One Step at a Time: The Stages of War
A woman mourns at the cemetery in Irpin, Ukraine, on the first anniversary of the war
A natural part of the commentary surrounding the first anniversary of the start of the Russo-Ukraine War was speculation about whether it will have concluded by the time of the second or even third anniversaries. On 24 February 2024 will the air raid sirens still be sounding in Kyiv? Will NATO leaders still be willing and able to keep up the flow of arms and ammunition to Ukraine? Will Russia still assume an inexhaustible supply of men to send to the front, and will Vladimir Putin still be making interminable speeches blaming the West for an indefinite war?
Putin’s state of the union speech for 2023, delivered on 21 February, offered his audience neither a path to victory nor a promise of negotiations. The war Putin described was not so much against Ukraine but against NATO, supposedly taking advantage of a puppet regime in Kyiv. Viewed in this light, even victory in Ukraine would just move the conflict to a new arena. Yet he did not even explain Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine. ‘Step by step,’ he said, ‘carefully and consistently we will deal with the tasks we have at hand.’ How many steps and how long this would take he did not say. He talked in much more detail about support to the families of ‘fallen fighters’, ‘long-term home care and high-technology prosthetics’ for the badly wounded, and then, for those currently fighting, ‘a leave of absence of at least 14 days every six months’, which is something for them all to look forward to. Meanwhile ‘the latest technology’ will ‘ensure high-quality standards in the Army and Navy. … Our goal is to start mass production. This work is underway and is picking up pace.’ He was describing a new normal for Russia, geared entirely to war.
The previous day in Kyiv, President Joe Biden, standing beside President Zelensky, spoke for Ukraine’s allies when he insisted that freedom was ‘worth fighting for for as long as it takes’, adding that that was ‘how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President: for as long as it takes.’
‘How long will it take?’ This is the constant question of this war. After a period in which there has been little movement in the front line in either direction, despite grim fighting, the idea of a prolonged stalemate is taking hold. This is certainly a prudent assumption when it comes to making plans to keep the Ukrainian economy afloat and the military production lines running. In addition, setting a timetable for victory creates strategic risk, either in a waste of scarce resources in an attempt to meet it or demoralisation when it is missed. This prudence, however, does not mean that both sides will not be looking for a way to end the fighting on favourable terms sooner rather than later. On the ground neither are acting as if this conflict is already ‘frozen’. The Russians are already hammering away at Ukraine’s defences while the Ukrainians are gearing up to start their own offensive, probably around April or May.
The answer to the ‘how long’ question depends a lot on how these offensives unfold. One of the challenges of all strategy is balancing considerations of desirable end states, and how they might be reached, with the pressing issues that demand the immediate attention of military and civilian policy-makers. Wars progress through stages, the outcome of each one shaping the next. In this respect, as Putin put it, it is a matter of ‘step by step’. We are at the current stage because of the choices made by both sides over the past year and how they were enacted: on the Russian side the failure of its initial offensive, the subsequent focus on taking particular cities in the Donbas whatever the cost, and the mass mobilisation authorised last September; on the Ukrainian side its resilience and shrewd use of its limited military assets, with its later moves determined by what it could persuade its Western supporters to provide and the alacrity with which it was delivered.
The war will continue to progress by stages. Anticipating stages yet to be reached results in contentious policy debates about issues that might never arise, or at least not in the form in which they are currently framed. One example of this tendency is the regular discussion of whether Ukraine will seek to take Crimea by force of arms, and whether this would carry a risk of nuclear escalation. Another is whether Kyiv can be persuaded to concede the permanent loss of territory if it is stuck at the end of 2023 in a bloody stalemate, and whether it will be pressed more if ‘fatigue’ sets in Western societies (despite the fact that this has been regularly predicted and has yet to happen). A third concerns how Russia can be accommodated in a new European security order, a matter which continues to preoccupy France’s President Macron.
