press quoted Andrii Gota, chairman of Centrenergo, one of the largest of Ukraine’s state energy companies, as saying, “there’s nothing left to shoot down” incoming missiles.

So there’s another equation: If Ukraine receives “X” amount of aid in the form of air defenses, what percentage of Ukraine’s power grid will survive Russian attacks and the pressures of supplying electricity to the rest of the country during the increased temperatures summer will bring?

Measuring billions in aid and ammunition stocks against the number of Russian soldiers expected to take part in the summer offensive isn’t enough. How Ukraine will use that ammunition and against whom is the unknown in that equation, as it is in every other calculation in this war and all wars. Against the advice of U.S. military officials who have been involved in counseling Ukraine’s military on tactics and strategy, Ukraine has begun using larger amounts of its military might to strike within Russia, rather than applying more force on the frontline battlefield. Ukraine’s strategic equation seems to be that they will accomplish more by attacking cities and infrastructure in Russia and terrorizing the civilian population in regions close to the Ukraine border than they can accomplish by pushing harder against Russian forces on the front lines. So, Ukraine has been expending ground-to-ground rockets supplied by the U.S. and NATO countries, as well as suicide drones that Ukraine is now manufacturing itself in the attacks, on Russian soil.

War strategy is set in the upper echelons of Ukraine’s military command structure and defense establishment. But the equations that produce casualties on the ground for each side are written by lower-level commanders and individual soldiers in muddy bunkers along the trench lines that now define this war. In an excellent article published earlier this month, the New Yorker’s war correspondent Luke Mogelson described a battle near the  Ukrainian city of Kupyansk, located in the country’s far northeast about 20 miles from the Russian border. The article, titled “Battling Under a Canopy of Drones,” describes in exquisite detail the way drone warfare is affecting this war – how armor units cannot be deployed in combat the way they were before inexpensive drones could take out tanks and armored personnel carriers as they have done recently. 


This, and the lack of artillery ammunition, has left Ukraine’s struggles on the battlefield to small units operating largely on foot. Mogelson describes an attack on Russian soldiers holding a tree line near the destroyed Russian-held village of Tabaivka. “A road descending from the ridge cut straight through Tabaivka, and the conventional thing to do would have been to send some tanks or armored vehicles down it,” Mogelson writes. “Recent technological developments have made such brute assaults suicidal, however.” 

He goes on to describe a new equation on the battlefield between moving soldiers, called in military terms “maneuver,” and the tactical reality of surveillance by drones used by both sides. The unit Mogelson was embedded with waited several days for a snowstorm to set in and blind Russian drones before they could send a squad on foot to attack a ruined farmhouse being used as a defensive post by the Russians.

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Every war has been fought by maneuvering soldiers to attack enemy defenses, but the new calculation necessary in this war, according to Mogelson’s reporting, is that every time you make a move, the enemy can see you. And if they can see you, the enemy can shoot at you.

The battlefield equation goes both ways, so the front lines have devolved into a war of cat-and-mouse surveillance backed up by snipers, artillery, and cheap suicide drones armed with grenades. The commander of the unit Mogelson followed makes terrible calculations within this new military equation. At one point, the Ukrainians identify a root cellar beneath a destroyed farmhouse as a shelter for Russian soldiers. A squad of men working in pairs are sent to attack the Russian bunker, with one pair throwing grenades into an underground entrance, and the other pair dropping grenades down a stovepipe leading into the root cellar.

The terrible equation in this single maneuver of Ukrainians against their Russian enemy is the same as in any war: what is to be gained by risking the lives of the Ukrainian soldiers? After assaulting the bunker on foot and shelling it with artillery, only a few Russians were left inside. Under cover of darkness, the last three Russians made what Mogelson called “a desperate dash” and escaped the bunker where they had been trapped. 

Control of the tree line that had been defended by the Russian bunker finally returned the village of Tabaivka to the Ukrainian army. Mogelson asks a commander if Ukraine “might lose Tabaivka again, nullifying 1st Battalion’s hard-earned gains. He shrugged resignedly,” Mogelson writes. “Maybe.”

In the scheme of the war controlled back in Washington by fickle Republicans answering to a criminal defendant in the thrall of Vladimir Putin, the equation is even worse. With support for Ukraine by Washington coming in dribs and drabs at best, and always running the risk of disappearing altogether, Mogelson asks a Ukrainian platoon leader how it looks to the soldiers on the ground. “We’re losing. Not badly, but steadily,” the platoon leader tells him. “If the West maintains its current level of assistance, Ukraine can hold out for a few more years; if the assistance diminishes,” the platoon leader tells him, “we’re screwed in a matter of one year”; if aid increases, “there will be a stalemate until we run out of soldiers.”

That is the most terrible equation of all: In war, the bodies of soldiers are exchanged for land. How much that costs cannot be calculated back in Washington D.C.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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Commentary Congress Donald Trump Foreign Aid Gop Putin Republicans Ukraine War