Can Ukraine Win?
A Ukrainian soldier shows off a HIMARS multiple rocket launcher - part of the package of US military aid (Photo by Anastasia Vlasova for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
‘Despise the enemy strategically, but respect him tactically’
- Mao Zedong
In my first post after the start of the Russo-Ukraine war I argued that Vladimir Putin had made a huge blunder and that Russia could not win. I reached this judgement only in part because Moscow had apparently not achieved its immediate objectives when they enjoyed the advantage of surprise on 24 February. I was cautious on how the clash of arms would play out as I assumed that the Russians would soon learn to adjust to Ukrainian tactics and capabilities. (By my second post, on 27 February I was more impressed by Russian military incompetence and sought to explain why this would continue to affect its operational performance.)
I believed that Putin would fail because this enterprise was launched on the basis of a deluded view of Ukraine as a country lacking both a legitimate government and a national identity and so apt to crumble quickly. On this first day he expected to take down the Ukrainian government and replace it with a puppet. Even is this plan had succeeded, the Ukrainians would probably have continued to fight against a Russian occupation. But we can imagine how, if Zelensky had been killed or abducted, the Russians would have told a compliant government to invite their forces in to remove ‘Nazi’ usurpers in Kyiv, though of course the invitation would have been retrospective. This is what happened in Afghanistan, in December 1979, when the Soviet Union removed one leader and inserted another in Kabul which then requested the military intervention that was already underway.
The survival of Zelensky and his government was the first major setback to Russian plans. Their narrative was further undermined when those supposedly being liberated showed their lack of enthusiasm for the occupation. This sent a vital message to Ukraine’s supporters in the West that Russians would face serious resistance. Zelensky soon developed his own powerful narrative about the need for more weapons to defeat the Russians (‘I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition’). The need for more and better weapons, and the ammunition to go with them, has been his clear and consistent message for the past four months.
The Meaning of Victory
I also noted in that first post that ‘victory’ is more of a political concept than a military one. By 25 March when the Russian Ministry of Defence declared it was withdrawing from northern Ukraine to concentrate on the Donbas region this required a new definition of Russian victory, one that would unavoidably be less ambitious than the original definition but also more ambiguous. The ambiguity has not been dispelled. The objective most consistent with recent operations is to conquer Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kherson, with a view to their eventual annexation and Russification. But not only are they some way from achieving that (with much of Donetsk still in Ukrainian hands and the Russia position in Kherson highly contested) it would also require an explicit Ukrainian surrender for it to serve as the basis for a declaration of victory. That will not be forthcoming.
By contrast, Zelensky has been clear on what he means by a political victory. At a minimum Russian forces must withdraw to the position of 23 February. Preferably the enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk would be returned to Ukraine. Crimea in principle should be in play although politically and militarily that would be more of a stretch.
To put all this out of Ukraine’s reach and to seal in Russia’s gains Putin could offer a cease-fire on the basis of the current disposition of forces. This might be a clever propaganda ploy, though the offer would be rejected. The military prospect for the Russians po, therefore, is of a juddering, stuttering conflict lasting for some time without a definitive conclusion. This will place heavy demands on Russian forces because they will need to cope with a gathering insurgency in the occupied areas and a long line to defend against Ukrainian forces. Their hope and expectation is that they might still get a negotiated conclusion, not because Ukraine will capitulate but because its Western backers will tire of the war and the heavy costs it is imposing on their economies.
In this, as with his initial gambit on the war’s first day, Putin has underestimated the resilience of his opponents. The longer the war does drag on the pressures in the West to bring the conflict to a close may well grow. Yet if anything the Western position has hardened in recent weeks, notably since the visit of European leaders to Kyiv on 16 June, and then through the European Council, G7 and NATO meetings, all of which produced resounding declarations of support for Ukraine. The commitments have now been made to the point where a Ukrainian defeat will look like a NATO defeat.
Nonetheless, denying a Russian victory is not the same as a Ukrainian victory. A prolonged war means continuing hardship and a delayed recovery, in addition to the risk of waning international support and pressure to compromise. Prudently Western countries are preparing for the long haul. They can also note the developing problems facing the Russian economy. But they would prefer that this did not turn into a competitive test of endurance. That is why along with a hardening of political support for Ukraine has come an increase in military support. Vital new equipment is arriving after a difficult passage in the fighting for the Ukrainian armed forces when they have felt their lack of firepower keenly. Will it be enough to turn the tide?
The Military Situation
The battle in the Donbas has been tough, with the Ukrainians acknowledging high casualties as they doggedly held ground. Strategically this defence made sense as the Russians also paid a high price to take relatively small amounts of territory. Any further advances were delayed, which was important because of the time it was taking to get Western equipment to reach the front lines. Kyiv also pointed to their losses to urge donors to move more quickly (although this push carried risks as it could encourage the view that the Ukrainians were losing and could not sustain the fight).
