New Times,
New Thinking.

Who is winning?

Parsing the narrative shifts in Russia’s war on Ukraine.

By Lawrence Freedman

In an assessment of how the Russo-Ukraine War has been covered, the analyst Neil Hauer in War on the Rocks identifies a phenomenon that anyone following the conflict closely will recognise. “Both Ukraine and Russia have regularly been seen as the conflict’s inevitable victor,” he writes, “only to fall back down to Earth when the expectations created failed to live up to reality.” In other words, commentators have a tendency to be gripped by the narrative of either a Russian or a Ukrainian victory, only to be followed by a swing in the other direction as the supposedly losing side turns out to be more resilient than expected.

Not surprisingly Hauer urges that more attention be paid to the more cautious and careful analysts who emphasise “that anything with as many inputs and moving parts as the 21st century’s largest interstate conflict are exceedingly difficult to predict”. He also observes that the pendulum has recently swung back towards pessimism on behalf of Ukraine, as Russia has failed to collapse. This has led to proposals for a peace deal, combined with warnings that otherwise Ukraine is headed for certain defeat – with the credibility of Western foreign policy part of the collateral damage.

Why gloom?

A good example of the narrative of Russian ascendancy comes from a story in the New York Times on 13 January (not the only one in that newspaper), with the headline “Russia regains upper hand in Ukraine’s east as Kyiv’s troops struggle”. It contains the three key themes of the recent gloom: the “failed” Ukrainian offensive of the summer; ammunition shortages; and waning international support. Ukrainians troops are described as “weary, short of ammunition and outnumbered, and their prospects look bleak”. Their ranks are depleted by casualties, with replacements poorly trained and often old or “no better than drunks”. They are reaching their limits.

“And now, Russian troops are on the attack, especially in the country’s east,” the article continues. “The town of Marinka has all but fallen. Avdiivka is being slowly encircled. A push on Chasiv Yar, near Bakhmut, is expected. Farther north, outside Kupiansk, the fighting has barely slowed since the fall.”

Getting new recruits in sufficient numbers is one of the more demanding tasks facing Ukraine’s government this year. Because of doubts over Western support, ammunition has to be conserved. The report concludes with a Ukrainian soldier lamenting how much they are getting pounded. “It’s hot all over now.”

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By contrast, and despite huge casualties of their own, “the Kremlin’s forces still managed to repel a concerted Ukrainian counteroffensive, regroup and are now assaulting in frigid winter conditions”. As journalists are not allowed the same access to front-line Russian troops we are left assuming that somehow they are in better shape. There is fragmentary, anecdotal evidence of problems of quality and morale on the Russian side. They lack the capacity for a big breakthrough and must find ways to recruit more troops to replace those killed and wounded. This may be difficult because the prisons have been emptied and Vladimir Putin is not keen to raise the numbers being mobilised to additional levels.

We can go further and note that it is rare to read an account of any front-line troops fighting in tough conditions in any war in which they are not grumbling incessantly or convinced that they are led by fools who constantly let them down. (In a piece last June, I discussed the role of the infantry and how they get least and give most. The US infantry in the Second World War left us with the acronym Snafu, or “Situation normal, all f**ked up”; and Fubar, of which there are many versions but the politest is “Fouled up beyond all recognition”, but the most heartfelt is “F**ked up by a***holes in the rear”.)

It would be foolish to deny the real problems that the Ukrainians are facing, or preclude the possibility, or indeed the likelihood, that the Russians may make some progress somewhere along the line. The Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Studies assesses that Russia has concentrated more than 40,000 personnel for its next push in the direction of Avdiivka, a city in central Donetsk.

Nonetheless, the problem is not that the Ukrainians are unable to mount a decent offensive while the Russians can, but that both sides find offensives difficult. Defence is stronger. After well over three months, the latest Russian offensive has achieved remarkably little, other than battering to nothingness the places they are trying to take. They make progress only by throwing more troops and armoured vehicles into costly assaults, to the point where it is doubtful that even if they do take a town such as Avdiivka they will be able to follow through.

A recent Financial Times assessment of the state of the war describes “Ukraine’s military prospects” as “dimming”. Although this is a much more substantial and nuanced analysis of the issues than in the New York Times, it suffers from the same problem: it’s a probing analysis of Ukraine’s position but there is remarkably little on Russia or what Putin’s commanders think they have gained in the past year.

It opens with a Ukrainian soldier on the east bank of the Dnieper river, where a bridgehead has been held for a number of months, describing the situation as “deplorable”. Their positions are tenuous, not least because of the difficulty of bringing in new supplies, they are outnumbered and it is very cold. It is unlikely to serve as a base for future offensives and so they may have to fall back to the Dnieper’s west bank.