To be sure policy-makers need to think about these issues and plan ahead where they can, and even commentators can do their bit. But it is always important to keep in mind that we do not know yet the circumstances in which they will need to be addressed, if at all. Strategy is not just about how to achieve desired objectives but also how to cope with the situation in which we find ourselves now. That is why the outcomes of the current Russian and prospective Ukrainian offensives are so important. Everything that follows is contingent on these outcomes.
To make the point we can consider two well-informed articles that look ahead. Justin Bronk of RUSI has warned of new waves of Russian mobilization generating more conscripts for the front lines, a defence industry belatedly put on a war footing, leading to its recovery from its current shortages in manpower, equipment and ammunition by the end of the year. The conclusion he draws from this, however, is quite urgent. There is a limited window in which Ukraine might make decisive territorial gains, ‘which means Kyiv must risk committing to major counter-offensives this spring and summer,’ and the West must do its utmost to support this effort.
Having interviewed senior officials in Western capitals, Tom McTague of Unherd contrasts the public talk about liberating all Ukrainian territory, with private talk about
‘a conflict that is likely to descend ever further into the anarchic quagmire before it stands a chance of emerging, grasping towards some kind of settlement.’
The best to be achieved according to this sombre analysis is ‘a temporary settlement which eventually becomes a permanent reality even if no one ever officially recognises it as such.’ This would leave Ukraine viable and independent, ‘able to defend itself — to be able to breathe and live as a relatively normal country, to trade and grow, export and settle.’ This requires not only stabilising the front lines, but also the ability to deal with constant aerial bombardment and have access to the Black Sea. As all this is some distance away, if the wait is too long might not Ukraine’s supporters lose interest and become over-eager for negotiations even if the terms favour Moscow? The need therefore is to persuade Russia to accept that it cannot improve its military position and so must accept a ceasefire. And this leads McTague to the same conclusion as Bronk’s. Ukraine must be supported hard now to get it to the best position to set the terms for the long-term, even though there is no agreed view on what the long-term looks like.
China’s Peace Proposal
The only alternative to following the course of the fighting to see who can prevail is a diplomatic intervention that leads to an early peace. The problem is that the topics that would need to be addressed in a proper peace conference do not lend themselves to quick agreement – war crimes and reparations, easing of sanctions, detailed demarcation of borders, and so on. When Vice-President Kamala Harris, speaking at Munich, urged a focus on war crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice she highlighted an issue that is understandably close to Ukrainian hearts but one that is unlikely to be on any conference agenda agreed by Moscow.
Nonetheless, peace diplomacy has been given a new boost by the sudden intervention of China. Beijing marked the first anniversary with its own plan, urging that
‘all parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire.’
Although this is couched in language highly critical of the West, warning against ‘expanding military blocs’ (ie NATO), the use of sanctions, and weapons transfers that ‘fan the flames’, it also stressed its very direct opposition to any nuclear escalation, referred to international humanitarian law and the need to avoid ‘attacking civilians or civilian facilities, protect women, children and other victims of the conflict,’ and demanded respect of national sovereignty and ‘territorial integrity’. It is limited by its lack of specificity about what all this means in practice. One can infer disapproval of Russian conquests and its crimes but it is not explicit and Moscow always has its excuses and denials ready.
Russia has responded as one would expect, promising that it is ‘open to achieving the goals of the special military operation by political and diplomatic means’, but with the critical rider ‘so long as the ‘new territorial realities’ in Ukraine were recognized (that is the unilateral annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia - as well as of Crimea). The Americans have responded with scepticism and irritation, observing that talk of peace hides the active consideration China is giving to supplying Russia with lethal weapons. Der Spiegel has published details of a proposed development of killer drones for Russia and parts of its aircraft. All this China has denied but then it would, wouldn’t it.
