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There is only one way to win a war of attrition

Outside cheerleaders and anxious supporters cannot force the pace of the conflict in Ukraine.

By Lawrence Freedman

As Vladimir Putin’s original objectives in the war in Ukraine drift out of reach, another is taking over – that of “not losing”. For with losing comes the reckoning. Failure is measured not only in unmet objectives, but the casualties and costs accumulated during the course of the war, and the damage to Russia’s standing as a great power and Putin’s position as a competent leader.

The consequences of the Russian president’s determination to avoid defeat have been heavy for Ukraine as well as for Russia. War will only stop when Putin, or a successor, recognises the failure. Because he lacks a convincing victory, Putin has instead sought to coerce Ukraine into capitulation, first by attacking its critical infrastructure and, most recently, its grain exports. None of this has led to a more conciliatory attitude in Kyiv. If anything it has had the opposite effect. At best it may give Putin some malign comfort that Ukrainians are being harshly punished for refusing to join his dominion, and is an opportunity to remove a competitor in agricultural trade. He has spoken positively about how shortages allow Russian grain exporters to charge more.

What will it take to persuade the Kremlin of the futility of this war? Ukraine has shown resilience in the face of attacks on its society and economy, and despite gloomy prognostications to the contrary, support from Nato countries and others has not fallen away. It has shown that Russian assets can be attacked, including the bridge link to Crimea. The most compelling message Ukraine can send, however, depends on its armed forces liberating territory. Success in battle can have knock-on effects elsewhere. All Putin’s other worries – about the economy, public opinion and the state of his armed forces – become more serious if there are further military setbacks. This is why so much was invested by Ukraine’s supporters in training and equipping new brigades – reportedly about 63,000 Ukrainian troops and more than 150 modern battle tanks, along with many older tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. This is why so much rides on the success of the offensive Ukraine’s supporters have made possible.

Will this investment pay off? In a war in which both sides have struggled against determined defences, it has always been unclear what could realistically be achieved and over what time. Prior to the Ukrainian offensive, expectations were raised and lowered. After almost two months observers are still unsure what to make of it. Ukraine has had to adjust its tactics after initial setbacks, so progress should be assessed against different criteria than was in place when it began.

I find it salutary to look back at what I wrote a year ago, in August 2022, when Ukraine was conducting offensive operations against Russian positions in the southern city of Kherson. At the time they had also yet to show much progress. As this followed a Russian offensive that had made only limited headway in the Donbas region, the overall impression was of a developing stalemate, with defence confirmed as the stronger form of warfare and attritional strategies adopted by both sides out of necessity. 

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[See also: The war in Ukraine is reaching a critical moment]

I noted that because attritional wars can only be won if the enemy army collapses through depletion and exhaustion, generals prefer to win through manoeuvre, involving bold attacks that lead to the seizure of territory and a victory imposed. This was much preferred to waiting for the enemy to give up. Attrition therefore tended to get “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”.

Yet, I argued, while attrition lacked “dash and drama”, it could still lead to victory, by creating the conditions for manoeuvre warfare or by forcing the enemy to recognise that its position could only get worse. “Moreover,” I continued, “there are different ways of fighting an attritional war, and some strategies can be more effective than others.”

Not long after I wrote that piece, Ukraine achieved an effective advance, not in Kherson but in Kharkiv, in the north-east, where the Russians had thinned out their forces to reinforce positions in Kherson. Very quickly they lost a lot of ground and the war effort appeared to be wobbling.

At this point I was optimistic that Putin might move to cut his losses by finding a way to end the war. Instead he doubled down, resorting to mass mobilisation to address the shortages of troops at the front and claimed four Ukrainian oblasts for the Russian Federation, in addition to Crimea. From that moment on it became even harder than before to imagine a negotiated settlement. This demand that these territories be recognised as Russian has been reiterated at every meeting with well-meaning delegations on peace missions. This is why these initiatives have faltered before they have had a chance to get going. Only when this demand is abandoned might we suspect that he is looking for a way out.

