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What if Ukraine loses?

As criticism of Kyiv’s strategy mounts in the West, hard questions must be asked.

By Lawrence Freedman

The Russo-Ukraine War has reached its 18-month mark with no end in sight. Neither side, for now, has a convincing route to a military victory. The Ukrainian offensive, which began in June, was presented as a means to liberate a substantial amount of territory from Russian occupation, and potentially cause a crisis in Russian military confidence that might oblige Moscow to recognise that the game was up, and that it was time to cut its losses.

This prospect was always optimistic, not only because of the difficulties of retaking well-defended territory but because of Vladimir Putin’s reluctance to admit defeat even when his army suffers setbacks. Recently a new narrative has started to take hold in some commentaries on the state of the war, notably from Pentagon officials, to the effect that the offensive is turning out to be a deep disappointment. Questions are now being raised about whether this is a war that Ukraine can ever win. Perhaps it is Kyiv that should be looking to cut its losses, conceding territory in return for peace.

This gloom is overdone. There is still uncertainty about how the current round of fighting will develop. Ukraine still holds the initiative. But the challenges are real and it does Ukraine no favours to suggest that they can easily be overcome. The basic problem, however, is the one that has been present from the start. Bringing this war to an end is a political as well as a military process, and the political process we understand least is in Moscow.

This war is far removed from those of the 18th and 19th centuries when battle would decide the dispute that had caused the war. Classical military strategy was geared to “decisive” battles that would start at dawn and end at dusk. When they were over the results could be tallied – who controlled the battlefield and had broken the opposing army – and the “decision” of war announced. That required both sides to accept the result. Increasingly, however, it became harder to achieve a decisive battle. Even after a defeat in battle if there was some means of continuing the fight and recouping its losses then a country would carry on. More war would appear as a lesser evil than a humiliating peace. Look what it took in 1945 to convince both the Germans and Japanese that they had lost and could not continue.

A failing offensive?

The recent flurry of newspaper reports suggesting that the Ukrainian campaign has run into trouble began on 17 August when the Washington Post quoted anonymous US officials lamenting that insufficient territory has been liberated and that vital targets have yet to be taken. Of these the city of Melitopol was highlighted as the “gateway to Crimea”, located “at the intersection of two important highways and a railroad line that allow Russia to move military personnel and equipment from the peninsula to other occupied territories in southern Ukraine”. This was followed by another piece, three days later, continuing the lament, observing that “the counteroffensive shows signs of stalling”. The Russians were far from crumbling, not only “putting up fierce resistance” but “even making offensive advances”.

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The timing of these stories was surprising. A number of analysts were cautious from the start about how easy it would be to break through Russian lines and the time it might take to make significant progress. (This was my assessment from 10 June in the Sunday Times.) It was soon evident that the caution was warranted. The first moves in the offensive, in early June, had not gone well. But it was also evident that the Ukrainians had adjusted their tactics accordingly. As I, and many others, noted, hopes for dashing manoeuvres were soon replaced by a more realistic focus on small-scale engagements, eating away at Russian forward positions and logistic networks using Ukraine’s advantages in the quality if not the quantity of their artillery. The expectations of a decisive breakthrough over the coming months were soon swapped for the more realistic prospect of a campaign that could continue until the autumn when it would need to wind down because of resource constraints, especially ammunition, and boggier conditions.

The Institute for the Study of War observed that the intelligence assessment cited by the Washington Post was at best “premature” and that it was odd to make so much of Melitopol as an objective. “Ukraine has many options for severing critical Russian ground lines of communication along the northern Sea of Azov coast of which the seizure of Melitopol is only one.” Yet Melitopol was set as the main objective for the offensive and it’s not surprising that this is how it is being judged. It may be that other opportunities will come into view over the coming weeks but if they do they will not have been part of the original plan.

It is one of the clichés of strategy that events are unlikely to unfold in ways that meet the timetable and targets of a plan of campaign. (“No plan survives contact with the enemy” – von Moltke; “everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson.) This is why armies, and their commanders, tend to be evaluated by their ability to adapt and improvise. It is the rare operation that goes “according to plan” or “on schedule”.

[See also: Ukraine must go to war with itself]

Risk aversion

Part of the negative assessment was a simple recognition that the Russians had done a good job constructing defences that were hard to pass. But there was another part of the critique that caught my attention. The original Post article noted the casualties suffered by the Ukrainians during the early stages of the offensive, adding that: “Joint war games conducted by the US, British and Ukrainian militaries anticipated such losses but envisioned Kyiv accepting the casualties as the cost of piercing through Russia’s main defensive line, said US and Western officials.”