This stage of the war is now almost over, with the Russians now in Lysychansk, seeking to complete the occupation of Luhansk. Strategically the Luhansk campaign has been important for the Russians for three potential reasons. First, to support the Russian claim to the Donbas. So far, after weeks of effort, this campaign has allowed the led Russia to take around 0.5 percent of the country in addition to what was seized on the first days of the war. The second objective was to trap Ukrainian forces. Igor Girkin, who as noted in an earlier post, has a responsibility for this whole tragedy yet has also been highly critical (from a hard nationalist perspective) of the Russian conduct of the war, has stayed closely in touch with developments in the Donbas. He reported recently that as a result of its prudent evacuation Ukrainian forces preserved the ‘bulk of its experienced manpower’.
‘Creating a “cauldron” with a complete destruction of Severodonetsk-Lysychansk group of the enemy was not achieved despite all the efforts and very sensitive (in total over one and half months) losses.’
The third objective was to support the Kremlin’s narrative that the momentum of the war was swinging to Russia, so that Western support for Ukraine would be futile as well as costly. So far this has not had the desired effect.
Adapting to Losses
In his commentaries General Michael Ryan has emphasized that Russia now faces an important choice about whether to concentrate on Donetsk or put more effort into defending Kherson, where Ukraine has been making its own advances. They made progress in Luhansk by adopting much more cautious tactics than those on display in the first weeks of the war. They used artillery, their main area of comparative advantage, to batter Ukrainian positions until the defenders were too weak to hold on to them. There are also still possible areas for the Russians to probe in the Donbas to see if they can make more gains but the obvious areas are well defended.
In this second stage of the war, they have not been able to rely so much on manoeuvre because of losses in armoured vehicles. They have sought to make up for their losses with vehicles from the reserves, including, as widely reported, vintage tanks that were in use in the 1960s. New tank production may have ground to a halt because of the lack of key components, such as microchips, which have been sourced from the West and are now sanctioned.
Russia also seems to be running low on stocks of precision weapons, evident in some of their recent long-range strikes. It is likely, for example, that they did not intend the deadly attack on the shopping mall in Krevenchuk, and instead had a nearby target in mind, which they also failed to destroy. This demonstrated, in addition to the inaccuracy of their weapons, the general Russian carelessness when it comes to collateral damage and their inability to take responsibility for their mistakes (as always suggesting that for some reason the Ukrainians did this to themselves). Coming as the G7 was meeting, it helped to boost support for Ukraine, reminding the leaders about why it is important that Russia fails.
Their response to past troop losses has been to scramble around to find more troops where they can. One option for Putin would be to announce a general mobilization but he has been reluctant to do that because he knows how unpopular that would be. There are indications that there are shortfalls in the current call up of conscripts, even though they are not supposed to be sent to the front. Instead the aim is to encourage conscripts, and anyone with military experience, to contract into the military, often for financial reward. There is anecdotal evidence that many of those who have been in the thick of the fighting have been looking for ways to get out of their contracts.
According to Michael Kofman Russian commanders increasingly rely for front line fighting on forces from the enclaves in the Donbas, mercenaries from the Wagner group, volunteers, and reserve battalions manned by recently contracted servicemen. The fighting for Severodonetsk was largely undertaken by units from Luhansk, who appear to have suffered terrible attrition in the process, and may now appreciate that they are being used as cannon fodder by the Russians. Kofman suggests that other units are being used for offensive manoeuvre, with the most capable being moved ‘around the battlefield to attempt localized advances.’
The Ukrainian problem is different. Undoubtedly they have taken heavy casualties, though too much has been made of Zelensky’s lament that they were losing 100-200 men per day. This was at the height of the Severodonetsk battle, when Russian artillery was taking a heavy toll. He did not suggest that losses of this sort were routine. As is often the case in the early stages of a war, their most experienced units suffered the most and they will take time to replace. But as Ukraine has mobilized there is no shortage of personnel and motivation remains high. Unlike the Russians they are fighting for their homeland. It would still be unwise to throw the reservists into battles for which they are ill-prepared
In the first stage of the war, Ukraine relied on Soviet-era systems, supplemented by Western supplies of anti-tank and air defence weapons. There are new supplies of old systems – such as T-72 tanks that are well known and have been provided from other former Warsaw Pact countries which the Ukrainians can bring into service quickly.
In the critical area of artillery, their problems have been shortages in both the pieces and the ammunition, with reports of being outgunned to a ratio of ten to one. They have been using old Soviet-era systems with 152 mm artillery rounds. The NATO standard is 155 mm. Other former Warsaw Pact countries have been rummaging through their stocks but it is unclear how much more can be found. This is why the Ukrainians have been so insistent on the need for modern artillery pieces. From their perspective belatedly, NATO countries have now responded. The systems have been identified, training is underway, and the first pieces have now reached the front lines where their impact is starting to be felt.
Systems such as the French Caesar truck-mounted howitzers, which can mount attacks and the move away with great speed, and the US M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), currently with a range of 70 km (alternative munitions have longer ranges although these have not as yet been provided to Ukraine) are starting to make an impact. These not only have twice the range of the old systems but pinpoint accuracy. Drones continue to play an important role in spotting targets. An important new capability that the US will be providing is the NASAMS, an advanced surface-to-air missile system, which should reduce further the threat from Russian aircraft and missiles.
