War in Ukraine, Two Years Later

We are the heirs of many wars, of their diverse forms, their impact upon societies and nations, and their ubiquity in all ages and cultures. The war in Ukraine is no exception. It will make a lasting mark on the global power distribution in the years and decades to come. 

On Feb. 24, that war entered its third year. Its key military implications are becoming clear regardless of the likely political endgame. The war reflects an ongoing revolution in military affairs that started two decades ago but which needed a major conflict to become fully apparent. To put it in a nutshell, the battlefield pendulum has swung in favor of defense. 

The failure of the initial Russian onslaught in 2022 was surprising to many outsiders but inevitable: it was perplexingly launched on five separate fronts without a clearly defined main axis of advance. The Northern Military District forces, moving from Belarus and Russia, reached Kyiv. They were unable to either block it or to secure their extended communications. Only in the south were the Russians able to advance with minimal resistance, moving from Crimea to take major parts of the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions in a matter of days, and in the east they reached Mariupol. By April 2022, however, Russia found itself in a large-scale war across a huge frontline with a numerous, well-armed enemy receiving a massive amount of Western aid.

A significant early indicator of how strongly fortified defense lines could alter the strategic picture was the battle for Mariupol from March 2 to May 16, 2022. The siege of the city was a harbinger of this conflict’s key characteristic: positional warfare. The month-long siege tied down 30,000 Russian soldiers, which prevented the Russians from exploiting their early successes in the south or taking offensive actions in Donetsk. By shackling this major force, the Ukrainians prevented their adversary from exploiting early successes in the south or taking offensive actions in Donetsk. Having run out of offensive steam by June, the Russian command switched to a strategy of long-term attrition.

A long stalemate with a few fairly minor adjustments followed the early, mobile phase of the conflict. The long, pitched battle that ensued at Bakhmut was more reminiscent of the Battle of Verdun in World War I than of a novel, unprecedented 21st-century battlefield that had been predicted in expert military literature as recently as 2019. Bakhmut was characterized by heavy infantry fighting with little territorial gains and the almost complete destruction of the town by artillery fire. Across the entire frontline, mobile combat operations were becoming increasingly hindered by strong defenses on both sides; this was especially so in Bakhmut.

In June 2023, Ukraine tried to break the stalemate with a major attack in the south. It made this move partly due to political pressure from Washington and Brussels and its plan was heralded with great media fanfare. The vaunted capabilities of Western technology and the confidence in Western tactics used by NATO officers while planning the operation endowed the Ukrainian leadership with great self-confidence. “The time has come to take back what is ours,” declared Ukraine’s then commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

A Ukrainian police officer takes cover in front of a burning building in Avdiivka, Ukraine, Friday, March 17, 2023. (Associated Press / Evgeniy Maloletka)

The four-month counteroffensive was a costly failure, however. It faltered in the face of multiple layers of Russian fortifications, interlocking casemates, dragon’s teeth, and minefields. Ukrainian forces never even reached the most heavily defended sections of the “Surovikin Line,” the 10-to-12 mile-deep layered defense constructed along the entire southern front line, named after Russian Army General Sergey Surovikin.

In the summer of 2023, the new advantage of defense in battle thus manifested itself on a grand scale. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, and especially hundreds of Russian observation UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), made the battlefield fully transparent. Commanders directed artillery and attack drones to target individual vehicles and groupings of infantrymen with precision-guided munitions as soon as they started moving to the frontline from their sheltered positions. Thanks to the nature of the terrain—mostly flat farmland reminiscent of America’s Midwest—anything spotted from the sky could be hit and destroyed almost immediately.

During the Great War a broadly comparable situation favoring defense resulted from the combined effects of trenches, barbed wire, minefields, and machine guns. Acres upon acres of military cemeteries in Flanders, Picardy, Veneto, Macedonia, and Galicia provide a somber reminder that willpower alone cannot trump depersonalized technology. The military caste of both sides had an ingrained belief in the power of the offense. Their military establishments were unable to evaluate their offensive doctrines objectively and were slow to adjust them when the shortcomings
became apparent.

The prophets of World War I’s cult of the offensive included German Generals Helmuth von Moltke and Erich Ludendorff, British Field Marshall Douglas Haig, and French General Joseph Joffre. They never tired of arguing, even as the casualties mounted, that their next offensive would be different because a miraculous new weapon or tactic would tip the balance in favor of the attacker. Such claims were notably made by the French in 1916 of their creeping artillery barrage tactic, by the British in 1917 of the tank, and by the Germans in 1918 of their Stoßtruppen (“stormtrooper”) trench penetration techniques. In the end, however, the war was decided by the Allies’ greater resources and overall resilience. The naval blockade materially wore out and morally exhausted the Central Powers, but the German Army was not beaten in the field.

In a similar vein, some Western proponents of continued Ukrainian offensive operations claim that the breakthrough will indubitably come when Kyiv finally receives a few squadrons of F-16s to tip the balance in the air or electronic warfare tools to negate Russia’s drones and overcome its communications, or the most modern counter-battery assets to neutralize Russian artillery, or the latest mine-breaching technology… The list goes on.

Such claims are sometimes accompanied by attempts at strategic comparisons that smack of desperation and sometimes verge on the ludicrous. Philip Wasielewski, a retired CIA intelligence specialist thus argued last December for the Foreign Policy Research Institute that Ukraine’s current position in relation to Russia can be compared to that of the United States vis-à-vis the Confederacy in the final months of the Civil War: 

While Grant was stalemated at Petersburg for almost a year in 1864–1865, Sherman was marching to the sea and the Union navy was closing the remaining Confederate ports that sustained the South’s logistics… Stalemate is not checkmate, yet.

