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Russia is still underestimating Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has become one of attrition – it’s Vladimir Putin’s only alternative to acknowledging defeat.

By Lawrence Freedman

From its very beginning, the course of the war in Ukraine has been charted in two ways. The first is by maps. Progress has been measured by territory acquired; prospects identified by territory in contention; challenges described in terms of territory still to be taken. We will know the war has ended when either Russia has made sufficient gains to satisfy Vladimir Putin or else Ukraine has taken back what Russia took. The second is by losses. Claims have been made about how many people have been killed and wounded, and how much equipment has been destroyed, damaged and abandoned. We will know the war has ended when either Russia or Ukraine has exhausted its capabilities and can no longer continue to fight. These two measures are related. The consequences of exhaustion are, it is assumed, to be most likely felt in the battle for territory. For now, neither measure appears to point to a clear victor. To see where this war is tending, therefore, it is necessary to look beyond both the maps and the lists of losses.

But let us start with the maps from the past four months of fighting. What is most striking is how little territory has changed hands. The Russians completed the capture of Mariupol and moved forward with an enormous effort in Luhansk, while Ukraine has been nibbling away at their positions in the Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts, and pushed the Russians off Snake Island in the Black Sea. Other than that, not much. So far in this war defence has been dominant. This could be seen when Russia failed to take Kyiv and then withdrew from northern Ukraine.

But if defence remains dominant then how can the war end? The Russians remain frustrated that they have not even achieved their minimal objective – taking the whole of Donbas. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians still have some 20 per cent of their country under an increasingly brutal occupation. Even the much-vaunted Ukrainian offensive to retake Kherson appears to have been thwarted for the moment because the Russians have moved thousands of troops to boost the city’s defence – in the process making it less likely that their own anticipated offensive in Donetsk will make much headway.

The impression therefore is of stalemate. In the gloomiest commentary, the two sides are presented as punch-drunk boxers, trading jabs and uppercuts yet unable to land a knock-out blow. Unlike boxing, however, there is no referee to bring the fight to an end and let the judges call a winner; the two sides seem doomed to keep on punching until one drops from sheer exhaustion. Such commentaries often lead to proposals for the US to impose a conclusion. Washington might be sitting in Ukraine’s corner but, seeing the pain being inflicted, it could be urged to intervene and throw in the towel. Otherwise they are doomed to slug it out until one can fight no more or else, as the logic of the situation is recognised, an uneasy truce is agreed – perhaps a ceasefire that settles nothing but allows the two armies an opportunity to refresh and recuperate before picking up where they left off.

[See also: What is the Kaliningrad problem?]

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With defences dominant and not much territory changing hands, this is a war of attrition. Attrition is normally described as an alternative to a war of manoeuvre, which offers the more enticing prospect of a decisive battlefield victory. The only prospect of victory in an attritional war is through a series of encounters that have the cumulative effect of leaving the enemy depleted and exhausted. Generals prefer to think about winning through manoeuvre rather than attrition, through bold offensives rather than stubborn defences. Manoeuvre should be both quicker and less costly, concluding with a clear military victory that creates conditions for a clear political victory. Successful offensives lead to territory being seized and an outcome imposed; successful attrition requires the enemy to give up.

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For understandable reasons, therefore, attrition is disparaged as an inferior and undesirable form of warfare, requiring patience and an ability to absorb pain – without necessarily offering a plausible route to victory. It is often the result, as in this case, of the aggressor failing to achieve an early victory through manoeuvre. It is chosen largely because it is the only alternative to acknowledging defeat.

But while wars of attrition may lack the dash and drama of “manoeuvre” ones, they can still lead to victory. This may be because they create the conditions for a return to manoeuvre warfare, or it may be because the losing side recognises that its position can only get worse and needs to find a way out. Moreover, there are different ways of fighting an attritional war, and some strategies can be more effective than others.

The word “attrition” derives from a Latin word meaning to rub away. Then it came to refer to repressing a vice and an imperfect form of contrition. This led to its original, theological English meaning: as a lesser form of repentance that had a worldly instead of a spiritual motive, lacking the sincerity of true contrition; from the start it connoted inferiority. And it came to refer to anything, from body parts to social conventions, that might be worn down over time. By the late 19th century “attrition” was used in a military context, though it only became prominent during the First World War. After the initial German offensive failed in 1914, the trenches were dug and thereafter combatants took heavy casualties whenever either side tried to mount offensives. After that war, military thinking was concentrated on how to prevent similar deadlocks in the future – through armoured warfare, air power or a combination of the two.

Attrition was, therefore, established as a form of warfare to avoid, as inferior to beating the opposition in a decisive battle. Exhausting an enemy through constant sniping, skirmishing and harassment took time, and increasingly made victory dependent less on the conduct of military operations and more on the underlying economic and social resilience of the belligerent, into a contest of endurance.

