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What should Ukraine do next?

If it wants long-term Western support, Kyiv needs to show that it has a coherent war strategy.

By Lawrence Freedman

Russia is neither winning nor losing its war with Ukraine. I wrote yesterday about what Vladimir Putin’s strategy looks like in this scenario. If a ceasefire was agreed tomorrow, Russia would be left with a significant amount of Ukrainian territory but less than it originally sought, in a form difficult to occupy and defend over the long term, and which would be expensive to reconstruct and subsidise. It would not be able to stop Ukraine getting closer to Nato and the EU. The assumption that Putin would readily agree to a ceasefire if only Volodymyr Zelensky could be persuaded to agree to one does not reflect the logic of Russia’s strategic position. Russia has not proposed one, though its president has recently spoken in general terms about the desirability of peace.

Putin wants substantive political concessions from Ukraine, accepting both the loss of territory and some sort of veto over its foreign policy. He would also want the sanctions regime leveraged on Russia to be unravelled. Full negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement, which these demands would require, could be very protracted and complex. (Ukraine would raise issues of reparations and war crimes.) A ceasefire would allow both sides time to regroup but wouldn’t represent a satisfactory or stable outcome for either.

It is possible that the fighting will reach a genuine deadlock, in which both sides have secured their positions and neither feels strong enough to mount an offensive. The conflict would then acquire an uneasy stasis, but we are far from that situation. For now the prospect is of fighting that could go on for many years. Conditions might change sufficiently to trigger some serious diplomatic activity – such as a sudden shift in balance of military advantage, or the wider political context (for example after a Trump presidential victory).

Putin may suppose that, over time, Russia is more likely to benefit from such changes, but he can’t be sure – nor that he would be able to exploit them. As Ukraine is perceived to be suffering the after-effects of a disappointing counteroffensive and shortages of manpower and ordnance, my analysis suggests that Putin would still prefer to create these conditions sooner rather than later, and has not given up hope of being able to do so. That explains the extraordinary effort that Russia has put into its own recent offensive operations.

These operations only work if they persuade Kyiv that it has no choice but to tolerate some Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory and restrictions on its future security policies. If they fail in this, Putin is left with a problem. Even if his economy does not fall off a cliff edge, or Ukraine is unable to make significant gains of its own, a continuing failure to reach an outcome that looks like a “win” – in that it meets minimum objectives and has some chance of sticking once the guns fall silent – will be problematic. Though Putin may no longer fear a comprehensive battlefield defeat he needs to beware a growing sense of pointlessness and futility. Public support for the war in Russia is stable but also uneasy, with a slight majority believing the war has done more harm than good, and while over 70 per cent support peace talks, far fewer support any concession to Ukraine. The war will soon be taking up a third of all government spending, which is a lot for what began as a limited “special military operation”. Remilitarising society (the budget for propaganda is also going up) and then failing to achieve a military solution in Ukraine is going to lead to more questions. Ukraine’s capacity for long-range strikes is growing and while it will not be able to attack Russia to the same level as Russia attacks Ukraine, the extent to which it can could prove to be an embarrassment and undermine confidence in the security of Crimea.

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[See also: Putin’s darkest conspiracy theory yet]

What does this mean for Ukrainian strategy?

For Ukraine the stakes are much higher as its territories are under occupation – and Kyiv shows no signs of being reconciled to their permanent loss. So while it is not easy for Putin to end the war, and I have no optimism that he will seek it anytime soon, it is still more straightforward for him than Zelensky. If Ukraine is not prepared to concede territory there is not much more for it to discuss with Russia. In the talks that took place in March and April 2022 the issue of neutrality was on the table. That discussion fell apart because Ukraine still did not want to be left defenceless, and wanted security guarantees of some sort, while the revelation of atrocities in the liberated areas around Kyiv added to the urgency of freeing all territory from Russian occupation. On this matter the Russian proposals had been vague.

With no prospect of an early, tolerable conclusion, this is a difficult period in the war for Ukraine. Like Russia it is stuck between being able to do enough to avoid losing but not enough to win. Its people are tired and coming to terms with just how long this war may drag on.