This is essentially a continuation of the disappointments surrounding Ukraine’s offensive that have been rumbling for at least five months already, which meant this year’s strategy was bound to be more defensive. After the optimism of late 2022, this is undoubtedly frustrating for Ukrainians. It is difficult to sustain a defensive posture indefinitely without any early prospect of a return to the offensive. As Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR), put it when talking about last year’s counteroffensive: “To say that everything is fine is not true… To say that there is a catastrophe is also not true.”

This year is one for holding ground, building up capabilities for later offensives, emphasising local production, mobilisation of reserves, and training, while eating away at Russian capabilities and morale and perhaps taking any opportunities that present themselves to exploit weaknesses in the Russian positions. Hence it is described as “active defence”, with some uncertainty about how active it will be.

The FT article at least does not suggest imminent Russian victory. It quotes a “Western official” as saying there is “little prospect of an operational breakthrough by either side in 2024”, let alone in the next few months. This reflects the harsh reality of a war now marked by endurance and attrition.

Waiting for Congress

The key issue for the moment is the disparity in munitions, where Russia enjoys an advantage, and will continue to do so for the next few months, regardless of any new assistance for Ukraine. The big issue, however, as identified by the FT is “the West’s resolve and whether it can and will continue backing Ukraine in its fight – and, if it does, to what extent”?

To some extent this is the wrong framing. There is no evidence that Western leaders in general are reneging in their support for Ukraine or lack the will to continue. There have been numerous statements from these leaders to the contrary. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently visited Kyiv where he pledged more assistance and also security guarantees. France’s President Emmanuel Macron will soon follow him, with similar pledges – including 40 Scalp long-range missiles. Germany is reportedly planning to double its military aid to Kyiv to €8bn this year. Last year it was the second-largest donor after the US.

The substantial EU package has been held up by the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, a friend of Putin’s. But the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen sounds more optimistic on reaching a deal with all member states. This she says is the “first priority”, adding that: “But of course, we have to prepare for other options… there are the operational solutions that we are preparing right now.” The options will go to EU leaders at a summit on 1 February.

Much more difficult is the situation in the US. Again, the problem in Congress is not whether there is majority support for Ukraine, but the ability of a small but powerful group in the House of Representatives to use legislative progress as leverage to toughen the administration’s stance on the Mexican-US border. This is now inextricably bound up with presidential politics. The Republicans, egged on by Donald Trump, are determined to deny Joe Biden either a foreign policy victory or a solution to the border issue, which they reckon, left unsolved, would be something that can be used to attack the Democrats in the run-up to the November vote. Washington insiders are becoming increasingly doubtful that a deal will be done.

This, to say the least, makes life difficult for Ukrainian forces. There are some vital supplies that only the US can provide. In an interview with Politico, the Russia expert Fiona Hill pointed out: “We’ve now reached a tipping point between whether Ukraine continues to win in terms of having sufficient fighting power to stave Russia off, or whether it actually starts to lose because it doesn’t have the equipment, the heavy weaponry, the ammunition. That external support is going to be determinative.”

Recent reports have the national security adviser Jake Sullivan and the director of national intelligence Avril Haines warning congressional leaders that if its $60bn aid package fails to pass, Russia could win the war in months or even weeks, largely because Ukraine will run out of air defence and artillery capabilities in the coming weeks. Others question that timetable, but only so long as Ukraine concentrates more on the “defence” than the “active” part of the new formula, and does not take too many risks with its limited capabilities, and moves expeditiously on mobilisation.

Aerial attacks and air defences

One observation offered by Sullivan and Haines was that some of the largest raids against Ukrainian cities since the early days of the war came after Congress adjourned in December without approving the additional aid.

On 11 December incoming missiles directed at Kyiv were knocked out successfully by air defences. But then, over five days from 29 December, some 500 missiles and drones were fired at targets across Ukraine. More than 120 of these were fired on 29 December killing at least 44 people, including 30 in Kyiv, where some 100 houses and 45 high-rise buildings were destroyed. On New Year’s Eve, Ukraine’s forces claimed to have shot down 87 of 90 drones and then on 2 January at least 99 missiles and 35 drones were fired at Kyiv and other cities, killing five people. Dozens more were injured. On 8 January, in another big missile attack, only 18 of the 51 missiles fired at the country were shot down. On 23 January there were major missile strikes against a number of cities including Kharkiv, which left more than ten dead and 42 injured, and Kyiv, which went on for over two and a half hours, leaving 20 injured. This time only 21 of 41 incoming missiles were destroyed.