A stalemate suits Putin no more than Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky. At the start of this year Putin ordered a winter offensive. This not only achieved little but exposed divisions among the Russian military. Notably Yevgeny Prigozhin complained that his Wagner Group, which had captured the devastated city of Bakhmut, had been let down by the leadership of the Ministry of Defence which kept on pushing forces into futile “meat-grinding” assaults where little was achieved except the killing of ever-more Russian soldiers. This led to Prigozhin’s brief and curious mutiny in late June, taking Wagner out of the equation, at least for now, and destabilising Russia’s high command. As the Russian offensive ran out of steam, it was Ukraine’s turn to take the initiative.

Ukraine launched it on 4 June. It was soon apparent that the attempt to achieve an early breakthrough had failed. This has led to a number of postmortems on what went wrong.

The problems faced were not surprising. Russian defences in the south are extensive and were never going to be easy to breach. They were well designed. Nato would wish to pummel such defences in advance using airpower, but that was not an option for Ukraine. Nor did it have sufficient de-mining equipment. These problems turned out to be as limiting as feared. They were aggravated by a lack of close coordination between advancing units and the artillery required to suppress Russian defences. Once vehicles were disabled at the front of a column those stuck behind were targeted by Russian fire, whether from artillery, anti-tank missiles, attack helicopters or drones. All of this was not helped by unusually rainy weather which kept the ground boggy and hampered mobility.

As the Economist noted on 25 July it was possibly never realistic to expect brigades “put together in a hurry with unfamiliar equipment”, and with barely a month of training, to be proficient when it came to “coordinating complex attacks involving multiple units using different sorts of weapons”. Ukrainians are working not only with many different types of equipment, each with their own operational and maintenance issues, but also different philosophies. This is an army with strong Soviet roots, that learned to adapt after the Russian enclaves were forged in 2014, and then grew quickly after the full-scale invasion of February 2022. But many of its most professional soldiers were lost in the intense fighting of the first three months of the war, and those that survived are pretty exhausted by now. These points were emphasised in another Economist piece where, reflecting on a recent visit to the front lines, Mike Kofman and Franz-Stefan Gady stress the difficulties the Ukrainians faced fighting in a combined-arms fashion, at scale, largely because of deficiencies in training and experience. 

“Ukrainian soldiers’ ability to master Western tech quickly led to misplaced optimism that the time it takes to develop cohesive fighting units could be short-circuited,” they write. “Putting these units in the vanguard of a difficult assault, instead of more experienced formations, now looks like a mistake that reflected the prioritisation of Western kit over time in the field.” 

Even if they had been better prepared, the lack of key capabilities would have hampered Ukrainian advances. Kofman and Gady argue that remedying these deficiencies requires better equipment and more time. The focus should not be encouraging Ukraine to follow best Western practice but to help it “fight the way it fights best” – which means accepting the logic of attrition. 

I agree with the analysis but would take it a bit further. Perhaps we have become too mesmerised by the manoeuvre/attrition dichotomy. It came to the fore in US military discourse in the 1980s when some theorists were lamenting a decline in the art of generalship and over-reliance on firepower. Instead of preparing for intensive artillery exchanges they wanted to encourage imaginative and decisive operations that could bring wars to an end quickly at low cost. They had in mind German-type blitzkriegs, which used speed to bypass the enemy’s strongest positions and catch them by surprise. With new technologies, the possibilities for such operations appeared to grow. After the Iraqi army was roundly defeated in February 1991, enthusiastic theorists started to describe forms of warfare based on exceptional situational awareness combined with precision weapons, fired from a distance, and marked by swift, audacious moves that would leave the enemy discombobulated and in disarray.

Manoeuvre, therefore, did not simply mean covering a lot of ground quickly, for that can happen when there are few enemy positions in the way. It required bringing together the whole suite of advanced technologies to defeat the enemy rapidly in such a way as to minimise casualties. There was always a degree of mythology in this. The US successes in the conventional stages of recent wars were as much the result of superior firepower as superior manoeuvre. Enemy forces could not cope with the fire directed at them, whether from air strikes, cruise missiles, artillery or tanks. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi forces had already given up and fled the scene by the time the great “left hook” manoeuvre had been completed.