[See also: The battle for Kherson has begun]

This view of attrition as a lesser strategy has been a prominent feature of contemporary military thought. Part of the US army’s critique of its own performance in Vietnam revolved around its reliance on killing as many enemy soldiers as possible, in an attempt to make the campaign unsustainable to the communists. This led to a preoccupation with “body counts” as a measure of success, and the assumption that every Vietnamese killed was an enemy combatant – leading to the false observation that the communists had been eliminated many times over.

Those looking for a more intelligent way to fight wars soon identified “manoeuvre” as the superior form. The aim was to rely on speed, surprise and mobility to catch out, disorient and thus defeat the enemy. Generals were encouraged to relearn the art of operations, liberating themselves from dependence on firepower. The model was the German blitzkrieg of 1940, although the eventual outcome of the Second World War also offers clues about the problem of military breakthroughs with incomplete victories that do not end the fighting.

In practice the manoeuvre/attrition dichotomy can be too sharp. It may well be that commanders have to resort to more attritional methods after failing to secure an early victory, but that does not preclude a later return to a more dynamic approach. Indeed, inflicting an attritional approach on your opponent can be a sensible precursor to battle. Instead of rushing an attack, exploiting surprise, it might make more sense to opt for a more methodical approach, taking out enemy capabilities and undermining morale, before embarking on an offensive – what the Americans call “preparing the battlefield”.

There is thus a difference between attrition as a way of wearing down an enemy before embarking on an offensive, which might have the additional benefit of persuading the enemy that it is in a hopeless position, and attrition that reflects a situation of stalemate in which both sides can resist offensives. In these circumstances, wider economic and social resilience will matter, as both sides try to produce more equipment and ammunition and find more personnel to make up for losses. Once one side falters in this effort then they might lose as a result of unrest at home or a progressive inability to fight effectively. The First World War ended because German forces were weakened by the allied economic blockade, as well as the constant fighting. In 1918 the Germans mounted an offensive that they could not sustain, and then failed to cope with the counter from the allies.

Although the war in Ukraine is going through an attritional stage, this does not mean there is a stalemate. Both sides face the problem of defence dominance: it is hard to dislodge troops who are well dug in and prepared to fight. Large-scale counteroffensives risk exposing concentrated formations in the open to enemy fire. Russia’s recent offensives involved little manoeuvre. Attempts to encircle Ukrainian forces largely failed, except for Mariupol. Instead, intensive artillery barrages were used to force Ukrainian defenders to back away. These made possible some small gains at high cost for both sides. This stage of the war is coming to an end. Russia is now struggling to make any significant territorial progress, although it hasn’t stopped trying. Meanwhile Ukraine is aiming to seize the initiative so that the fighting occurs more on its terms. How well it can do so depends on whether it can develop a strategy to fight an attritional war.

Attritional warfare relies on assessments of its progress in terms of comparative losses to both equipment and personnel. With both sides, these assessments are often no more than guesses, especially when it comes to casualties. In practice, much of what we can glean about the extent of their losses comes from the efforts to replace what has been lost. Attrition is not just a question of which side is suffering most, but also who is best able to regenerate their combat capabilities. In this respect we can note some of the fundamental asymmetries that continue to shape this war’s conduct:

1. Ukraine is fighting for its sovereignty and territorial integrity and Russia is not. Russia has presented the war as a place to take a stand against both local and distant enemies, including Nato. But it has offered multiple versions of a desirable end-state for this war.

2. Russia is a far larger country that has been building up its armed forces. It is clear from current efforts at recruitment that it has suffered extensive losses. It is unlikely to run out of manpower but there are issues of quality, motivation and leadership. Because of its early mobilisation, Ukraine has the troops and motivation is high, but because many of its best units have been badly hit, it needs to train more.

3. Russia has vast stocks of weaponry but it is now having to dig deep into these stocks, having used up its more modern equipment. Ukraine lacks the numbers but is now fighting with more modern and effective equipment. In terms of crude firepower – artillery, aircraft and missiles – Russia has the advantage, though it isn’t as substantial as the one it started with. But its ability to wage manoeuvre warfare is now hindered by limitations with its armour and infantry. Ukraine’s capabilities may be improving but they appear to have some way to go. Thus, both sides are stuck with attritional strategies for the moment.

4. The war is being fought almost entirely over Ukrainian territory. With a few exceptions close to the border, Ukraine has not attacked targets inside Russia and has actively been discouraged by Washington from doing so.

5. Russia can therefore target vital infrastructure as well as civilian homes inside Ukraine on a regular basis. This has had devastating effects on the Ukrainian economy and everyday life. Ukraine is unable to respond in kind.

6. To cope with this core asymmetry favouring Russia, Ukraine depends on external assistance. Western support is vital both to keeping its economy afloat and also hurting Russia’s economy through sanctions.

7. While Ukraine can produce some of its own war materiel, it has also become increasingly dependent on external suppliers for its most effective systems. Russia has few external sources – it is acquiring some drones from Iran – yet its defence production is suffering as a result of sanctions. This is why it is increasingly having to make do with vintage equipment. But Ukraine has been denied systems that can strike Russian territory, notably modern aircraft as well as long-range rockets.