The article then suggested that the Pentagon had “recommended multiple times that Ukraine concentrate a large mass of forces on a single breakthrough point”. This picked up on a debate that had been under way from early in the year when Kyiv decided to commit substantial forces to the defence of the eastern city of Bakhmut, despite its limited strategic relevance and the high human cost.

The Ukrainians have for months poured tremendous resources into Bakhmut, including soldiers, ammunition and time, but they have lost control of the city and have made only modest gains in capturing territory around it. And while the close-in, trench-line fighting is different in Bakhmut from the problem of mines in the south, the focus has left some in the Biden administration concerned that overcommitting in the east may have eroded the potency of the counteroffensive in the south.

The Financial Times appears to have been talking to the same unnamed officials: “One point of tension between US and Ukrainian officials has centred on how Kyiv has deployed its military. US officials have encouraged Ukraine to be less risk-averse and fully commit its forces to the main axis of the counteroffensive in the south so it would have a chance of breaking through Russian lines to reach the Sea of Azov, effectively cutting Russia’s land bridge in southern Ukraine to Crimea, a critical military hub.

“Washington has also urged Ukraine to send more combat power to the south, and stop concentrating on the east, where almost half of its forces are engaged. But Ukraine has instead deployed some of its best fighting units in eastern Ukraine in a battle to recapture Bakhmut.”

Now the New York Times has weighed in with a similar analysis, complaining that too many troops, including some of the best combat units, are in the wrong places. Again the division of effort between the south and east is criticised, regretting that more has not been moved to the south to push through “even if the Ukrainians lose more soldiers and equipment in the process”. This critique, it reports, reflects American doctrine that always demands “a main effort to ensure that maximum resources go to a single front, even if supporting forces are fighting in other areas to hedge against failure or spread-out enemy defences”.

How valid is this critique?

First, there is a distinction between being risk-averse and reckless. The problem was not that Ukraine was unwilling to attempt company and battalion armoured assaults but that when it did so, one analyst said, “Russian anti-tank capabilities just proved too strong”. If they had been mounted on a larger scale it is not clear that the gains would have been much greater, although the casualties would certainly have been higher. A concentrated force for a concerted push would have been spotted and probably caught by Russian artillery. And it would still have been held up by the minefields. The Americans have not recently undertaken an operation of this sort and would only do so with assets the Ukrainians lack. As the New York Times acknowledged: “American officials’ criticisms of Ukraine’s counteroffensive are often cast through the lens of a generation of military officers who have never experienced a war of this scale and intensity.”

The lesson here is not that the Ukrainians failed to achieve what the Americans might have hoped to achieve in similar circumstances but that it was unrealistic to expect them to try. Having tried the Ukrainians reverted to smaller-scale operations that they understood better and knew how to execute. The challenge now is to coordinate these more effectively so that there can be more concentration of force and fire.

Second, there is a debate still under way about the extent of the commitment to the east, and the decision to allow experienced units to fight there while fresh ones were being prepared for the offensive in the south. On the one hand Bakhmut was lost and at a heavy cost to Ukraine. On the other the Russians appear unsure about what to do with the ruined city now they have it. They also took heavy losses and the battle opened up the sharp argument between the Wagner Group and the Ministry of Defence that led to a brief mutiny. It was not an area that Ukraine could have neglected because of its importance to Moscow. It was (and to a degree still is) the main focus for Russian offensive operations. The issue now is whether Ukraine should concentrate on more defensive operations in the east, given that it is going to be a stretch to retake Bakhmut, and commit more forces to the south.

Third, the accusation of risk aversion has normally been directed at Washington. It is now a standard critique of the Biden administration that, while it has done a good job on maintaining alliance unity and providing Ukraine with substantial diplomatic, economic and military assistance, when it comes to the capabilities that are most vital to current operations – artillery, ammunition, air defences – the Pentagon’s support has made all the difference. The criticism is mainly directed at capabilities that would have helped Ukraine to strike targets well behind the front lines, which have either been held back completely, provided mainly by allies (such as the UK with cruise missiles and now Denmark and the Netherlands with F-16s), or have been belatedly authorised. The Ukrainians are still waiting for the long-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).

This reluctance to hand over higher-end capabilities has been justified by concerns about provoking Russia into nuclear escalation, although this is no longer seen as so pressing a concern as it was last year. Critics argued that the risk was exaggerated and that Russia had already escalated the war in ways that hurt the Ukrainians. The nuclear risk is obviously not trivial, and it may be that moving carefully and incrementally has allowed possible Russian “red lines” to be passed without major reactions, but one can understand Ukrainian frustration when capabilities start to arrive long after they would have first been useful and while they are routinely suffering attacks on civil society and the economy.