The most interesting response came from President Zelensky. He is also anxious to persuade China not to provide weapons to Russia, but he can also see an opportunity. If the principles set down in the Chinese paper were applied strictly then they completely undermine the Russian position. Of course these are always matters for interpretation but there is no great ambiguity in this case. It is not only the UN Secretary General that has observed that Russia is in fundamental breach of the UN Charter. The Russian invasion was condemned 141 to 7 in the General assembly with 32 abstaining, including China. Equally, when it comes to attacks on civilians and civilian facilities, that is precisely what Russia is doing. The war is being fought among the Ukrainian people and not the Russian, so that is an issue solely for Moscow. The Chinese are certainly critical of the West but not particularly of Ukraine, with whom they had decent pre-war relations.
From Zelensky’s perspective it makes more sense to expose differences between Russia and China rather than push them closer by encouraging Beijing to explain who is in the greater violation of the principles it claims to uphold. He will also be aware of how many non-Western countries sympathise with the Chinese position. Hence his readiness to meet up with President Xi Jinping. If Xi ignores Zelensky then the American charges of hypocrisy will have more credibility. If, however, he decides to continue with his initiative, perhaps by dispatching Wang Yi, his top diplomat who visited Moscow last week, to Kyiv then the Kremlin will be perturbed.
In practice this is all largely performative. It is not going to lead to an early peace. Just as Moscow wants its conquests recognised, Kyiv demands a full Russian troop withdrawal (not mentioned in the Chinese plan). Beijing has no more ideas than anyone else how to resolve the territorial issue at the heart of the conflict - more occupation versus complete de-occupation.
The Russian Offensive. Is this it?
For now it remains likely that both sides will wait on developments in the fighting before reappraising their positions on any prospective deals. In my previous post I discussed the offensives being planned and why Russia would want to go first. This is what has happened. The view now is that what passes for Russia’s offensive actually began in late January with an attack on Vuhledar. The was added to the assault on Bakhmut, already underway for six months. There have been other attacks directed against Marinka, Adviivka, and Kreminna. In a dismissive interview Kyrylo Budanov, the Chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine (GUR), observed that the ‘big Russian offensive they are aiming for is already underway. But it’s going on so well that not everyone even sees it – this is the quality of this offensive.’ He claimed that Russia’s strategic objective, which he believed them incapable of achieving, was to reach the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk regions by 31 March. Whether or not the timetable is correct the objective makes sense as that would allow Putin to say that he had met a minimal military objective.
When Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, was appointed supreme commander on 11 January, replacing the more methodical and cautious General Surovkin, his apparent instruction from Putin was to press on with the offensive. Gerasimov appears to have sacrificed preparation for speed. Preparation might have meant more time spent making sure the junior officers promoted to fill gaps in the command structure understood their roles, improving the training of the troops, bringing more ammunition to the front and replacing lost equipment. To make more of an impact than achieved with any of their previous land initiatives they might have worked out how to get more value out of their air force or identified a single axis of attack in which they could concentrate their effort to punch a hole through the Ukrainian lines, or at least probed the Ukrainian lines for positions that were inadequately defended.
The conditions are sub-optimal. Conditions are moving from freezing cold to boggy. The military organisation is still being sorted, both because of the need to reconstruct depleted units and because Gerasimov is trying to enforce unity of command. This has provided one of main stories of the week, which is the bitter complaints from Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin about his men being starved of ammunition. In his fury Prigozhin released a rant targeted at the senior leadership, which included a gruesome image of numerous dead soldiers with the stark caption
‘This is one of the gathering places of the dead. These are the guys who died yesterday. Due to shelling and starvation so called. There should have been five times less. Five times. So. Mothers, wives and children will get their bodies’
At Bakhmut, some of the more elite Russian units have been playing an increasingly important role, as Wagner nurses its losses. The Russians have made slow gains in the face of stubborn Ukrainian resistance. Because the city now has largely been destroyed and depopulated this battle can appear to be largely about pride and sunk costs. It is not easy to give up on an objective on which so much effort has been expended and for which so many have given their lives. For both sides however there is a strategic purpose. If Russia really is on the offensive now, taking Bakhmut would introduce new options, including moving towards Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. For Zelensky the defensive work has value because of the costs and delay it imposes on the Russians, though he has also cautioned that this would not be ‘at any cost.’ For now Russian forces are finding it hard to keep their troops motivated and to sustain one line of attack into Bakhmut, even when they have gained some ground. Nevertheless it would not be surprising if Kyiv decided soon that it made more sense to evacuate the battered city and move to new defensive lines.
