Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 4 September 2023


Ukraine can­not win against Rus­sia now, but vic­tory by 2025 is pos­sible

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.

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