Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 8 December 2023

Ukraine’s counteroffensive ran into a new reality of war

Opinion by David Ignatius


December 08, 2023 at 3:41 Taiwan Time

As winter comes to Kyiv, Ukrainian and U.S. commanders are making cold and unsentimental assessments of the lessons of the summer’s failed counteroffensive against Russian forces.

The stalled counteroffensive was a signal that the war in Ukraine is deadlocked. Drones and other high-tech weapons have made Ukrainian and Russian tanks largely obsolete. In this conflict, it’s now clear that defense beats offense: A Ukrainian armored assault meant to last four days stretched to an exhausting 12 weeks. The result is a deadly standoff.

“Just like in the first world war we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” Ukraine’s commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, said bluntly in an interview last month with the Economist. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” he said, in an epitaph for the counteroffensive.

“The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy is doing, and they see everything we are doing,” Zaluzhny explained. “The level of our technological development today has put both us and our enemies in a stupor.”

Zaluzhny said Ukraine needs tech breakthroughs, which he likened to China’s invention of gunpowder, to overcome this impasse. Otherwise, he said, “sooner or later we are going to find that we simply don’t have enough people to fight.” A deadlocked war of attrition could “drag on for years and wear down the Ukrainian state,” he said.

The basic dilemma for Kyiv is whether to keep fighting for a decisive victory. With more and better high-tech weapons from the United States and its allies, Ukraine could take another shot at cutting Russia’s supply lines to Crimea, as it attempted over the summer. That might force Moscow to bargain an end to the war on terms that would be favorable to Kyiv.

The bitter alternative is to play for a draw. If the U.S. weapons pipeline is blocked — making a big new assault impossible — a fatigued and increasingly fractious Ukraine might have little choice but to explore a settlement. Like the separation of North and South Korea, such a deal would leave Russia in control of territory it has seized since 2014 — but it could offer Kyiv the security of future membership in the European Union and NATO.

William B. Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, sees a fork ahead: Either NATO nations increase support for Ukraine to regain its territory, or “Ukraine fights on with inadequate force” and might have to eventually accept a Korea-like partition.

The story of how and why Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed was explained this week in a superb two-part series by The Post. The articles described weeks of tabletop war games by U.S. and Ukrainian commanders that didn’t begin to capture the bloody reality ahead. Kyiv’s new mobile forces, staffed largely by untested recruits, were stopped cold by dense Russian minefields and savage drone attacks. “It was hellfire,” one Ukrainian platoon commander told The Post.

The most painful part of the Post series was its description of how top U.S. officials anticipated that Ukraine probably would fail but still encouraged the campaign to go forward. The CIA reckoned Ukraine had a 50-50 chance of success, and an intelligence assessment predicted the Ukrainians would fall “well short” of their goals, The Post wrote.

CIA Director William J. Burns told The Post: “We could see [the Russians] building really quite formidable fixed defenses, hard to penetrate, really costly, really bloody for the Ukrainians.” But despite these obstacles, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said: “My take is that they didn’t have a choice.”

Zaluzhny gave the Economist a shopping list of what he thinks he needs to win. First, more drones, so that Ukraine can “conduct massive strikes using decoy and attack drones to overload Russia’s air-defense systems.” To counter Russian drone attacks, he wants hunter drones with nets and other more advanced systems.

The Ukrainian commander stressed that Ukraine also needs better electronic warfare tools to jam Russian communication and navigation. “EW is the key to victory in the drone war,” he said. He wants new counter-artillery systems that can hit Russian batteries despite their improved EW protection. He needs better high-tech tools to breach the massive minefields Russia has laid along the southern front. And he needs more reserves to counter Russia’s decided advantage in manpower.

As always after military setbacks, the failed counteroffensive has brought some recriminations. The Post series included a compendium of second-guessing by Ukrainian and U.S. commanders, speaking anonymously, criticizing each other’s mistakes in planning and equipping the summer attack. U.S. generals wished the Ukrainians had concentrated their forces better for a breakthrough toward Melitopol, on the Sea of Azov. Ukrainians bemoaned the United States’ reluctance to supply fighter jets and long-range rockets.

Criticism and self-criticism are essential for military success. And the bracing comments by Zaluzhny to the Economist and by Burns, Austin and others to The Post are healthy. They demonstrate an effort to learn from mistakes and avoid repeating them.

The political divisions that have begun to surface inside Ukraine are more worrying. I heard an early version of them when I was in Kyiv in October. The internal sniping seems to be increasing, with rumors of growing friction between President Volodymyr Zelensky and his political rivals, and even with his much-admired commander, Zaluzhny. As Ukraine heads into a cold winter, this backbiting will probably get worse.

Here’s the holiday present that Ukraine needs from the United States: quick passage by the Senate and House of a generous military assistance package that can carry Kyiv through 2024. Ukraine suffered a severe setback this year, but its people are still in the fight. The least America can do is give them the weapons that would give them another chance at victory.

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