Fourth, casualty aversion has featured highly in decisions on US force employment in recent decades, in part because of concerns that public opinion would not tolerate significant losses in those interventions when the most vital national interests were not at stake. One of the reasons for the US military’s emphasis on manoeuvre over attrition when thinking about full-scale war has been the hope that this could get wars over quickly and keep casualties down. The idea is to avoid crude trades of firepower in favour of operations designed to surprise and disorient the enemy. This approach, however, tends to play down the importance of advantages in firepower which can suppress enemy air and artillery and blast holes in defensive positions and so make manoeuvre possible. Ukraine has not enjoyed these advantages.

In some ways, therefore, this criticism of Ukrainian forces for being too risk averse and not punching hard enough seems not only to be misplaced but also a reversion to an earlier American approach to the use of force, before the fixation with manoeuvre, when American generals accepted the bloody logic of direct attacks if that was the only way to a quick victory and avoiding even larger losses over time.

I found one example of the US complaining about the risk aversion of an ally in a book I’ve been reading by James Conroy about the January 1943 Casablanca Conference. This is when the Americans and British forged a common strategy for the Second World War. The British chiefs of staff were worried that the Americans were too much in a rush to invade occupied France, and that without proper preparations this could lead to carnage. American strategy, according to Conroy, was “rooted in the bludgeoning style of Ulysses S Grant. Americans won their wars with enormous wealth, industry, manpower, and hubris.

“They built a powerful army when the need arose, attacked the enemy’s strength as quickly as possible, and took and inflicted casualties until he stopped struggling. Anything less was a distraction.”

These attitudes die hard, but a country fighting with limited resources, and feeling the losses already incurred, was bound to be more cautious. That was the attitude of the British in 1943 (and wariness about American attitudes to risk were reinforced during the Korean war and could even be seen up to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991). It is unsurprising that it is now Ukraine’s attitude.

We can see a similar mass army mentality displayed by Russia. It has always gone for the numbers, assuming a plentiful supply of troops and armour, sufficient to crush opponents, while adopting an unsentimental attitude to the human costs of war. Hence the Russian command’s attitude towards attrition is not so much to fight differently to conserve resources but to step up production of new equipment and find more soldiers to do the fighting.

[See also: Putin’s secret navy]

What if Ukraine fails?

Not long before the Ukrainians began their latest offensive I attended a conference which considered the implications of various possible outcomes – success, failure or some sort of draw – for both the course of the war and Western policy. I was in a group looking at the consequences of failure. It was depressingly easy to write the scenario. It was clear that the Ukrainians would want to push through from Zaporizhzhia in the south to divide Russian forces and reach the sea (the “success” scenario) and it was equally clear the Russians knew this and had prepared extensive defences. If these defences did their job the offensive would fail: Ukrainian forces would be rebuffed, suffer heavy losses, and possibly be left vulnerable to Russian counterattacks.

As this scenario was discussed I came to the conclusion that this dismal outcome would not lead to a major shift in Western policy. Others argued that this sort of failure, or just a lack of palpable success, was bound to mean an agonising reappraisal. More aid to Ukraine would be seen as throwing good money after bad and the clamour for some negotiated peace with Russia would grow. This case has been made for some time and the recent news reports have given it added vigour.

Yet unless the Ukrainian position became truly catastrophic, it is hard to see why Western governments would or should agree to an about turn. Even if this offensive falters, Ukraine would still not be defeated. It would continue the fight so long as its territory was under a cruel occupation. At the conference those gloomiest about the prospects for Ukrainian success did not suggest that the Russians had the capacity to mount a breakthrough offensive of their own – after all they had been trying during the first months of the year and achieved little. There has been a lot of noise on the Russian blogosphere about how Russian forces have been advancing towards Kupyansk in the east. The Ukrainians seem to see this as a manageable challenge, largely for show, but it can’t be ignored and has the effect of drawing forces away from their own offensive operations.

Such mini-offensives bring Russia no closer to achieving any of its shifting war aims. Surviving the Russian onslaught and liberating occupied territory continues to unify the Ukrainian people. Kyiv’s Western backers have not abandoned it. The aid packages keep coming. The costs to Western countries of continuing support are manageable, especially as they are not actually doing the fighting – this situation cannot be compared with the disillusion that set in with Vietnam and Iraq as casualties mounted and a sense of futility grew. If they abandoned Ukraine after one setback, however serious, this would confirm the impression from Afghanistan, that they are unreliable allies, and would hardly be a comfort to other countries, say Taiwan, that might hope for future support.