Ukraine is building up its own military production but is still dependent on foreign support. It wants these supporters to do more but is worried they will do less, making it difficult to sustain even the current level of effort. The Ukrainian government is also ending the year as it began, pushing scarce resources into defending territory against a Russian onslaught.

The hopes for its own offensive were not realised. It was always going to be difficult to break through well-prepared Russian defences, especially without air power and with fresh units that were inexperienced in complex offensive operations and had only limited training. And so it proved. It did not take long for Ukraine to change tactics, which stemmed the losses, but these meant slower movement. By the measure of territory liberated – the metric that dominated conversations in the spring – the results have been disappointing. There have been other, positive developments, of which more below, but 2023 has taken its toll. The challenge is working out how best to approach 2024.

The first part of that challenge – assuming that the government judges that this is also the will of the people – is to acknowledge the possibility of a long war and prepare accordingly. This does require a national consensus. There are fissures appearing among the elite though these are not unusual for countries facing stressful times. A degree of tension in civil-military relations is also natural and can be a good thing. But if infighting becomes chronic and decision-making starts to get paralysed, with strategies not subject to criticism and scrutiny, the tensions can soon become harmful. This needs to be addressed for the country to invigorate its message of unity and defiance, which was so powerful in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion.

The second part is to accept that there are no quick fixes. There is always a temptation, to which Putin may have succumbed, to believe in the one “big push” that will decide the war. Better to conserve capabilities, improve local arms production, and step up training so that forces can be more effective at the battalion and divisional level. 

There may still be offensive operations, and some perhaps will exceed expectations, but Ukraine is unlikely to be able to invest all resources and hopes in a single campaign. Meanwhile defensive operations, which continue to be essential, must be seen as being about more than holding the line but also about reducing Russian capabilities and morale.

This leads to the third part of the challenge. Military operations are naturally assessed in terms of territory gained or lost. When there is little movement, as has been the case during 2023, the next measure tends to be attrition. Even with an apparently inconclusive encounter one side may emerge so bruised that it will be hampered in future encounters. But attrition can only be properly judged by reference to the ease with which casualties, equipment lost and ammunition expended can be replaced. The effects are therefore cumulative and conditional, and in some areas may be quite temporary.

The other way to assess the implications of any operation, offensive and defensive, is on elite perceptions and decision-making in Moscow. This is even harder to measure, but is not an objective to be dismissed. The aim is to underline how badly a long war could go for Russia. This requires Ukraine to work out what worries Moscow most. This has already encouraged a focus on Crimea, the most important Russian gain of 2014, and which is already looking less rather than more secure as a result of the full-scale invasion. At some point it might be possible to mount a proper land attack to retake the territory but for now the point can be made by regular strikes on targets inside Crimea, and threatening supply lines, including the Kerch Bridge between the mainland and the peninsula – which has already been struck a number of times.

[See also: Gaza and Ukraine have divided the world into geopolitical tribes]

The land war

So far Russia has shown no inclination to slow the pace of the war. Even when it was on the defensive over summer it counterattacked continually so that Ukrainian forces were unable to consolidate any advance. As soon as the Ukrainian offensive was apparently winding down, Russian forces revived their own offensive in the Donetsk oblast.

The only Russian general who gave priority to defence, as he wished to concentrate on taking out Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, was Sergey Surovikin. Because he was too close to Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group he was demoted and sidelined. Putin’s inclination, transmitted to his generals, has been to stay on the offensive, relying on superior numbers to overwhelm the Ukrainians, and apparently caring little about casualties.

The main Russian military objective is to complete its occupation of the two oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk. For months Russian forces have been pushing forward along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line in Luhansk, with only limited gains, while they have put much effort into taking the city of Avdiivka, which is seen as making possible the control of Donetsk. Avdiivka is turning into one of those long and gruelling fights where Ukrainian defenders seek to hold their positions against constant Russian attacks.