To compare today’s Russia with the Confederate South on its last legs in the winter of 1864-1865 is not even funny. It is on par with the bizarre theory unveiled last August by two presumably respected experts, which I analyzed in an online Chronicles article, “War in Ukraine: U.S. Analysts Sink to New Depths,” that Ukraine’s stalled summer offensive was somehow comparable to the period of retrenchment of Allied forces in Normandy in June and July 1944 following the D-Day landings. This armchair strategizing is a caricature of real analysis and borders on contempt for the reader’s intelligence.

More plausibly, Ukraine’s military planners and their Western backers can derive some comfort from the fact that the battlefield balance favoring defense works both ways and has slowed Russia’s advance. The only notable Russian offensive since last fall was at Avdiivka, a western suburb of Donetsk firmly held by the Ukrainian Army since 2014. The Battle of Avdiivka ended in a costly Russian victory
in February 2024
, again demonstrating the difficulty for attackers to overcome strong defenses. 

Therefore, it may seem plausible to suggest that, just as Kyiv’s forces could not effect a breakthrough to the Sea of Azov, Russian units would be hard-pressed to make a major advance of their own—specifically from eastern Donbas to the left bank of the Dnieper, which is widely considered the likely target of a new Russian offensive.

The primary difference between Russia’s coming advance and Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive last summer is that Russia may choose to attack at any other point of an extended frontline, from Belarus in the northwest to the Black Sea in the south. By contrast, last summer, the only strategically meaningful point of pressure for the Ukrainian forces was the potentially vulnerable Russian land bridge along the Sea of Azov, which connects the Donbas to the Crimean Peninsula. In other words, the Russians knew which sector needed to be heavily fortified, as they could assume that the Ukrainians would not try to attack an entirely different sector, such as towards Belgorod or even southern Belarus. 

The Ukrainians, on the other hand, cannot be sure that there won’t be another Russian push towards Kyiv from the north or to Kharkov from the northeast at some point later this year. It is impossible for them to fortify and man the entire line starting at the Polish border and running for thousands of miles. The Russians already have the initiative, and for some months now, they have maintained constant pressure on Ukrainian positions along almost the entire length of the southern front. They have created conditions to attack in various directions and to translate tactical gains into operational successes. 

Furthermore, even if the Russian losses of men and materiel are greater overall than Ukraine’s—as is often claimed by Western sources—Ukraine is less capable of absorbing further losses. Russia’s GDP is 14 times that of Ukraine. Far from being crippled by Western sanctions, its economy grew by 3 percent last year. Its military industrial production is soaring. As we enter the third, possibly decisive year of the war, the balance of attrition—the ability to rebuild depleted units, to equip, mobilize, and train fresh ones, and the capacity to employ force effectively at scale—are all on the Russian side.

When it comes to defense industrial mobilization, the gap between Russia and Ukraine is huge, as reflected in Ukraine’s acute shortage of artillery ammunition. Currently, the fire ratio is one to ten in Russia’s favor and is unlikely to improve unless Western deliveries are drastically increased in the near future. 

When it comes to manpower, the gap is becoming unbridgeable. It is hard to wage war with insufficient weapons and ordnance; without men, it is impossible. Ukraine’s manpower shortages are leading to increasingly draconian conscription measures and faltering public support for the war. Mobilization is currently open-ended in Ukraine, which means Ukrainian troops have no rotation that would allow them to rest and recover and no statutory cut-off date for their mandatory service. This diminishes frontline morale, and encourages thousands of draft dodgers to attempt to escape the country. It is politically impossible for the European Union (and Germany in particular) to agree to Kyiv’s demand for the involuntary repatriation of Ukrainian men liable to be mobilized who are legally registered refugees.

On the other hand, Russia—with four times the population of Ukraine—can mobilize proportionately superior numbers of men or sustain constant regeneration of combat forces. A fresh mobilization can be carried out at fairly short notice if the Russian president decides that doing so is politically safe domestically. This could boost the country’s military to 1.5 million personnel, as Russia’s Ministry of Defense has said it wants to do. The decision will be easier to make after the mid-March presidential election, which Putin is certain to win.

Only nine months ago, U.S. intelligence officials were telling the Senate Intelligence Committee that it would take a decade or even longer for Moscow to recover from the staggering losses inflicted by Ukrainian defenders.

After the failure of the Ukrainian offensive in 2023, its chief Western backers are left without a coherent strategy. Continuing the war under conditions of deadlock and hoping that something will happen to break it (a major domestic upheaval in Russia, perhaps) is irrational. It risks letting the balance tilt further in Moscow’s favor, providing fewer and fewer incentives for Putin to compromise. If the front lines remain stalled, Russia has an overwhelming advantage in an open-ended war of attrition, just as the Allies did in 1918.

This survey of the military and economic state of play after two years of conflict suggests that the balance has shifted decisively against Ukraine. Тhere is no plausible Western scenario to reverse this trend. Its political implications should be clear, but so far nobody of real import in Washington or Brussels seems ready to spell them out. Prudence and realism should finally prevail.

In the words of the British policy analyst Anatol Lieven, whose superior knowledge and understanding of Eastern Europe is untainted by ideological obsessions, a war that ended today with 80 percent of Ukraine independent and free to seek membership in the EU (but implicitly not NATO) should be seen as a very important victory for that country. “It would not be a complete victory,” Lieven wrote in January at Responsible Statecraft, “but complete victory is simply no longer possible.”

In the end, every war ends with a political agreement, and looking for one in Ukraine—now rather than later—is certainly in the American interest. It would be a plus-sum game for all except for the confirmed enemies of the American people: the neoconservative-neoliberal duopoly inside the Beltway, the U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex, and their ever-obliging media machine. ◆

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