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Wars are a series of twists and turns. Momentum can shift and quickly alter fortunes on the battlefield, and intangible elements like leadership and motivation can shred the assessments of the most seasoned military analysts. Military campaigns that look promising initially can, over time, turn into quagmire, as mistakes accumulate, terrain changes and the adversary alters its tactics. The war in Ukraine is a textbook case in point.
During the war’s first two months, the Ukrainian army proved to be formidable, courageous and highly innovative against a better-armed Russian foe, which military experts had almost unanimously expected would prevail. A day after Russia’s invasion began, the US intelligence community was concerned that Russian forces would capture Kyiv in a matter of days. Vladimir Putin probably assumed a quick and relatively painless operation.
As it turned out, the Russian army, which had not conducted a major ground invasion since the calamitous war in Afghanistan four decades ago, resembled a disorganized horde of amateurs. Supply lines, stretched to the breaking point, doomed Russia’s attempt to overrun Kyiv; miles-wide Russian armored columns were stalled on the road, empty of fuel. There were reports of low morale, unforced surrenders, even desertion in the Russian ranks. Ukrainian troops, by contrast, proved to be fierce, committed fighters who deftly used the urban terrain to ambush Russian tanks, turning them into burnt-out husks. As many as 15,000 Russian soldiers may have been killed in the first month of the war.
Yet not only have the Russians persisted despite embarrassing defeats, they’ve adapted to these setbacks. While some commentators suggested that Russia’s withdrawal from the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions in early April illustrated the systemic weaknesses of the Russian army, those retreats turned out to be just another phase in the war – one that has turned out to be far less favorable, and much more brutal, to the Ukrainians.
Since the slow, grueling and methodical Russian capture of Mariupol in May, the war’s momentum has, unevenly and incrementally, shifted in Russia’s favor. While Russian forces continue to sustain severe casualties and losses of equipment, including more than 760 tanks and 185 artillery pieces, unrelenting Russian artillery fire is gradually grinding down Ukrainian forces and reportedly even eroding morale.
How has Russia learned from its errors in the initial stage of the war? First, instead of trying to attack all of Ukraine from multiple angles, a gambit that strained supply lines and left troops exposed to attacks from the rear, it has focused its campaign on Ukraine’s east, using long-range artillery, air and missile strikes on a massive scale against a smaller range of targets. The Russians have also been willing to destroy large parts of towns in order to seize or surround them. The agile urban fighting that the Ukrainian army excelled at is minimized in the Donbas, whose relatively flat terrain favors armored warfare, airpower and missiles. These weapons, as well as the ratio of soldiers there, favor Russia by a wide margin.
In Sievierodonetsk, Russian tactics – which often destroy entire urban districts before sending in ground troops – have presented Ukrainian commanders with a conundrum: retreat and live to fight another day, or stand their ground and possibly see some of their best troops killed or captured. The outlook for Ukraine in Sievierodonetsk looks grim at best and preordained at worst. About 70% of the city is now under Russian control, and US defense officials assess that Russia could take all of Luhansk within weeks.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his advisers seem to believe that with enough time, heavy weaponry, economic aid and political commitment from Ukraine’s western partners, its army can turn the tide and nullify the Russian military’s recent gains. While Kyiv insists that diplomacy is the only way the war can end, Zelenskiy himself has declared that any peace talks with Moscow will have to wait until after Russian forces withdraw to pre-24 February lines.
Yet at a time when Russia has captured as much as a fifth of Ukraine’s territory, Zelenskiy’s stance may become less and less tenable. Russian forces will not voluntarily vacate territory they have captured at such great cost simply to begin a negotiation on ending the war, not least because Putin now sees the momentum favoring his forces. In fact, the Kremlin seems to be digging in for a long-term presence. In parts of Russian-occupied territory, like the Kherson oblast, rumors of a referendum incorporating the area into Russia are prevalent. In the cities of Kherson and Melitopol, Russian passports are being handed out to residents, hardly a sign that Russia is thinking about pulling out.
If Russian troops hunker down behind heavily fortified lines and Putin, in an effort to sow disunity among Ukraine’s western backers, declares an end to his “special military operation”, Ukrainian forces will face the much harder task of evicting Russian troops from territories in which they are well ensconced.
To do that, Ukraine will require the sorts of weapons it lacks in significant numbers. Ukraine’s military will, in short, have to build up the capacity for a large-scale offensive – and at a time when it is losing many of its most battle-tested soldiers. As many as 200 Ukrainian troops are dying in combat every day – that’s 6,000 a month. These casualty numbers would be difficult to sustain for any army, let alone one engaged in a high-intensity, bloody war of attrition against a foe with an advantage in firepower.
Ukraine must also reckon with the prospect that Putin will respond to its efforts to claw back lost land with air and missile attacks intended to add to the colossal economic damage Ukraine has already sustained – as much as $600bn and, as early as March, $100bn in damaged or destroyed infrastructure alone, according to the UN.
Ukraine’s military success is inextricably linked to continued US and European arms shipments. Washington alone has sent more than $5bn in military equipment to Kyiv since the war began and is on track to ship four Himars long-range rocket systems, 15,000 artillery shells, 1,00 more Javelin anti-tank missiles and five counter-battery radars as part of the latest tranche of weaponry.
But the longer the war proceeds, the greater the likelihood the west will lose some of its unity against Russia, especially as soaring energy prices, rising inflation, and worries about a recession lead western politicians to focus on the home front. Even today, there is some dissension in the west about what the objectives in Ukraine should be. In contrast to the leaders of the Baltic states, Poland, and the United Kingdom, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, are not committed to ensuring that Russia is defeated militarily, and the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, has proposed a peace framework, with an immediate ceasefire at the top of the agenda.
Will this divide, deepened by Ukraine fatigue, grow as the war proceeds, Ukraine’s victories become fewer and less frequent, and the economies of Europe and the United States face increasing economic headwinds? None of this is foreordained. But it would be foolish not to recognize that the war in Ukraine has entered a new, more difficult phase – not just because of events on the battlefield but also due to economic and political trends in countries that have been Ukraine’s biggest supporters.
Ultimately, Zelenskiy and his government alone will have to determine what is in Ukraine’s best interest. But those choices will inevitably be shaped by the new circumstances, military and non-military, that are increasingly evident.
Daniel R DePetris is a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek and a fellow at Defense Priorities, a thinktank that advocates for restraint in foreign interventions.
Rajan Menon is director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the coauthor of Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order