So far Russia has shown no inclination to slow the pace of the war. Even when it was more on the defensive over the summer months it counter-attacked continually so that Ukrainian forces were unable to consolidate any advance. As soon as the Ukrainian offensive was apparently winding down, they revived their own offensive in Donetsk. The only general who gave priority to defense, as he wished to concentrate on taking out Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, was General Sergey Surovikin.

Because he was too close to Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner group he has been 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 for now is to complete its occupation of the two oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk. For months now Russian forces have been pushing forward along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line in Luhansk, with only limited gains, while they have put a massive 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 grueling 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 southeastern 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 we shall see whether a combination of losses and weather forces it to reduce the intensity and regularity of its attacks.

ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 15, 2024
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ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 15, 2024

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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.


Critical Infrastructure

Last winter, Russia launched a massive bombing campaign targeting 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.

Although some 40 percent of the energy infrastructure was damaged, so that Ukrainians became familiar with periods of darkness and little water, they demonstrated resilience as engineers worked to repair or replace the damaged systems and extra air defense systems arrived. At times, however, the campaign was close to succeeding, at least to the point where consideration was being given to evacuating major cities, including Kyiv.

Winter weather has now arrived and so has a new Russian campaign. It arrived most dramatically on the morning of Nov. 25 with a massive drone attack, using a variety of flight paths to confuse air defenses, 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 anniversary of the Holodomor, the famine deliberately caused by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the early 1930s that led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians.

Follow up attacks since have been quite small but more that are much larger 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 Storm Shadow and US ATACMS. Although in both cases they have agreed not to use them against Russian territory, only targets in Russian controlled territory, including Crimea. But they can use drones

Since October it has launched attacks on at least three electricity substations and an oil refinery in the Krasnodar region of Russia. The day after the drone strikes against Kyiv, Ukraine sent drones of its own against a power station in Starobesheve in Russian-held territory. Sufficient got through to cut power to towns and cities, including the regional capital of Donetsk. An aircraft factory in Smolensk has also been reportedly struck recently. The Russian authorities also claimed to have shot down 11 drones on Saturday night and another nine on Sunday. Again, this is not a transformational capability, but it can eat away at Russian confidence.


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. (We can 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.)

The Black Sea Fleet has menaced Ukraine by putting the port city of Odesa at risk, threatening the main routes for the export of foodstuffs, 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 last 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 which 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 on—line 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 defenses. On Nov. 17 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 other vessels had been damaged.

Meanwhile the humanitarian corridor continues to work. Over 100 ships have now passed through, and a million tons 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 Liberian-flagged 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 cutters 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 it is not a good look for the 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. A dash for a quick victory would exhaust scarce resources and, if it failed, lead to further demoralization. This is essentially what Russia has been trying to do and, despite its advantages, it has not succeeded and suffered heavy losses. Even if it gets in a position to take Avdiivka it will struggle to push on in the land war.

The next few months will be difficult, especially if missile attacks directed against critical infrastructure start to get through its air defenses 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 as a distant prospect. The challenge for political leadership in Ukraine and in the West is to demonstrate that there is a way forward.

Confidence is not helped by regular warnings of the risks to the current levels of support from the US and Europe. The risks are real but commentary on these has been overdone. The intricacies of decision-making in the US Congress and in 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 come through until late next year. Of course, everything might get messed up by a Trump victory but one cannot base policy on a speculative possibility.

Looking ahead 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 concern in Russia that the longer the war continues the tougher it will be for them.

It will be easier for their supporters to do this if Ukraine demonstrates that it has a coherent strategy, so that it can cope with Russian aggression in whatever form it takes while preparing for more focused offensive action of its own either later in 2024 or, as likely, in 2025. Above all it must reinforce the message that this is a war that Russia can never win.   

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.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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