Ukrainian towns and cities have been targeted by more than 3,800 drones and 7,400 missiles since the start of the war. The challenge for Ukrainian air defences is not only to cope with the number of incoming weapons and their variety – cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and drones – but also the changing tactics and methods the Russians use to avoid or confuse the defences. Different types of weapons arrive at the same time over the same target. At times decoys are used. The drones, which are easiest to shoot down because of their slow speed, are painted black to make them harder to spot. Exhausts are put on the front instead of the rear to confuse thermal sights. CNN quotes a Ukrainian source: “They used to fly in a single trajectory, but now they zigzag. A drone can fly, then circle, hover, go down completely, then rise about half a kilometre, then fly sharply down.”

In some of the recent strikes the drones arrive first with single missiles then coming in from a variety of routes, helping the Russians to map the defences and identify weak spots.

There is something else different about these attacks. The sustained campaign waged from the autumn of 2022 to the spring in 2023 was against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, and in particular electricity transmission. At one point in late 2022 there were concerns that major cities might have to be evacuated, but somehow a combination of air defences, repairs and extra electricity supplies from EU countries, got Ukraine through the winter. Now the targeting is more varied, though Ukraine’s defence industry is high on the target list.

To deal with this complex threat, Ukraine has a number of systems: portable Stingers, the German Gepard anti-aircraft guns, the French long-range SAMP/T, the American/Norwegian NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System). But to deal with ballistic missiles it has only Patriots. Typically, they were not sent in time for the start of the Russia missile offensive of late 2022. Their delivery was authorised only after the damage the Russians could do was apparent. Once the Patriots entered service they had a remarkable impact. In attacks over May and June two batteries reportedly shot down all 34 ballistic missiles fired at Kyiv. In May also, according to the Ukrainians, five Russian aircraft were shot down in a matter of minutes.

The Patriot system also serves a wider air defence role. Its radar is resistant to jamming, and sufficiently powerful to track up to 100 targets at any time, guiding other missiles to intercept them. All its parts – the radar, power station, missiles launchers – are moved constantly to avoid detection. According to the New York Times: “The truck-mounted command center – which calculates trajectories for the interceptors, controls the launching sequence and allows soldiers to communicate with other air-defense units – is the only manned part of the system.”

It is not surprising that President Volodymyr Zelensky has made a point of praising the Patriots: “The Russians are shocked – and I’m telling you honestly – our partners are shocked that this system really works so strong.”

Ukraine’s commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny reported that ten Kinzhals (Daggers) were shot down in the 2 January attack using Patriots. These are air-launched ballistic missiles, which Putin once claimed, with what can now be seen to be exaggeration, to be hypersonic and unbeatable. (I discussed the Patriot-Kinzhal duel in a piece in May 2023). Although the US is not the only source of Patriots – in December, Germany delivered a second battery – this is an area where Ukraine needs as much help as it can get.

Ukraine attacks Russia

One of the big differences compared with last year is that Ukraine is now regularly hitting targets inside Russia. It has identified drones as the best way to compensate for some of its weaknesses elsewhere, including artillery. The country intends to produce up to a million this year, although as the former CEO and chair of Google Eric Schmidt notes, as Russia is also putting a lot of stress into drone production, this also requires close attention to the demands of electronic warfare that make it possible to jam and spoof incoming drones.

Ukraine’s long-range drones means that they do not need to use Western systems to reach Russian territory (in a way that the Biden administration feared might start a nuclear war). Mick Ryan recently discussed the logic behind these strikes, their possibilities, and their limits, in his Substack. If it is going to be hard for Ukraine to be very active on the ground there are ways of making life difficult for the Russians. Drones have already been important in depleting Russia’s Black Sea fleet and making the port of Sevastopol difficult to use.

Last September Kyrylo Budanov observed that one third of the Russian missile enterprises are located in the European part of Russia and are reachable by drones. Ukrainian attacks had already been mounted against factories that produce electronic equipment for missiles and rocket fuel components. On 20 January at a military factory in Russia’s Tula region, where Russia manufactures a variety of weapons, from surface-to-air missiles to small arms, “loud explosions and fire” were reported.

The oil and gas sector is also being targeted by Ukraine’s drones. A refinery in Krasnodar region was attacked on 29 December; a fuel facility in Oryol on 9 January; and an oil depot in Bryansk on 19 January. In this latter case, the Russian state news agency Tass said the fire covered an area of around 1,000 square metres, and that four gasoline tanks were burning. A strike on a gas export terminal in St Petersburg caused a huge fire, which, according to the Russian authorities, led to the suspension of the work of the terminal. This was described as the work of “external influences”. The advantage of these strikes is that they reduce the supply of oil for Russian aircraft and armoured vehicles, affect revenue-generating exports, and make a point that Russia is not immune from feeling the effects of the war.

