Ukraine’s current counteroffensive will not throw Russia out — not that anyone expected it to. Nor is it likely to cut the occupation in half before the winter, which might have been one of the more optimistic aims. It has, however, shown how the Russian army can be beaten. Not in 2023, but in 2024 or 2025. Thus the refrain among western allies of supporting Kyiv “for as long as it takes”.
The modest progress achieved this summer shows that, while overcoming a well-prepared conventional battlefield defence may be one of the hardest operations in war, it can be done. The Ukrainian military has only breached the first line of trenches to take Robotyne in the south, having battled for weeks through minefields to get there. Progress is about eight miles with another 55 miles to go (through three lines of defences) before reaching the sea. The aim is to cut the land bridge to Crimea. To the north and south of Bakhmut, advances amount to about five miles with 10 miles to the Russian main defensive line and 60 miles to the border.
The presumed assassination of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and the top leadership of his mercenary group has had no effect on the fighting, save perhaps for stiffening the troops’ loyalty to Vladimir Putin. Russian forces are stretched, worn out and short of reserves but unless they simply give up, this will still be a long haul.
Ukraine has enough air defence to cover about a third of the country. Shortages of artillery ammunition were resolved only temporarily by the US providing cluster shells. Ukraine will take until mid-2024 to reconstitute a sufficiently powerful air force and is very short of the key equipment needed to clear mines. Fixing all this will take the war into next year at the least.
It would be catastrophic to allow what is left of 10th Corps, Ukraine’s uncommitted reserve, to be smashed to pieces on Russian defences because of a hasty timetable. Big wars — and this is a war for national survival along nearly 1,000km of front line — are fought at the scale and pace they evolve into. Defeating the Russian invasion relies on five crucial steps.
First, Kyiv must not press for substantial battlefield success before the means exist to deliver it. War is never best conducted as a close-run thing: Ukraine must be made stronger and Russia weaker or there will be stalemate.
Second, relentless pressure must be maintained on the Russian occupation throughout the winter. This means sustaining the successful “bite and hold” operations (advancing in short bounds to reduce casualties and stay within artillery and air defence cover), within the limits of sustainable manpower and ammunition supply. Pinning Russian forces to the front will steadily erode strength, will and reserves.
Third, Ukraine must systemically weaken Russia’s military grip on its territories into 2024 and beyond. Smashing the artillery arm is important, and so too are attacks on deeper targets across occupied Ukraine. The objective is to destroy Russian military capability faster than it can be replaced, rendering it unable to withstand a stronger future Ukrainian offensive. Kyiv is constrained by the western bar on use of its equipment and munitions in Russia itself — but it must still apply its ingenuity and courage to strike beyond its borders.
Fourth, the Russian Black Sea Fleet must be neutralised as an engine for Moscow’s devastating cruise missile strikes and a key constraint on the export of grain. Ukraine’s own missile strikes and rapidly expanding maritime drone capability can damage Russian ships faster than they are replaced. By spring 2024, the Black Sea Fleet should be playing no major part in this war.
The fifth and most important aspect is to accept that this war turns on the defence industrial capacity of the west and Ukraine as the determining factor in military success. More could be provided from stocks, but Ukraine’s campaign now relies on allies ramping up their defence industries. Ammunition from expanded production lines will take until at least mid-2024 to arrive; this should enable a major turning point in Kyiv’s offensive capability.
Ukraine must win on the battlefield to survive as a state. Not only is this victory vital to Nato’s security and its ongoing relationship with Russia, it will also influence China’s appetite for military adventure. The current counteroffensive shows Putin’s occupation can be beaten. It will take longer and cost more than we hoped, but hope isn’t enough. The west must now commit to the harder campaign ahead or condemn Ukraine to fighting without the prospect of winning.