The Russians have made some progress in areas close to the besieged and now largely destroyed city, with their main focus being the industrial area on its south-eastern edge. Their aim is to cut off supply lines and leave Ukrainian forces trapped. So far they have failed to achieve this, and have suffered heavy casualties and equipment losses. Ukraine still controls the major highways into the city. The Russian command seems reluctant to give up on Avdiivka, so it is unknown whether a combination of troop losses and bad weather forces it to reduce the intensity and regularity of attack.

While this has been going on Ukraine has successfully opened up a new front on the eastern bank of the Dnieper river. This could relieve pressure on the city of Kherson on the West Bank, which has suffered from regular Russian shelling since Ukrainian forces reoccupied the city about a year ago, and it potentially opens up a new route to get at Crimea, but for the moment it is largely about potential.

[See also: The slipperiness of ceasefire]

Critical infrastructure

Last winter, Russia launched a huge bombing campaign against Ukraine’s civilian energy infrastructure. The aim was essentially to deprive the country of energy, leading to social breakdown. The campaign began in October 2022 and lasted until March, as the weather improved, and was conducted by regular waves of missiles and kamikaze drones. Though some 40 per cent of the energy infrastructure was damaged, and Ukrainians became familiar with periods of darkness and little water, they demonstrated resilience as engineers worked to repair or replace the damaged systems. Plus, extra air-defence systems arrived. The campaign came close to succeeding, however – at least to the point where consideration was being given to evacuating major cities, including Kyiv.

But winter is here, and so is a new Russian campaign. It arrived most dramatically on the morning of 25 November with a huge drone attack, using a variety of flight paths to confuse air defences, largely but not solely targeted on Kyiv. Of the 75 drones sent, 74 were shot down over a six-hour period, with the major damage caused by falling debris. This was the 100-year anniversary of the Holodomor, the famine deliberately induced by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. Follow-up attacks have been quite small, but further large ones must be expected. 

Ukraine’s concern is that these drone attacks use up scarce and expensive air defence missiles so that there is insufficient capacity to cope with Russian missiles when they start coming through in numbers.

One new feature of Ukraine’s strategy is a readiness to retaliate. In late October Zelensky observed that: “This year we will not only defend ourselves, but also respond.” Ukraine has longer-range capabilities, such as the UK’s Storm Shadow and US’s ATACMS missiles. Although in both cases they have agreed not to use them against Russian territory, only targets in Russia-controlled areas, including Crimea. But they can use drones.

Since October it has launched attacks on several electricity substations and an oil refinery in the Krasnodar region of Russia. The day after the drone strikes against Kyiv last week, Ukraine sent drones of its own against a power station in Starobesheve in Russian-held territory. 

Sufficient numbers got through to cut power to towns and cities, including the regional capital of Donetsk. An aircraft factory in Smolensk, Russia has also reportedly been struck. The Russian authorities claimed to have shot down 20 drones last weekend. Again, this is not a transformational capability, but it can eat away at Russian confidence.

[See also: Henry Kissinger’s real triumph]

The Black Sea

The naval war has attracted far less attention than the land war, not least because Ukraine lacks a navy. Yet by using missiles and drones Ukraine has been able to make the position of Russia’s Black Sea fleet barely tenable by both striking individual vessels and compromising the naval base in Sevastopol on the edge of Crimea. (Recall that part of the rationale for annexing Crimea in 2014 was to prevent a new Ukrainian government denying Russia its special rights over Sevastopol.)

Russia’s Black Sea fleet has menaced Ukraine by putting the port city of Odesa at risk, threatening the main routes for the export of food, and also by launching Kalibr cruise missiles against Ukrainian cities. To deal with this menace Ukraine has used uncrewed surface vessels, carrying explosives, to attack Russian warships at sea and in port, to the point where the fleet has been obliged to retreat. Because they don’t carry crew these have the advantage of sitting low in the water and getting heavier payloads directly to their targets. Russian ships are now wary about getting too close to Ukrainian shores. Nor is it easy for Russia to reinforce the fleet because Turkey has closed the Bosphorus Strait to warships other than those of Black Sea nations, as it is entitled to do under the Montreux Conventions.