The biggest problem facing Russia’s energy industry at the moment may not be the drone strikes. An emergency stoppage at Lukoil’s oil refinery in Nizhny Novgorod, which processes around 340,000 barrels a day, may lead to its output of high-octane gasoline being halved, with some suggestions that this may lead to a ban on gasoline exports in order to sustain the supply to the domestic market. Even if there is not, exports will be reduced. The issue is whether the necessary parts can be found to fix the equipment because of sanctions.

The indirect costs of the war to Russia could also be seen in the recent spate of utility breakdowns in the country during the recent period of extremely cold weather. Thus authorities in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk have declared a state of emergency as pipe bursts left residents without central heating in freezing temperatures. Among the reasons for the problems in Russian utilities are shortages of materials and trained engineers, because they have been called up to the front, as well as routine corruption.

None of this is going to force Russia out of the war but for Putin, looking forward to the coming presidential election in mid-March, these attacks and evidence of crumbling infrastructure are irritants. Nothing will affect the result, which is known in advance, but he would prefer that his re-election comes through in a surge of optimism about the future of the country and the progress of the war. If he can’t complete the capture of the Donbas region by March then at least he will want a big show in July at the time of Nato’s celebratory 75th anniversary summit, when all the alliance’s leaders will be gathered in Washington. Putin would dearly love to embarrass Biden.

In recent months, at least since the difficulties with the EU and US assistance packages became apparent, he has sounded upbeat. For example, see his comments of 16 January, in which he asserted that: “Now it is quite obvious, not only (Ukraine’s) counteroffensive failed, but the initiative is completely in the hands of the Russian armed forces. If this continues, Ukrainian statehood may suffer an irreparable, very serious blow.”

He showed little interest in a negotiated solution, except on his terms. He dismissed “so-called peace formulas” as discussed in the West and Ukraine because of their “prohibitive demands”. Talk of negotiation, he warned, was: “An attempt to motivate us to abandon the gains that we have realised over the past year and a half. But this is impossible. Everyone understands that this is impossible.”

Meanwhile, his sidekick, Dmitri Medvedev, with his customary charm, described Ukraine as a “cancerous tumour”. The only choice for Ukrainians was to “become Russians or die”. Hardly the language of compromise.

Hauer concludes his essay for War on the Rocks with the following comment: “If there is one lesson this war should have taught us, it is that no present reality or narrative is nearly as solid as it seems. The nature of the conflict means that at any time, a coherent and well-argued piece can be written explaining why defeat is imminent for either of the sides. And yet this has yet to happen. Both at the present, with Ukraine on the back foot, and when Ukraine is ascendant again in the near future, we would all do well to moderate our predictions of what’s next.”

I understand the sentiment and certainly agree on the need to take care with predictions but am less sure that it is possible to write “coherent narratives explaining why defeat is imminent for both sides”. This is especially the case if victory or defeat is defined in terms of territorial gains and losses. Without a new US aid package it is easier to write a negative prospectus for Ukraine, although with the right choices it can still deny the Russians substantial gains. Equally, even if the aid package comes through, Ukraine will still experience some difficult months.

Most important, there is this fundamental asymmetry in the way that we view this war and construct the narratives. While we have lots of material available to write our stories, positive or negative, about Ukraine, we have very little on Russia. We can work over Putin’s occasional utterances but other than that much of what is written is speculative. There is evidence of spreading unhappiness in Russia at the way the war has gone and is going (see this piece by Diane Francis), but not that it has yet to affect the Kremlin’s decision-making. Therefore the tendency is just to assume that Russia can go on and on because that is Putin’s will.

Whatever happens now this war remains a terrible blunder that can never deliver Putin a satisfactory outcome. It is not only that Ukraine will not stop fighting even if US support tails off, or that a Trump victory might not deliver the country to Russia, but that whatever happens now Russia’s relationship with the Ukrainian people is going to be deeply antagonistic and no amount of brute force will change that. At some point Ukraine needs to persuade the Kremlin that the only hope of restoring equanimity to the relationship is for Russian troops to be withdrawn from Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile it is deeply unsatisfactory to be in a position where Ukraine can only mark time, and take the pain, waiting for a more favourable turn in US politics – and to devise new strategies in case it never does.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. A version of this piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

[See also: The dissident is dead]

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