Preparing for a Long War

I have already discussed the likely form Putin’s strategy would take when Russia is neither winning nor losing its war with Ukraine. If a cease-fire was agreed tomorrow, Russia would be left with a significant amount of Ukrainian territory but less than sought, in a form difficult to occupy and defend over the long term and requiring significant funds to reconstruct and subsidize. It would not be able to stop Ukraine getting close to NATO and the EU.

The assumption that Putin would readily agree to a cease-fire if only Zelensky could be persuaded to agree to one does not reflect the logic of Russia’s strategic position. Russia has not proposed one, although Putin 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 will also want the sanctions regime to be unraveled. Full negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement, which these demands would require, could be extraordinarily protracted and complex. (Ukraine would raise issues of reparations and war crimes.) A cease-fire would allow both sides time to regroup and refresh but for neither would this represent a satisfactory or stable outcome.

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It is possible that the fighting will reach a genuine deadlock where 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.

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For now, the prospect is of continuing fighting that does not quite reach a conclusion, which in principle could go on for many years. Conditions might change sufficiently to trigger some serious diplomatic activity: 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 cannot be sure of that, nor that if they come, they will be in a form that he can fully exploit. As Ukraine is perceived to be suffering the aftereffects of a disappointing counter-offensive 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.

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These operations only work if they persuade Kyiv that it has no choice but to tolerate some occupation of its territory and restrictions on its future security policies. If they fail to do so 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% support peace talks far fewer support any concession to Ukraine.

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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’. Remilitarizing 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 Ukraine will not be able to attack Russia to the same extent as Russia attacks Ukraine the extent to which it can do so could prove to be an embarrassment and can undermine confidence in the security of Crimea.

What does this mean for Ukrainian strategy?

For Ukraine the stakes are much higher as its territory is under occupation and it shows no signs of being reconciled to its permanent loss. So, while it is not easy for Putin to end the war, and I have no optimism that he will soon seek to do so, in the end it is still easier 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 defenseless, 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.

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So there is no obvious negotiated way out of the war for Ukraine at the moment nor a straightforward route to a military victory. With no prospect of an early tolerable conclusion this is a difficult period in the war for Ukraine. In this respect like Russia, it is stuck between being able to do enough to avoid losing but not enough to win. Its people are tired and are coming to terms with just how long this war may drag on.

Ukraine is building up its own military production but is still dependent upon foreign support. It wants these supporters to do more but is worried that they will be doing less, making it difficult to sustain even the current level of effort. It 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 realized. It was always going to be difficult to break through well prepared Russian defenses, 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.

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By the measure of territory liberated, the one that dominated last spring’s conversations, the results have been disappointing. There have been other developments that have been more positive, of which more below, but 2023 has taken its toll and there is now a challenge working out how best to approach 2024.

The first part of this 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 preparing 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 paralyzed with strategies not subjected to criticism and scrutiny, the tensions can soon become harmful. This is something that needs to be addressed so that the country can reinvigorate its message of unity and defiance, 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 the forces can be more effective in the future at the battalion and divisional level.

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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 will 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, then 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 truly be 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 operations, whether offensive and defensive, will be on elite perceptions and decision-making in Moscow. This is even harder to measure and depends on many factors that shape the way that governments think. But it is not an objective to be dismissed.

The aim is to underline how badly a long war might yet go for Russia. This requires Ukraine to work out what might worry 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 peninsular, which has already been struck a number of times.

Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies King’s College London. His next book is: Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine (UK Penguin, US OUP)

Reprinted from the author’s blog: Comment is Freed. See the original here.

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Comments ( 1)

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Philip Tummarello
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

The west's general lack of genuine resolve in confronting putin is what allowed russia to build extensive defensive fortifications now impeding Ukrainian warriors. putin is sending severely wounded "soldiers" back to the front line in assault units. Western timidity and self-interests are only eclipsed by putin's idiocy. The lesson is here for those willing to learn it. Ukraine will never be part of NATO and should spit on the concept of joining the EU.

Ukrainian independence, sovereignty and cultural strengths require Ukraine to become as self-sufficient as possible in order to defend itself in the future. Americans are not remotely anti-Ukrainian. A large part of the country is anti-Biden because he and his family are so corrupted. Unfortunately for Ukraine, they are attached to the Biden family corruption by association. I still do not believe Ukraine will be abandoned by the US.

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