02.06.2024 |
. , , - Foreign Affairs

As the war in Ukraine enters its third spring, leaders from Brazil, China, the Vatican, and elsewhere have urged Ukraine to negotiate with Russia. Ukrainian forces are unlikely to break through fortified Russian lines, the argument goes, and Kyiv should recognize the reality of Russias territorial annexation. Ukraine has successfully used drones to both surveil and attack Russian targets, but drones alone cannot win the war. And so, hampered by weapon and personnel shortages, Ukraine will not be able to reclaim territory. Russia has successfully turned this fight into an attritional struggle in which Moscow holds several advantages: a larger population, greater defense industrial capacity, and well-prepared defenses in the Donbas, Kherson, and especially Crimea. Given the fatigue among its Western supporters and the inconsistency of their material support, this is a type of war Ukraine simply cannot win.

It is true that going toe-to-toe, shell-for-shell with Russia is no longer a viable strategy for Ukraine. But Kyiv does not need to give up; instead, it needs a new approach. A better strategy would economize on the use of Ukrainian forces and conserve the limited material they receive from the United States and European partners. Ukraine must adjust the way it organizes, equips, and thinks about the war, switching out head-on confrontation with Russian forces for an asymmetric, guerrilla-style approach. Doing so will no doubt prolong the fighting, but a pivot to unconventional warfare offers the best chance for Ukraine to chip away at Russian resolve, both on the frontlines and at home.

Until the summer of 2023, it looked as though the Ukrainian military, heroically punching above its weight, could defeat the Russian army. Russias invasion in February 2022 quickly revealed the vulnerability of its tanks and other vehicles to Ukraines U.S.-made munitions. Ukrainian determination and tactical innovation, American equipment, and Russias poor management led to massive losses on the Russian side and even to whispers of domestic discontent. Russia was losing on the strategic front, too. A U.S.-led coalition imposed strict sanctions that choked the Russian economy, Finland and Sweden joined NATO, and European countries started to reduce their dependence on Russian energy. Russian President Vladimir Putin had underestimated both the Ukrainian peoples commitment and ability to resist aggression and President Volodymyr Zelenskys resolve as a wartime leader. Likely because of the milquetoast international response to Russias 2008 invasion of Georgia and 2014 annexation of Crimea, Putin did not anticipate the depth of Western intelligence sharing with Kyiv or the flood of munitions into Ukraine, either.

By the spring of 2023, the West was optimistic that the Ukrainian military could retake the land occupied by Russian forces along the Dnieper River. To that end, U.S. military advisers worked with Ukrainian forces to plan a counteroffensive in summer 2023. But Ukraines offensive momentum stalled, and the military grew concerned that it lacked the appropriate weapons for a major land operation. While Ukraine waited for Western supplies, Russia reinforced its defenses. By the time the campaign began, even the better-equipped and more experienced U.S. military would have taken heavy casualties breaking through Russias lines.

To seize Russian-held territory and destroy the forces operating there, the Ukrainian army needed to mass its own forces and conduct a large-scale combined arms maneuver. That would have entailed sending multiple divisions of up to 50,000 troops, tanks, and armored fighting vehicles, supported by artillery fire and airstrikes, to attack Russian positions, while air-defense systems protected Ukrainian ones. If done right, such an operation could have allowed Ukraine to penetrate and ultimately destroy Russias fortifications. It could have strengthened Ukraines negotiating position and even forced Russia to choose between further conscription or backing down from the fight. But Ukraine lacked the training, weapons availability, and institutional support necessary to pull off the campaign.

Crucially, Ukrainian forces needed different types of weapons than they received. Instead of the midrange arms that constitute most of Kyivs Western support, the counteroffensive called for more sophisticated Abrams tanks, F-16 fighter jets, HIMARS rocket launchers, and Patriot missiles. Ukraine requested these weapons systems ahead of the operation, and if it had received them in sufficient quantity, the counteroffensive might have been successful. But without them, it was doomed. The United States and other partners initially withheld these arms out of fear of escalation, and by the time they greenlighted shipments, it was too little too late to make a difference in the summer campaign.