As in most of their battles up to now Russia has relied at Bakhmut on outgunning the enemy, combined with an effort to use ‘expendable’ soldiers to exhaust Ukrainian defenders. Shortages of shells, along with declining enthusiasm for the ‘cannon fodder’ role, may be limiting the number of these battles that can be fought this way. The battle for Vuhledar involved two regular brigades of Naval Infantry trying different tactics. The result appears to have been catastrophic for these units. One problem was that the assault was advertised in advance, so there was no surprise. Another, which affects any Russian advances over a relatively open landscape, was that vehicles and troops on the move could be spotted and picked out by Ukraine’s artillery. A third was that the fields over which the tanks were travelling had been heavily mined. A number of tanks columns have been reportedly been destroyed approaching Vuhledar, with claims that 30 tanks and other heavy weapons were wiped out on 6 February. Similar numbers were reported destroyed after a similar assault was attempted a couple of days later. Ukraine has claimed that it eliminated the entire Russian 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, along with 130 units of equipment. According to Budanov:
‘In Bakhmut, it’s just infantry coming in wave after wave. Their artillery is only supporting them, and there are very few armoured vehicles. In Vuhledar, armoured vehicles were used, but they were destroyed in the first hours, and everything turned into small arms fighting.’
For now, according to a Ukrainian military spokesman cited by the New York Times, Russia has given up on large-scale Russian assaults on Vuhledar, attacking only with ‘small bands of 10 to 15 soldiers, probably probing Ukrainian defenses for weaknesses.’
Elsewhere Russian forces appear to have little or no success, with not much armour reported to be in play. Igor Girkin, the ultra-nationalist who has provided a continuing, and often quite accurate, commentary on Russian military failing, is warning of a lack of ‘shells and artillery propellants’, armour being burned up at far faster rate than it can be replaced, units are not supplied and turning at best into ‘ordinary light infantry units with minimum equipment’. His remedy was to get urgent Chinese help - a ‘lend-lease’ - for otherwise ‘we could find ourselves naked and barefoot’ by the middle or the end of the year.
So even if they do force the Ukrainians out of Bakhmut there is a question about how much combat power the Russians can muster to exploit whatever openings that provides. As their offensive continues they will need to decide what resources they can afford to expend for limited gains especially when they may need them to deal with a Ukrainian offensive in a month or two. Michael Kofman concludes that:
‘Gerasimov is exhausting the Russian armed forces with a feckless series of offensive operations, which may yield some gains, like Bakhmut, but unlikely to change the strategic picture. The second battle for the Donbas may once again leave RU forces vulnerable.’
This illustrates the point about how each stage sets the conditions for the next. The nature of the challenge faced by the Ukrainians when they are ready for their offensive will depend on how much land the Russians have gained and the state of their army, in terms of numbers, morale and leadership, what equipment is available, as well as the stocks of ammunition. One can see from this why it suits the Ukrainian commanders to concentrate on reducing Russian capabilities as their own improve with Western supplies coming in, even though this comes at a high cost for Ukraine as well.
Not a single element in Putin’s strategy has worked this far: not the energy crunch that was supposed to persuade European governments to abandon Ukraine; not the attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure that was supposed to have persuaded the country to accept whatever fate Russia had in store for it; not the numerous offensives which, after the first weeks of war, have yielded remarkably little and left the Russian army a shadow of its former self. Organised defensively, with an influx of mobiks and keeping firepower in reserve, it still has the capacity to frustrate a Ukrainian offensive. Pushing it into an ill-conceived and ill-prepared offensive, even if sheer weight of numbers and artillery permit a few gains, risks depleting Russian capabilities and making the Ukrainian offensive easier.
