Small Wars Journal

The Ukraine War at Two: Time for some reality

Wed, 02/14/2024 - 8:18pm

The Ukraine War at Two:

Time for some reality

By Martin Stanton


            The Ukraine war which the Russians so ill-advisedly began two years ago has been fascinating to watch.  Not only for the emergence of new technologies and methods of warfighting but for the sheer grit, determination, and imagination of the Ukrainians in successfully (to a point) fending off their much larger Russian adversaries.  The Russians on the other hand put lie to their pre-war claims that they were professionalizing their military by conducting an invasion that looked far more like their ham-handed interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the 1950s and 1960s than the Red Army’s textbook 1945 campaigns in Germany and Manchuria.  For a time, it seemed to many observers (not all of whom were untrained) that the Ukrainians might be able to pull off a complete battlefield victory and eject the Russians from their country entirely.  Unfortunately, that optimism perished in the dense minefields north of Tokmak this past summer.  The fronts have been frozen (literally and figuratively) for months now, while each side girds itself for the spring.

Ukraine – Still potent, but they’re running out of things we can’t give them.

            Despite the failure of their offensive this past summer, Ukraine’s armed forces remain formidable and innovative, they have caused serious attrition to the Russians Black Sea fleet and conducted strikes deep inside of Russia proper.  They have lost no ground that matters and unit for unit are superior to their Russian adversaries.  Unfortunately, time is not on their side.

            Much has been made of the Ukraine funding bill currently stalled in the US legislature, but it’s all drama and political maneuvering.  Some resources are going to be allocated for Ukraine in a timely manner, sufficient for them to fight through the summer of 2024.  But even if the whole 60 Billion (+) USD was approved tomorrow there are two key issues the Ukrainians cannot overcome.

            The ability to sustain:  The Ukrainians have been given a very diverse fleet of state-of-the-art equipment (tanks, armor, artillery, …etc) from multiple nations.  The diversity of this fleet has already outstripped the ability of the Ukrainians to keep it going at any sort of acceptable operational readiness rate.  Giving them more than replacements for combat losses is just going to compound the issue.

            The ability to generate personnel replacements:  The Ukrainians have started drafting women and extended the draft of men to high school students and men over 40.  These are clear indications that the manpower pool for Ukraine is starting to dry up.   They can’t generate new units and the quality of replacements for existing ones is going down due to abbreviated training periods.  Qualitatively they’ve still got an edge over the Russians, but it’s diminishing.

Ukraine’s strategic goals – Hope as a method.

            The Ukrainians national leadership’s position is that there will be no negotiations with the Russians until they are driven out (or voluntarily withdraw) from all Ukrainian territory.  Unfortunately, it is now abundantly clear that the Ukrainian military does not have the wherewithal to accomplish this mission and the international community throwing limitless assets at the problem is not going to overcome the twin issues of sustainment capability and personnel replacement.  Nor is there any likelihood of foreign intervention to tip the scales.  Quite simply, the Ukrainians stated goal of liberating all their territory is unrealistic.  They can’t get there from here.

Russia – Marginally improved but still operationally incapable.

            After their dismal performance in the first six months of the war the Russians had nowhere to go but up…and they have improved, to a point.  Their largely static forces aren’t starving anymore, and they seem to be overcoming their ammunition shortages in most categories.  But the state of training displayed by the average Russian unit is still low and they don’t show any more ability to sustain the kind of large penetration and deep operational maneuver that ends wars than they did a year ago.  On a tactical level they have grown more effective in the drone war but that in and of itself isn’t a game changer.  They’re also increasing their ability to conduct deep strikes into Ukraine by buying Iranian drones and ballistic missiles from both North Korea and Iran.  With all this, they can sustain the war but lack the ability for a (conventional) knockout punch.

What’s likely coming in the spring 2024.

            The Russians are going to try another offensive in the spring/summer.   However, barring the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons they are unlikely to defeat the Ukrainian army in the field in 2024.  The Ukrainians best bet is to hold the lines they are on and maintain their most mobile forces for counterattacks - bleeding the Russians and preserving their forces as best they can.  Both sides will continue deep strikes into the others territory with increasing frequency and depth of penetration that will challenge their respective air defense organizations.  The surprisingly effective Ukrainian naval effort will largely be successful in protecting their littoral and neutralizing the Russians Black Sea fleet, but this is a sideshow in what is essentially a land theater of operations. 

The best case the Ukrainians can realistically expect for the upcoming campaign in 2024 is the front basically unchanged with a lot of Russian casualties and as few Ukrainian casualties as possible.  They may hold the line.  But they’ll be no closer to their (unrealistic) vision of victory.  Their only hope for victory as they define it is some kind of regime change in Russia that comes from within and changes Russian foreign policy (In the same manner that the advent of Czar Peter III upon the death of Russian Empress Elizabeth in 1762 saved the Prussians during the 7 Years War).  For Ukraine’s leadership, hope is the only method they have.

