The Long War – is that where Ukraine is heading?

by Philip INGRAM MBE

Let’s be very clear, strategically Russia has lost its war against Ukraine. Russia’s main effort was to topple the West leaning Zelenskyy Government and replace it with a Moscow centric puppet, as in Belarus. Not only has it failed in that effort, but part of the reason was to stop any potential for NATO to expand and Ukraine to join. With Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO he has lost that strategic objective.

In his initial operations, Putin has lost many of his best military units, caused the expansion of NATO meaning the Baltic Sea is now almost completely NATO territory. He has emboldened the people of Ukraine, brought the EU together, focused the international community and has China, India and Pakistan nervously watching as events unfold.

Militarily, the Russian forces have failed to achieve any operational objectives in a timely manner and their taking of the Southern Coast along the Sea of Azov has been very costly.  Ukraine was forced to give up much of the additional territory captured by the Russians, by fighting a well planned and executed defensive battle trading space for time. That space was the coastal ground, the time was used to defeat the Russian aggression against Kyiv and to the Northeast of Ukraine.

The cost to the rest of the world has been heavy.  Cutting the reliance on Russian oil and gas has been costly and shocked global economies.  The impact on the closure of the Black Sea for Ukrainian food exports, in particular wheat and oils, is only just being realised and hasn’t yet translated into effects on the ground in different countries, but it is coming. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is just starting to have a global impact and potentially the worst is to come.

However, what is happening in Ukraine will dictate how long the global impacts are likely to continue.  The oil and gas shock to Western economies will be absorbed relatively quickly but will impact less well-developed countries for a longer period of time. The food export difficulties will have an impact on the less developed areas of the globe as Western countries will be able to absorb any shock. Sanctions on Russia are having an effect but will take time to really change attitudes and cause pain to the Russian people, that time is measured by calendars, not watches.

With military operations, Russia is pushing hard to capture the final areas of the Donetsk and Lushank Oblasts and has probably decided that with its coastal gains opening a land bridge between Crimea and Russia, these will suffice as a ‘victory.’ If Putin is able to achieve that he will then be likely to propose a peace settlement. He will do this to try and wrestle the initiative back. I suspect he is getting bored with what is happening and bored, rather than concerned, about hearing of continuing Russian losses, that is a measure of the value he holds against Russian soldiers’ lives. Of note at the lower estimated Russia has 20,000 dead and that means probably another 80,000 at least with life changing injuries, off the battlefield.

However, he will have calculated that by proposing a peace settlement he can break the international community’s support for Ukraine. He will already have seen the Italian peace plan proposal what ceded territory to Russia, he will calculate that Germany, Austria and Hungry will all support any peace proposals he puts forward as will China, India and Pakistan. He will want to split NATO, the EU and create global division if he can.

Getting to the point where he can propose a peace settlement is still some way off and whilst Russia has been hit hard and suffered horrendous losses at the hands of the Ukrainian defenders, it has much more it can and will throw int the fight to achieve its objectives. Fighting in the East is ramping up and will likely become more intense.  To make up for a lack of ability to carry out true armoured manoeuvre warfare, and a poor logistic tail, Russian advances will be preceded by use of heavy indirect fire and where possible air attacks. Drones, battlefield surveillance and EW, as well as sympathisers, will continue to provide targeting information.

Only when they believe Ukrainian defences have been neutralised will ground forces move forward. The Ukrainians may withdraw faster to additional pre prepared defences, trying to extend Russian lines of communication, knowing that will put pressure on incompetent logistics, as they prepare for potential counter offensives.

All of the time the Ukrainian defenders will be gathering intelligence on where the Russian Artillery Regiments are operating from and, with their new longer-range artillery, be preparing for concentrated counter battery fire.  This will only really become apparent when the Ukrainians have armoured manoeuvre formations reedy to counterattack and try and disrupt the Russian plans. That is likely still some time off as there has been no evidence of armoured formation level attacks to date. Until then we will likely continue to see the intense fighting we are today, where every field, hedgerow, track, road and village is being hard fought for.

Russian objectives will be to encircle Ukrainian forces in a cauldron and then destroy them however, the Russian ambitions have been decreasing with each month of the war and it is probable they are not far off having to transition to a defensive posture.  That gives the initiative back to the Ukrainian’s, who have been defending against Russian attacks and having to be ready on multiple fronts. Ukraine will then be able to choose the time and place for its counterattack(s). This transitional phase will see large artillery exchanges and use of air power if available with attrition being the aim rather than capturing ground.  Ukraine will want to weaken any Russian defences and set the conditions not to let the Russians know where and when they will counterattack.

This unfortunately means a period of not massive moves but lots of attrition on the ground. When Ukraine will be fully ready is unclear and whether it will wait for further Western supplied equipment is again unclear.  What is clear, is there will be no quick solution on the ground and Putin’s inner circle seems relatively secure. The people of Ukraine and the international community have a lot ahead with this conflict. The most important thing is that we maintain international unity as if cracks appear, Putin will enlarge them, and the war will go on longer.

Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner and is available for comment