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Can Ukraine win the war with Russia?

As Russia takes the city of Lysychansk, Ukraine needs to develop momentum with its better, Western-sourced weapons.

By Lawrence Freedman

In my first piece after the start of the Russian’s war in Ukraine, I argued that Vladimir Putin had made a huge blunder and that Russia could not win. I reached this judgement partly because Moscow had apparently failed its immediate objectives, despite enjoying the advantage of surprise on 24 February. I was cautious about how the clash of arms would play out because I assumed the Russians would soon learn to adjust to Ukrainian tactics and capabilities. (By my second piece, which I wrote 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 that Ukraine was a country lacking both a legitimate government and a national identity, and so would therefore crumble quickly. On that first day, he expected to take down the Ukrainian government and replace it with a puppet. Even if this plan had succeeded, the Ukrainians would probably have continued to fight against a Russian occupation. But we can imagine how, if the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky had been killed or abducted, the Russians would have instructed a compliant government to invite their forces in to remove “Nazi” usurpers in Kyiv – though the invitation would have been retrospective. This is what happened in December 1979 in Afghanistan: the Soviet Union removed one leader in Kabul and inserted another, who then requested the Russian military intervention that was already under way.

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 a 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.

I also noted in that first piece 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 Russian 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.

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To put all this out of Ukraine’s reach and to seal Russia’s gains, Putin could offer a ceasefire on the basis of the current distribution of forces. This might be a clever propaganda ploy, though the offer would be rejected. The military prospect for the Russians, 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 inflicting on their economies.

In this, as with his initial gambit on the war’s first day, Putin has underestimated the resilience of his opponents. 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 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.

[See also: Why the Russian military should be very worried]

Nonetheless, denying a Russian victory is not the same thing 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, there has been an increase in military support. Vital new equipment is arriving after a difficult period in which the Ukrainian armed forces have felt their lack of firepower keenly. Will it be enough to turn the tide?

The battle in 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 used its 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 reasons. First, to support the Russian claim 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. Igor Girkin, who as noted in an earlier piece, 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 in touch with developments in Donbas. He reported recently that as a result of its prudent evacuation Ukrainian forces preserved the “bulk of its experienced manpower”, continuing: “Creating a ‘cauldron’ with a complete destruction of [the] 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.

In his commentaries, the retired US general, Michael Ryan, has emphasised 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. It made progress in Luhansk by adopting much more cautious tactics than those on display in the first weeks of the war. It used artillery, Russia’s main area of comparative advantage, to batter Ukrainian positions until the defenders were too weak to hold on to them. There are potentially still areas in Donbas for the Russians to probe for more gains, but the obvious areas are well defended.

In this second stage of the war, Russian forces have not been able to rely so much on manoeuvrability because of armoured vehicle losses. 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 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 carelessness when it comes to collateral damage and their inability to take responsibility for 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 mobilisation but he has been reluctant to do that because he knows how unpopular such a move would be. There are indications of 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 the military analyst Michael Kofman, Russian commanders are increasingly reliant on front-line fighting forces from the enclaves in 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 terribly 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 manoeuvres, with the most capable being moved “around the battlefield to attempt localized advances”.

[See also: Is Vladimir Putin dead? ]

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. 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 mobilised 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-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 belatedly responded. 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 kilometres (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 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 further reduce the threat from Russian aircraft and missiles.

Both sides therefore must adapt. It’s an oversimplification 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. I have generally tried to avoid predictions 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 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 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 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 those of the Russians when it comes to taking territory.

The Russians have advanced by pummelling 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 centres; 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 donors 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.

[See also: The banality of Vladimir Putin]

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 29 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 30 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).

Third, 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 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, 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 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 it may need to cut its 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.

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 few 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? Not yet clear, but the possibility should not be dismissed.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Where might Putin try to invade next?]

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