WILL UKRAINE WIN PUTIN’S “war”?
This is an opinion piece only by the author for members and not for distribution elsewhere.
Vladimir Putin has made a huge blunder with Ukraine, and Russia, in the end, cannot win this war. Since Russia has taken the city of Lysychansk, Ukraine must enhance critical momentum with its better, Western-sourced weapons. Moscow has failed in its existing objectives, despite enjoying the advantage of surprise on the 24th of February. It was assumed that the Russians would adjust to Ukrainian tactics and capabilities but because of Russia’s incompetence, it will continue to affect their operational performance. Putin ultimately will fail because this enterprise was launched on the basis of a deluded view that Ukraine was a country lacking both a legitimate government and a national identity, and would therefore crumble quickly. On the first day, Putin expected to take down the Ukrainian government and replace it with a puppet president. Even if this plan had succeeded, the Ukrainians would probably have continued to fight against any Russian occupation. If Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky had been killed or captured, the Russians would have instructed a compliant government to invite their forces in to remove any remaining “Nazi” insurgents in Kyiv.
The clear survival of the Zelensky government was the first major setback to Russia’s plans. Their narrative was further undermined when those supposedly being liberated showed a lack of enthusiasm for Russian occupation. This sent a vital message to Ukraine’s supporters in the West; that Russians would face very serious resistance. Volodymyr Zelensky soon developed his own powerful narrative regarding the need for more weapons from the West to defeat the Russian invaders (“I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition”). The need for more and better weapons and ammunition, has been a clear and consistent message since the start of the war. By the 25th of March, when the Russian Ministry of Defence declared it was withdrawing from northern Ukraine to concentrate on the Donbas region, it required a new definition of Russian victory–one that would be less ambitious than the original plan but also more obscure. The consistent objective now is to conquer Luhansk, Donetsk and Kherson, with a view to their eventual annexation to Russia. But not only are they some way from achieving that, it requires an explicit Ukrainian surrender for it to serve as the basis for a declaration of victory. That will not be forthcoming as far as Ukraine is concerned. By contrast, Zelensky has been clear on what he means by a political victory. At a minimum, Russian forces must completely withdraw to positions on the 23rd of February. Preferably the enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk would be returned to Ukraine. Crimea in principle would also be in play, although politically and militarily that would be a tougher “nut to crack” by Ukraine.
In order to seal Russia’s gains, Putin might offer a ceasefire on the basis of the current distribution of forces. This may be a clever propaganda ploy, but again, that offer would be rejected. The military prospect for Russia therefore, is of a wobbling, stumbling conflict lasting for some time without a definitive conclusion. This will place heavy demands on Russian forces as they will need to cope with a gathering insurgency in the occupied areas. Their hope and expectation is that they still might see a negotiated conclusion. Putin has however, underestimated the resilience of the NATO Western resolve. If anything, the Western position has hardened in recent weeks: since the visit of the German chancellor Olaf Scholz, the French president Emmanuel Macron and the Italian prime minister Mario Draghi to Kyiv on the 16th of June; and then with the European Council, G7 and NATO meetings, all of which produced resounding declarations of stead-fast support for Ukraine. President Biden summed up the results of discussions concerning support for Ukraine at the June NATO summit this way: “We are going to stick with Ukraine, and all of the Alliance is going to stick with Ukraine, as long as it takes, to make sure they are not defeated by Russia.” The commitments from the west have now been made to the point where a Ukrainian defeat will look like a defeat for the whole of NATO.
Nonetheless, denying a Russian victory is not the same thing as achieving a Ukrainian victory. A prolonged war means continuing hardship and a delayed recovery for both Ukraine and the West. Prudently, Western countries are preparing for the long haul. They also note the developing problems facing the Russian economy, but 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, there has been an increase in implicit tactical military support. Vital new equipment is swiftly arriving after a difficult period in which the Ukrainian armed forces have keenly felt their lack of firepower. Will it be enough to turn the tide? The battle in Donbas has been tough, with the Ukrainians acknowledging high casualties as they doggedly hold 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 because of the time it was taking to get Western equipment to reach the front lines. Kyiv has used its losses to urge Western supporters to move at full tilt, although this push carries risks as it could encourage the view that Ukraine was losing and may not be able to sustain the fight.
This stage of the war is now almost over, with the Russians now in Lysychansk and seeking to complete the occupation of Luhansk. Strategically the Luhansk campaign has been important for the Russians for three reasons. First, to support the Russian claims to the Donbas region. So far, after weeks of effort, this campaign has allowed Russia to take a little more of the country in addition to what was seized on the first days of the war. The second objective was to trap Ukrainian forces. However, as a result of its prudent evacuation, Ukrainian forces preserved the “bulk” of its experienced manpower. The third objective was to support the Kremlin’s narrative that the momentum of the war was swinging towards Russia, so that Western support for Ukraine would be pointless as well as costly. So far, this has not had the desired effect that Putin wanted. 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. It made progress in Luhansk by adopting much more cautious tactics than those on display in the first weeks of the war.