            Absent any real capability to win the war with any sweeping Operational maneuver, the Russians best bet on the other hand is to hold the Ukrainians in their gory embrace and lower the exchange rate between Russian and Ukrainian casualties as much as possible.  Taken in isolation, Russia’s attrition “tortoise” approach “slow-and-steady-wins-the-race” looks like a winner.  However, neither country is a case in isolation.

Why negotiating for peace in 2024 makes sense from both combatant’s perspectives:

For Ukraine its simple math.  Even if they do well in 2024 and receive all the largesse the US and NATO can bestow on them Ukraine’s forces will become inexorably smaller and less capable as personnel resources grow more constrained.  The less capable their forces the less bargaining power they will have.  Bluntly, barring direct NATO intervention there is no chance of Ukraine restoring its pre-2014 borders and the Ukrainians need to seek peace before they do lose more of their country.  Negotiating a peace along the present front has several advantages.  First, they’ll still be in a position of relative military strength and will be able to force concessions from the Russians they may not get later.  Further, they will immediately be able to begin rebuilding their armed forces, streamlining the polyglot force of donated equipment into something more manageable and sustainable.  They will also be able to start rebuilding their shattered country and re-settling their citizens fleeing the Russian occupied zones.

The Ukrainians are smart enough to know that peace along the current lines right now won’t be the end of Russian predation.  But they need to recognize that they’ve done just about as well in this go-around as they are going to do.  It’s in their nation’s interests to seek the best peace they can get so they can rebuild their country, reconstitute their forces and prepare for the next round.

For the Russians it’s a bit more complex.  Continuing attrition in Ukraine for the next few years might get them more of a victory, but such an investment in time and resources might negatively impact the larger picture.  The Russians too need to rebuild.  Despite what various histrionic western commentators might say, the Russian military is not capable of threatening NATO at this time.    The Bear can’t cross the Dnieper, much less the Polish frontier.  It’s going to take them years to rebuild, and that reconstruction can’t truly start until the war in Ukraine ends.  There’s also Russia’s post Ukraine strategy in Europe to consider.  If we accept the premise that they (the Russians) are expansionist and wish to threaten the Eastern flank of NATO, then continuing the Ukraine war doesn’t make much sense.  There are preparation of the environment steps and proxy developments that will take some time to get into place.  The Russians are now acutely aware that NATO is alarmed by their actions and at least making a show of re-arming.  Every year they stay fighting in Ukraine puts them further behind the West in their race to re-arm.  Russia too, has gotten about all its going to get out of Ukraine in this go around. 

What’s our (the West’s) play?

            Our NATO partners have all pledged to up their game to the targeted 2% GDP.  Some stalwarts (such as Poland) have already far exceeded that, others (like Germany) talk a good game but are still slow off the mark when it comes to real budget action. However, even if all do come up to the GDP expenditure benchmark it will take years – maybe a half a decade - for this to translate into any meaningful increase in combat capability.  NATO is stronger because of the Ukraine war though, and not just in the (promise) of rearmament.  Both Sweden and Finland are welcome additions who bring real capabilities.

            In the US the policy community seems divided between those who wish to give the Ukrainians a blank check in perpetuity (the “Slava Ukraine” crowd) and those who question the Ukraine war as a resource priority when the US itself is undergoing a migrant invasion and faces numerous other resource intensive challenges elsewhere in the world (the “Putin Lovers” crowd).  Lost in the screaming match is a sensible middle ground which keeps resourcing Ukraine at a realistic level (well below the 60 billion figure) which keeps them in munitions, replacement major end items and spare parts that lets them fight in 2024 towards a negotiated peace.

            The West too has gotten about all it can out of the Ukraine war.  Like a good combat outpost Ukraine has provided adequate warning and inflicted useful attrition on the threat to NATO.  To expect more is unrealistic.  We need to stop encouraging the Zelensky government’s position that they must re-take all Ukraine.  We also need to get over our visceral “Letting Putin win!” reaction to any thought of a negotiated peace at this point.  The Ukrainians are running out of people.  Encouraging them to fight to the last grandfather, housewife and middle schooler is immoral.  Plus, the US has other fires to attend to in other parts of the world.

Once peace is negotiated the US and its NATO partners needs to have a Marshall Plan for Ukraine that helps them rebuild and resettle displaced populations.  Just as the reconstruction of Europe led to the establishment of NATO which successfully deterred the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact, so too a post Ukraine war NATO and a non-aligned (but decidedly anti-Russian) Ukraine can deter an expansionist Russia.


About the Author(s)

Martin Stanton is a retired Army officer currently residing in Florida.  The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect any official DOD or USG position.