[See also: What happens if the Russian state collapses?]

As the Russians found in February 2022, catching the enemy by surprise and advancing quickly does not guarantee early victory, and once the enemy has had a chance to compose itself and adapt then an anticipated triumph can soon turn into a long, hard slog. The war becomes a test of endurance. When it started to be used to describe a distinctive strategy in the run-up to and during the First World War, attrition was about accepting that the victor would be the side that could outlast the other when it came to coping with the costs and calamities of war. It became a default strategy when decisive battlefield successes seemed elusive.

Unsurprisingly it led to a search for new ways to achieve battlefield success, focused after 1918 on the potential of the tank. This line of strategic thinking remains influential, especially as it suggests the potential for keeping the number of casualties down. But if the enemy has sufficient firepower, any advance risks casualties and equipment losses. “Attrition” describes what regularly happens in war. It is not really a type of war or a distinctive strategy. Even the cleverest manoeuvres do not preclude attrition in the short term. And if they fail to achieve decisive victories the likely consequence is attrition in the long term.

In these circumstances how can armies advance? The Russian approach is not to worry too much about casualties, especially those troops – such as convicts or poorly prepared conscripts known as mobiks – deemed expendable. Russian offensives since the first month of the war have largely involved trying to break into urban areas and then moving forward methodically, through the rubble of its own creation, pushing hapless disposable troops against Ukrainian positions in order to expose them. The defenders could then be hammered with artillery until they were forced to withdraw. This not only took time and destroyed the areas being taken, but led to troop shortages, which is why the issue of further mobilisation is once again under consideration in Moscow. This is not an option for the Ukrainians. They want to limit their casualties and avoid urban warfare.

The basic problem is that all large formations are vulnerable once spotted, and with numerous drones flying overhead the risk of being spotted is high. Once a unit is caught by obstacles, including mines, the vulnerability is even greater. After the early June setback, the Ukrainians went back to relying, as so often the case in this war, on actions more at platoon and company level, with small groups of soldiers rushing from one tree line to another, or creeping forward to clear a way through a minefield. In this they have been helped by the far better protection provided by Western vehicles compared with the old Soviet ones, which reduce casualties even when vehicles are struck. 

Russian forces have adapted in a similar way, if only to prevent Ukrainians consolidating even limited gains. They have sought to reverse any Ukrainian advance. The challenge for units from either side moving forward has been to find positions with some cover that can be held against enemy counters. It rarely makes sense to stop in an open field. This explains the ebb and flow of the front lines of recent weeks, as small settlements regularly change hands. One difficulty with fighting this way is that it can disrupt the chain of command, because of the responsibility this puts on junior officers. It can then make coordination between different units and scaling up to take advantage of any opportunities for rapid movement harder.

The American approach is to get your attrition in first, by taking out the bulk of enemy capabilities before the armies start moving. Ukraine lacked that option. There is too much Russian firepower in the way for it to be eliminated, but as much as possible can be taken out, particularly artillery pieces and their support systems. If ammunition dumps become vulnerable at the rear, they have to be held even further back. The more the front line advances the greater the supply challenge can become.

Ukraine has a qualitative (though not quantitative) advantage in artillery. Since it first received American Himars in the summer of 2022 and, more recently, the UK Storm Shadow cruise missiles, followed by the French equivalent, they have been putting a lot of effort into counter-battery fire and generally messing with Russian logistics. Anecdotal evidence, including from Russian bloggers, suggests this campaign has had some success. This has not removed the danger but may create gaps in Russia’s ability to cover the front line.