Both sides therefore must adapt, but, admittedly oversimplifying, the Russians are adapting into becoming more of a 20th Century army while the Ukrainians are becoming more of a 21st Century army. The Ukrainian adaption process will therefore taking longer but the prospect at the end is of a much more capable force.
The Next Stage of the War
The current stage of the war is best understood as being transitional, as the Russians explore opportunities to advance but prepare to defend while the Ukrainians gear themselves up for counter-offensives.
I have generally tried to avoid predictions in my posts because war is an uncertain business, tactical errors can make a substantial difference whatever the underlying balance of forces, and everything seems to take longer than it should. I also have no special insight into the minds of either the Russian or Ukrainian senior commanders.
I will therefore confine myself to three points about the next stage of the war.
First, a priority for both sides is now to take out enemy capacity.
Part of the frustration for Ukraine up to now has been their limited counter-battery fire which undermined their ability to deal with Russian artillery. With the new systems coming in they should be able to strike Russian artillery. The most valuable targets, however, may be Russian ammunition dumps, and there have been regular reports over the past week of these being hit. Over time thus will degrade the effectiveness of Russian artillery.
For their part the Russians are also anxious to find the incoming Ukrainian kit (including its ammunition stocks) and eliminate it before it can do too much damage. This requires both good intelligence as well as accurate systems. The Ukrainians are going to great lengths to conceal the weapons and ammunition, moving them regularly and distributing them in small packets. But when you have only a few long-range pieces, however much individually they are more capable than their Russian equivalents, the loss of a few could make a big difference.
Second, the Ukrainian tactics will not replicate the Russian when it comes to taking territory.
The Russians have advanced by pummelling the areas it wishes to occupy. Some of the areas Ukraine wishes to take back have already been ruined and depopulated, and here the tactics may be similar, but other areas, including the vital city of Kherson, are relatively unscathed, and the Russians have based artillery there. Although the city is within artillery range of Ukrainian artillery they will not wish to destroy civilian areas. They will therefore have to adopt different tactics, making the most of the accuracy of their new weapons, concentrating on supply lines, bases, and command centres, making opportunistic advances, using guerrilla tactics in the city against the occupying forces, leaving Russian troops uncertain about where the next attack is coming from. Politically Zelensky will want to show both his people and his donors that Ukraine can start recovering lost territory and taking the war to the Russians. Hence reports that Ukraine has been striking at a Russian base by the airport in the city of Melitopol.
A tangible demonstration of the difference that the new systems can make was seen in the battle for the tiny Snake Island in the Black Sea, not far from the Ukrainian mainland. This was seized by Russia at the start of the war. The Russians brought air defence systems to the island. After a harpoon anti-ship missile destroyed a Russian tugboat delivering weapons and personnel, last Wednesday missiles and artillery took out air defence systems deployed on the island. This was not really a surprise. The vulnerability of the island to artillery force had been obvious for some time and it was strange that the Russians kept on putting men and equipment on the island. On Thursday the Russians bowed to the inevitable and announced a retreat from the island, describing it, somewhat lamely, as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ (a similar claim was made when they retreated from the north).
Third, the Russians are unlikely to keep on fighting should it become clear that they are likely to be defeated.
One lesson from the Snake Island episode, as well as the withdrawal from Kyiv, is that the Russian commanders can recognise when they are in a losing position and withdraw rather than take unnecessary punishment. Because we have been through a period of slow, grinding advances from Russia there is a tendency to assume that Ukraine will also have to overcome a tenacious Russian defence, that the third stage may look like the second, except with the roles reversed.
This is not as obvious as it may seem. Not only will Ukrainian tactics likely differ but, if they start being pushed back, the Russians will need to decide how much they really want to hold on to territory at the expense of preserving what is left of their army. If, at some point, the Russian command see only adverse trends ahead they may consider the long-term and the need to maintain their armed force to deal with future threats, other than Ukraine. Russia cannot afford an inch by inch retreat to the border, taking losses all the way. At some point they may need to cut their losses. This would be the point where they might urge Putin to engage in serious negotiations (for example reviving earlier proposals on a form of neutrality in return for full withdrawal) to provide political cover for their withdrawal.
Whether or not we get to this stage is a different matter. The challenge for Ukraine is to develop an offensive with some momentum to the point where there is no readily available way for it to be reversed by the Russians. This is a challenge because the Ukrainians will need to advance by means that do not solely involve direct assaults on Russians positions. Over the next few weeks we should start to get some sense of whether Ukraine can start to take the initiative and impose its own priorities on Russia rather than the other way round, and how well the Russians are able to respond to the steady improvement of Ukrainian capabilities. Should Ukrainian forces be able to create any momentum, however, then the situation could move in their favour very quickly. Can the Ukrainians win? Yes. Will the Ukrainians win? Not yet clear, but the possibility should not be dismissed.
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