The Final Stage
A look back over the last year of war, and the many stages it went through, encourages caution when trying to predict what might happen over the coming months never mind the coming years. It has been apparent from day one that the same key that turned this war on would have to be the one that turned it off. Until Russia orders its troops to withdraw the war will continue. Those who believe that the damage inflicted on Ukraine, and its many dead, wounded, and bereaved, will lead it to grasp at any proffered truce with relief and abandon its fight have not been paying attention. That does not mean that Putin will not keep on trying to exhaust Ukraine as he maintains his grip on the Russian political system. From our perspective, there is no point in wishful thinking about coups and mutinies. But that does not mean that we might not be surprised by developments in Moscow or by the impact of battlefield reverses.
Putin has become a committed adversary of the West. The antagonism is reciprocated. So long as he stays in power sanctions are likely to remain in place and relations will be generally tense and difficult. Even a new leader is as likely to come from the tough nationalistic wing of the Russian political spectrum as the milder technocratic one and, either way, will continue to find it difficult to accept Ukraine as a separate, independent country. This difficulty was evident from the moment of the break-up of the Soviet Union in December 1991. It led naturally to the annexation of Crimea and the violence in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. This war did not come out of the blue. The conflict was already well entrenched and deadly enough before February 2022. And now, whatever happens, there are legacies of bitterness, pain and mistrust that will run deep for many years.
Whatever happens Moscow will face awkward choices – about what portion of a declining GDP must now be devoted to rebuilding the military or whether it is worth walking away from the most hard-line positions to get sanctions eased. There are a range of possibilities. A definitive conclusion to the fighting is not impossible, although this would require Ukrainian armed forces to enjoy remarkable victories. There could be a reappraisal in Moscow, as with Argentina after the Falklands War, when the cause is not questioned but the folly of attempting to resolve it by force of arms is acknowledged. A formal cease-fire and truce might turn into an opportunity to repair relations or an uneasy but durable peace, as with the North Korean armistice of almost seven decades ago, though that is still seen as a potential flash point for a wider war. It is as likely that a period of calm will be seen as an opportunity for rebuilding forces and preparing for the next round. Alternatively, the conflict may rumble on for years, with or without much fighting. Ukraine will therefore still be seeking security guarantees, inside or outside NATO. And even if the fighting subsides and reconstruction can begin there will be more hard choices to be made about how to revive the economy.
All these choices and possibilities are worth thinking about. But how they arise will depend on Ukraine’s success in meeting the more immediate challenges it faces. As is often the case with strategy, getting the short-term choices right makes the long-term choices easier. One step at a time.
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Unless Putin is deposed, and I see no likelihood of that, given that he is KGB and has control over the same, renamed FSB.
Putin is a "reincarnation of Stalin" he has an infinite supply of humans to throw into the meat grinder, as Stalin did at Moscow and Stalingrad. This supply of humans absorbs Ukrainian ammunition, until they run out of ammunition.
Either Ukraine folds and Russia absorbs it, after liquidating all of the patriots and combatants, or NATO gets involved, sooner rather than later, because if it doesn't stop Putin now, then it will have another and bigger aggression on it's hands, as Putin or Russia, falls back, ramps up it's armament industry to WWII levels, refits, retrains, corrects then takes on the rest of the former Soviet empire.
Moldova certainly next with the Soviet Enclave of Transnistrra, Lithuania to close the Suwalki Gap that separates Kaliningrad from Belarus.
It is 1938 all over again. Cave to the threat of a tyrant and you will have the war that you fear, only worse than it would be if you had stopped him when he was just getting started.
I wonder if Prigozhin's very graphic rant about what's happening to Russian fighters, will have the opposite effect to what he intends if it does start circulating widely. Putin is trying to make it sound as though everything is going according to plan.
Assuming Prigozhin has some credibility with the Russian population in general, this video could be a wakeup call and make them less likely to support the Special Military Operation.
Of course, mere lack of public support won't do anything on its own.