I noted in a previous piece, drawing on the UK’s Chief of Defence Staff, that Ukraine’s strategy could usefully be described as “starve, stretch and strike”, with starve referring to the regular attacks on Russian logistics and command structures, and stretch to the “multiple axes being probed and feints by Ukraine”. Strike would be the moment when the rest of the fresh brigades would be pushed forward and the real counteroffensive could start in earnest. This requires attacks in multiple areas across the long front lines, trying to find ways to dismantle minefields to get closer to the enemy’s main defensive line, limiting the impact of their artillery, while also requiring Russian forces to commit reserves so they would struggle to respond in numbers once a breakthrough was achieved.

The importance of stretch can be seen in the interaction between the two main areas in contention (more may develop) – in the east, particularly around Bakhmut, and in the south moving towards the sea from Zaporizhzhia. This is similar to a year ago, when the main effort was directed against Kherson, which was strategically more important, though as mentioned earlier the most exploitable Russian vulnerabilities were found to the north-east in Kharkiv.

[See also: Former Wagner commander: “Putin will lose the war in disgrace”]

Bakhmut and the wider Donbas area is important to Russia. It was the main focus of their earlier offensive. It is still committing substantial resources to holding occupied areas and even extending them. Because Bakhmut matters so much to Moscow it has come to matter to Kyiv, and the latter has been trying to make it harder for the Russians to hold the city, though they are some way from encircling it. The Russians also took an opportunity to distract the Ukrainians by undertaking a mini-offensive of their own, when Ukrainian forces were rotated in one area and less experienced troops came in. The Russians advanced a few kilometres though they had insufficient combat power and no obvious objective to take it much further and hold. The Ukrainians claim to have stabilised this situation, but it’s another example of the fluidity of the battlefield.

The south is more important to Ukraine’s objectives, not least because of the possibility of isolating Crimea. Unfortunately this is where Russian defences are at their most formidable and where the initial Ukrainian offensive faltered. On 26 July the New York Times, quoting anonymous US officials, suggested that the moment of “strike” had come. The equally anonymous officials talking to the Washington Post seemed less sure. What they agreed on was that a new brigade had been brought into the action, taking some of the pressure off the brigade that had borne the brunt of the fighting, and was looking to take advantage of a perceived weakness in the Russian lines. By 27 July the New York Times had modified its view. Other American officials were saying that the most recent Ukrainian attack might be preparatory operations for the main thrust or reinforcements to replenish war-weary units. 

The problem might not only be officials and journalists getting ahead of themselves but the assumption that any major development had to be assessed as an example of manoeuvre warfare. The Institute for the Study of War tweeted: 

“Western officials are unhelpfully raising expectations for rapid and dramatic Ukrainian advances that Ukrainian forces are unlikely to be able to meet, as well as offering forecasts of the likely Ukrainian avenues of advance that should probably not have been shared publicly.”

It does the Ukrainians no favours to assess their military progress by the most demanding criteria. The effort to liberate territory is bound to be painful, and this will be the case not because the Ukrainian army has failed to master the art of manoeuvre. Any army would find this hard without superiority in firepower. Of course the Russian army has taken huge losses, shows many signs of wear and tear, and may not cope well should its defensive lines be breached. We may see it pull back when put under irresistible pressure, even if not along the whole front line. What is important is that Ukraine keeps the initiative, and does not exhaust itself so much that the Russians get a chance to regroup and counter-attack. Outside cheerleaders and anxious supporters should not force the pace and be wary of talking up gains before we can be sure of their significance or their consolidation. That will only lead to disappointment.

This is an argument for caution not pessimism, for gearing expectations to a range of scenarios. One of the problems with the fixation on a manoeuvre strategy is how it suggests that only a decisive military victory can deliver an acceptable political outcome. For pressure to be heaped on Moscow, the Ukrainian army may not have to liberate all occupied territory.

This war was started with a decision in Moscow and a decision in Moscow is required for it to end. Ukraine will continue to fight under all circumstances. As we have so little insight into Kremlin deliberations we may get pleasantly surprised if a decision comes sooner than expected, but we ought not to suppose that one is imminent. Ukraine must be supported on the assumption that it is not. The original idea of an attritional tactic was largely about how to cope with a long war, and that is the sort of strategy Ukraine needs.

[See also: The end of globalisation]

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