Two conclusions emerge from these asymmetries. Firstly, Russia has identified Ukraine’s dependence on external support as its greatest vulnerability and has been looking for ways to undermine this support, largely by aggravating the economic crises facing the West. The debates in the West on whether support for Ukraine will drain away as the economic pain intensifies and “war fatigue” steps in have acquired a routine quality, but all one can say is that so far this has not happened. The same is true of direct Russian attacks on the Ukrainian population. The effect has been to reinforce Kyiv’s conviction that it has little choice but to carry on and challenge those who might argue for a more conciliatory approach with Moscow to explain why this sort of barbarity should be rewarded.

[See also: In the grip of overlapping crises, Europe faces a leadership vacuum]

The second conclusion is that conditions on the ground should increasingly favour Ukraine because of the quality of the systems now entering service, and the effectiveness with which it is using them. The Russians are finding new recruits to send to their front (including press-ganging individuals in the occupied territories) but they can no longer be fussy when it comes to age, education, background or training. Life at the front for ill-prepared troops is becoming more desperate.

The most striking feature of the fighting since late June has been the vulnerability of ammunition dumps, command posts, air defence units and now airfields. The strike against the Saki air base in Crimea last week was a big blow not only to Russian capabilities – with at least nine and possibly as many as 27 aircraft and helicopters destroyed along with airport facilities and ammunition – but also to Russian self-confidence. The Ukrainians are being coy about how they mounted the attacks, preferring to leave the Russians guessing (and the guesswork continues on social media). They have said it was not a foreign-supplied system. Was this a one-off operation or a new long-range capability? If the latter, then it warns of many ways in which Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s great gain from 2014, might now be in play. It also serves as a reminder of the curious ineptitude of Russian tactics: they are still underestimating their opponent. The Ukrainians dispersed their aircraft from the start so that they were not caught at their bases.

What we have not seen is Ukraine mounting comparable attacks to those mounted by the Russians in Donbas in May and June. In this respect defence remains dominant. Ukraine is having to follow a strategy that works around its weaknesses while exploiting those of Russia. This was dubbed back in May as “corrosion” by the retired Australian general Mick Ryan, now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ukraine, he noted, has sought to hollow out “the Russian physical, moral, and intellectual capacity to fight and win in Ukraine, both on the battlefield, and in the global information environment”. This is essentially a form of attrition, broadly framed. This strategy has recently been sharpened as Ukraine makes the position of the Russian defenders more parlous, threatening to cut them off completely from their supplies as well as their means of escape, leaving them more exposed to accurate artillery and air strikes. This is the potential risk Russian commanders have accepted by sending extra troops into Kherson. The increased partisan activity from within the occupied territories is tying down Russian troops and adding to their anxiety. Moreover, the spectacular nature of recent Ukrainian strikes has eased the need to impress external suppliers that their equipment is being used to good effect.

There are still opportunities for Ukraine to take land. Until territory changes hands and the maps are amended, it is hard to convince doubters that the tide of war has turned in its favour. But while the secession referendums supposedly being prepared in Russian-occupied territories lack credibility and legitimacy, there are strong humanitarian reasons for seeking to liberate them as soon as possible.

The official Ukrainian line is that the counteroffensive is still underway. Nonetheless the importance of the damage being inflicted on Russian forces is also being emphasised. In an address on 10 August, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky used the classic language of attrition, arguing that it was Russian losses that would bring the war to an end:

“This is a question that worries absolutely everyone: when will the war end? Someone says – months; someone – a year; someone – even more. But the question of time actually directly depends on the question of the losses that Russia will suffer. The more losses the occupiers suffer, the sooner we will be able to liberate our land and guarantee Ukraine’s security. This is what everyone who defends our state and helps Ukraine should think about: how to inflict the greatest possible losses on the occupiers so that the time of the war gets shorter.”

The problem with attrition is that it doesn’t force the enemy to make decisions. It works by persuading enemy forces and their political leadership that their position is untenable and likely to get worse. So long as they believe they’re only facing temporary difficulties and can turn the situation around, or at least show that they have put up a decent fight before folding, then the war will continue. It is easy to understand why Ukraine feels that it has no choice but to carry on fighting, and why it is confident that it’s slowly taking the initiative.

Moscow appears to wish to incorporate seized territory into Russia, for which it is preparing some dubious procedures that will impress nobody but itself. For Moscow, the war may now be all about denying Nato the satisfaction of a Ukrainian victory and saving Putin’s blushes. There is nonetheless something increasingly desperate about Russian rhetoric and behaviour. The Russian military position is deteriorating and the West’s backing for Ukraine has yet to slacken. The trends favour Ukraine. At some point Putin and his cronies will have to work out how long they can continue to pretend that they have a credible path to victory.

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

[See also: Alexei Navalny’s chief of staff: “Putinism will now come to an end much sooner”]

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