As it became harder for Russia to enforce a full blockade, and with complaints that it was denying poorer countries essential food supplies, it agreed a deal, brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July 2022, that allowed Ukraine to export grain and other foodstuffs from three of its ports. Persistent Ukrainian attacks, including on the Black Sea fleet headquarters and Russian submarines in Sevastopol, led to Russia withdrawing from the grain deal this July. This was followed by attacks on Odesa and other ports. Russia said it would treat commercial ships going to Ukraine as potentially carrying weapons. The Ukrainian response was to start attacking Russian ships while setting up a humanitarian corridor for commercial ships to travel to and from Ukrainian ports.

In September more Russian ships were attacked, followed on 22 September by an attack on naval headquarters in Crimea that killed, according to Ukraine, 33 Russian officers. (They claimed that the commander of the Black Sea fleet, Viktor Sokolov, died in the strike. Sokolov appeared in a Russian video of an online Russian command conference the next day, but has not been seen since.) The UK’s armed forces minister James Heappey spoke in early October of the “functional defeat” of the Russian Black Sea fleet. It moved its base from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk, although it also reportedly reinforced the fleet with two extra frigates and a submarine. The attacks continued into November, with a newly built Russian corvette damaged while at the Zaliv shipyard in Kerch in Crimea, the furthest east Ukraine had managed to strike into Crimea, adding to Russia’s problems of basing, and the challenge of air defences. On 17 November Ukraine claimed that its naval operations had led to the destruction of 15 Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea since February 2022, and that 12 others had been damaged.

Meanwhile the humanitarian corridor continues to work. More than 100 ships have passed through it and a million tonnes of grain have been successfully transported. The UK has contributed a special insurance fund to support the corridor. The waters around Ukraine are not without hazards. A Liberian-flagged oil tanker hit a mine in October and another commercial ship was hit by a missile strike against Odesa in November, killing a harbour pilot and injuring three crew members. Zelensky has claimed, without providing details, that international partners are preparing to provide Ukraine’s naval forces with cutter vessels to bolster security along the grain corridor and ensure the safe passage of commercial vessels carrying food products.

None of this makes that much difference to land operations, and in some ways it is secondary, but one of Russia’s forms of pressure has been thwarted, and the situation is not a good look for its Black Sea fleet.

I have argued that the logic of the situation turns the prevailing assumptions upside down. Instead of Ukraine pushing for a quick victory while Russia waits for its support to wane in the West, Ukraine needs to show patience and concentrate on strengthening its position for the longer term. Dashing for quick victory would exhaust scarce resources and, if it failed, lead to further demoralisation. This is essentially what Russia has been trying to do and, despite its advantages, it has suffered heavy losses and failed. Even if Russian troops take Avdiivka they will struggle to push on in the land war. The next few months will be difficult for Ukraine, especially if missile attacks directed against critical infrastructure start to get through its air defences and threats of retaliation fail to deter. The costs and pain of war should never be understated, and they can be harder to endure when victory appears distant. The challenge for political leaderships in Ukraine and the West is to demonstrate that there is a way forward.

Confidence is not helped by regular warnings of the risks to support levels from the US and Europe. The worries are real but overstated. The intricacies of decision-making in the American Congress and the EU are sources of delay, but they can be navigated and probably will be. These delays have their costs, as can be seen in the shortage of ammunition. Western production is increasing but this has been too slow and the benefits to Ukraine will not emerge until late next year. Of course everything might get messed up by a Trump victory but one cannot base policy on a speculative possibility.

It is as important that Western countries gear up for a long war. Russia’s economy is tiny compared to theirs, and while some grumble at the economic burden, they are not the ones doing the fighting. The costs and impact of a Russian victory would be far greater. Economic sanctions can be tightened, and seized Russian financial assets diverted to help Ukraine. These will not provide killer blows, but they can add to concerns in Russia of what a longer war means. It will be easier for Ukraine’s supporters to do this if the country shows it has a coherent strategy. This will allow it to cope with Russian aggression, in whatever form it takes, while preparing for further offensive action of its own either later in 2024 or, as likely, 2025. Above all it must reinforce the message that this is a war Russia can never win.

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

[See also: Who is winning the war in Ukraine?]

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