In the second stage of the war, Russian forces will not be able to rely on manoeuverability due to armoured vehicle losses. They have sought to make up for their losses with vehicles from reserves, including, as widely reported, vintage tanks that were in use in the 1960s. New tank production has ground to a halt because of the lack of key components, such as microchips, which have been out-sourced from the West and are now sanctioned. Russia is also running low on stocks of precision guided weapons, evident in some of their recent long-range strikes. It is likely, for example, that it did not intend the deadly attack on the shopping mall in Kremenchuk, and instead had a nearby target in mind, which it also failed to destroy. This demonstrated, in addition to the inaccuracy of its weapons, the general Russian negligence when it comes to collateral damage and their deniability of responsibility for mistakes as always, suggesting that the Ukrainians did this to themselves. The leaders at the G7 meeting helped to boost support for Ukraine, by prompting all members about why it is important that Russia fails. Russia’s response to past troop losses has been to scramble 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 such a move would be in the Motherland. There are indications of deficiencies though that 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”.
Russian commanders are increasingly reliant on front-line fighting forces from the enclaves in Donbas, mercenaries from the Wagner Group and 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 dreadfully in the process, and may now appreciate that they are being used as “cannon fodder” by Moscow. Other units are being used for offensive manoeuvers, 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 to 200 men per day. This was at the height of the Severodonetsk battle, when Russian artillery was taking a heavy toll on Ukrainian soldiers. As is often the case in the early stages of the 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 and moral remains high. Unlike the Russians, they are fighting for their homeland. It would still be unwise for Ukrainian defences to push 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 ammunition, with reports of being outgunned by a ratio of ten to one. They have used old Soviet-era systems with 152-millimetre artillery rounds. The NATO standard is 155mm. 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, NATO countries have been late to respond in the eyes of most Ukrainians. The systems have been identified, training is under way, 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 then move away with great speed, and the US M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), currently with a range of 70 kilometers (alternative munitions have longer ranges although these have not yet been provided) are starting to make an impact. These not only have twice the range of the old systems but with pin-point accuracy. Drones continue to play an important role in spotting targets for acquisition with Western allies now supplying more capable drones. An important new capability that the US will be providing is the NASAMS, an advanced surface-to-air missile system, which should further reduce the threat from Russian aircraft and missiles. The Ukranian’s seem to be quickly adapting. It’s an over-simplification but the Russians seem to be becoming more of a 20th-century army while the Ukrainians are becoming more of a 21st-century army. The Ukrainian adaption process will take longer but the prospect is of a much more capable force. The current stage of the war is best understood as a transitional one. The Russians are exploring opportunities to advance, but are preparing to defend; while the Ukrainians are gearing themselves up for counter-offensives. Tactical errors can make a substantial difference whatever the underlying balance of forces, and everything seems to take longer than it should in the minds of either the Russian or Ukrainian senior commanders.
There are three distinct 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 until now has been its limited counter-battery fire, which undermined its ability to deal with Russian artillery. With the new weapons systems arriving, they should be able to more confidently 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, this 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 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 huge difference.
Secondly, the Ukrainian tactics will not replicate those of the Russians when it comes to taking territory. The Russians have advanced by pummeling the areas it wants 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 for Ukraine, they will not want to destroy civilian areas. They will therefore have to use different tactics: making the most of the accuracy of their new weapons by concentrating on supply lines, bases and command centers, making opportunistic advances and 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 Western allies that Ukraine can recover lost territory and start 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, on the 29th of June, Ukrainian 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 there. On the 30th of June, 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).
Thirdly, the Russians are unlikely to keep on fighting should it become clear that they will likely be defeated. One lesson from the Snake Island episode, as well as the withdrawal from Kyiv, is that the Russian commanders can recognize 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, and 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 the Russian command sees only adverse trends ahead, they may consider the long-term need to maintain their armed forces 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 at which Russian commanders 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. The thought of a unilateral Russian withdraw from Ukraine will undoubtedly bring Putin to a frenzy of anger as he has nothing in mind rather than complete victory in Ukraine by his army.
Here’s the bottom line: The one thing that must not happen is allowing Putin to come away as the perceived winner of this war in Ukraine. If that happens, the rules-based global order that has kept the peace among the major powers since World War II will be mortally wounded. Europe will be destabilized for the indefinite future and NATO likely will be forced to defend one or more of its members. So, we need to do whatever is necessary to ensure that Putin knows that he has made a colossal mistake. This is a fight the U.S., Europe and its allies cannot allow Ukraine to lose. The best chance to avoid direct NATO conflict with Russia is to stop being self-deterred by measuring every decision against whether or not Putin will consider it to be escalatory, and provide Ukraine with the capabilities it needs to defeat this Russian invasion. Putin can rattle his nuclear saber all he wants, but no matter how bad his situation becomes at the conventional level, it won’t be improved by using nuclear weapons. Ultimately, NATO may have to fight — if not now to save Ukraine, then later to save itself.
Whether or not we get to this stage is a different matter. The challenge for Ukraine is to develop momentum, to the point where there is no readily available way for it to be reversed by the Russians. This is challenging because the Ukrainians will need to advance by means that do not solely involve direct assaults on Russian positions. Over the next several weeks we should 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 gather any momentum, the situation could move in their favour very quickly. Can the Ukrainians win? Yes. Will the Ukrainians win? It is not yet clear, but the possibility should not be dismissed.