There is now the issue of whether Donald Trump can win the US presidency next year, but even if he did his inauguration would not be until January 2025. And for the moment all that we know about his Ukraine policy is that he believes that he could settle the war in no time at all. (Republicans remain split – for sure some of the would-be presidential nominees want to cut back on support but others in Congress are demanding that Biden give Ukraine more.)

Most tellingly, even if there was some temptation to explore a ceasefire there is no reason to suppose that Putin would be interested. From his perspective he does not yet have enough Ukrainian territory to consider his project complete. Once he saw support for Ukraine weakening then he would raise his demands.

[See also: “The guy I was before the Russians captured me has died”]

What if Russia fails?

In practice Ukraine is pushing back slowly but surely, imposing heavy costs while eating away at Russian capabilities. Perhaps aware that the recent stories about slow progress were harmful for national morale as well as international support, Ukraine has put more effort into demonstrating that it is moving forwards and is confident of eventual victory. Thus one story in the New York Times offers a more optimistic take. A deputy battalion commander of the 80th Airborne Assault Brigade, fighting on the eastern front, is quoted describing his early disappointment at their inability to “punch quickly through to the sea”, but how now “with cunning, with Western equipment, the Ukrainian armed forces are breaking through their defences”, so that success was “just a question of time”. He claimed that Russian forces were in a relatively poor shape and that they were being worn down by cluster munitions. Even the Washington Post has found space to argue that cluster munitions are causing real problems for Russian forces.

The village of Robotyne, which has been fought over for some time, is now in Ukraine’s hands. There are still possibilities for further significant advances and some time to achieve them. Ukraine’s forces are fully committed and there are no more reserves to be committed. There is perhaps another couple of months of fighting before the Ukrainians will start to be affected by ammunition shortages. By this time both sides may be feeling weary and depleted after the year’s exertions and be looking to regroup as much as attack.

The hope behind the Ukrainian offensive was that a sufficiently substantial blow would force Moscow into its own reappraisal, scaling back its demands. This was not an unreasonable hope. At some point if the Russian military can no longer cope and begins to retreat then even Putin’s most loyal acolytes would wonder whether there was much point to this war. But it has been evident since last September that Putin was determined to continue the fight, not least because he dare not be seen to have failed. He had even raised the stakes though mobilising more men for the army and announcing that much of Ukraine was now to be considered Russian. It would therefore require quite a military blow to shake up decision-making in Moscow, and that would need the Ukrainians to exceed expectations.

We should not lose sight of the scale of Russian losses thus far and the failure of its own recent offensives. It has been showing signs of stress but the army has not given up, and it manages occasional mini-offensives, while missile and drone strikes hurt the Ukrainians economically and socially as well as militarily. Russia’s economy is not in great shape but nor is it facing a chronic crisis. So even if the Ukrainian offensive prospered there could be no guarantee of its political effect.

The situation with Russia is not at all comparable to 1945. It is not facing an existential challenge – just a fiasco with a supposedly limited operation that went badly wrong. Ukraine is not going to march on Moscow to demand surrender. There are no demands for Russian territory to be handed over, or at least not territory internationally recognised as Russian. If Putin had not raised the stakes by claiming so much of Ukraine for Russia then it might not have been too hard to walk away. The cumulative effect of his disastrous policies has been to turn this special military operation into a struggle for the future of his regime and his concept of the Russian state.

At some point Moscow may decide that it must seek a route out of this morass but we can only guess what it will take to get to this decision and when it might occur. We do not know enough about the interaction between the various external pressures on Russia and the internal decision-making. Only on occasion do we get glimpses of the tensions within the elite, of which the Wagner mutiny was the most extreme example. As Ukraine and its Western allies cannot force a decision on Moscow, all that can be done is to keep up the pressure and accept that this may have to be done for months, even years. This is not because the war definitely will go on this long but because it might, and because Putin is more likely to seek a way out if he recognises that time is not on his side. This pressure can take a number of forms – at sea, in drone strikes against targets in Russia, attacking supply lines into Crimea, keeping up the pressure on its economy, demonstrating that Ukraine is not too far away from membership of the EU and Nato.

This is why the decision to send F-16s to Ukraine is important. It will certainly not help with the current offensive as it is unlikely that they will be flying much before next summer. But for that very reason they signal understanding of the potential length of this war. That is also why it is essential to step up production of ammunition and other war material. If it is likely that fighting will continue well into the next year then that should be reflected in Ukrainian strategy. Grumbles about slow progress should not lead to pressure to push harder than is feasible or prudent during the current offensive. The aim should be to get in as good a position as possible for the coming stages of the war and also to think about how best to sustain and develop capabilities for these stages. Whether Ukrainian forces do well or badly in the coming months it will still be essential to think long-term.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece first appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

[See also: Yevgeny Prigozhin and the end of the rebellion]

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