While Ukraine spent the summer waiting for weapons, Russia fortified its defensive lines, mobilized a prisoner conscript army, and revitalized its defense industrial base. Moscow had learned from its early failures and adapted. The Kremlin successfully baited Ukraine into fighting a war of attrition. In Bakhmut, for example, Ukraine fully committed to holding the city even when it was nearly surrounded by Russian forces and taking heavy casualties. This battle, the bloodiest in Europe since World War II, resulted in Russia holding most of the ground and claiming victory in May 2023.

There is little Ukraine can do to match Russias material and personnel advantages. Russia simply has a bigger economy and, critically, a larger population. It has been able to steadily increase the size of its forces operating in Ukraine, even after the collapse of the Wagner mercenary group, by mobilizing ever more state-controlled forces. Ukraine, on the other hand, faces manpower shortages. Its recent decision to lower the draft age from 27 to 25 and to start conscripting some convicts will barely shift the current imbalance.

Although the recent U.S. aid package will alleviate Ukraines immediate weapons shortfall, tit-for-tat artillery duels and attempts to retake ground where the Russian army has built defensive fortifications will quickly deplete Ukraines still limited supplies. Ukrainian officials may hope that Washington will open the floodgates, alleviating their material constraints. But aid to Ukraine has become increasingly politicized in the United States, and with the U.S. election coming up, it would be unwise for Kyiv to hinge its strategy on continued and timely American assistance.

Ukraine must now find a way to do more with less. It must avoid attritional battles, conserving manpower and material to be able to respond to changing conditions. Defeating Russia will require organizing Ukrainian forces to fight a longer war of exhaustion using asymmetric guerrilla tactics.

This may not be the war Ukraine wants to fight: a war of exhaustion, by design, sacrifices territory to preserve forces and to extend the time horizon of the conflict. It lacks the assuredness and speed of a direct confrontation that would destroy Russian positions. When it looked like a decisive counterattack was possible in the spring and summer of 2023, it would have been foolish for Kyiv to adopt an asymmetric strategy and prolong the war. Now, facing manpower shortages and material uncertainty, it is foolish not to. A war of exhaustion allows Ukraine to play to its advantages. Ukrainian forces are fighting on their own territory, and their greater familiarity with the terrain gives them an intelligence edge over Russia. Whenever possible, they would avoid facing Russian forces head on and conserve soldiers and munitions rather than retake lost ground. If Russia were to launch a direct assault on Kyiv, Ukraine would have no choice but to meet Russian troops on the battlefield. But even in this scenario, Ukrainian fighters should focus on maximizing Russian casualties and, if the time comes, be willing to withdraw from Kyiv. Capital cities are important, but they are not vital for opposing an occupier: the French resistance successfully fought the Germans after losing Paris during World War II, and the Iraqi insurgency continued to fight the Americans after losing Baghdad. If they had to, the Ukrainians could continue an asymmetric war with Russia in control of Kyiv.

This pivot would require a tactical shift. A reorganized Ukrainian military would be structured around small, independent groups rather than large brigades. These irregular forces would be distributed throughout the country instead of being focused in one or two central areas. Supported by Ukrainian and Western intelligence, the groups would identify and attack vulnerable Russian targets before fading back into the population and the terrainwhere it would be difficult for Russian forces to target themto limit the loss of personnel and equipment. The groups would also help build a resistance force in contested territories. This sort of asymmetric warfare is a proven strategy for a weaker opponent to gradually defeat a more powerful adversary. At minimum, it buys time for the weaker side to reconstitute and hold out for more favorable political or operational conditions, such as broadened international support or domestic turmoil in the stronger state. As the United States learned fighting asymmetric forces in Afghanistan and Vietnam, this approach is effectiveand demoralizing. But it is also slow; both conflicts lasted nearly 20 years.

The aim is not to defend every piece of ground to the last man. Instead, as Russian troops take and occupy territory, Ukrainian fighters would use hit-and-run tactics to target their supply lines and poorly held positions. If Russia were to continue to advance, its military would necessarily be spreading its forces out and extending its supply lines and lines of communication. In the logic of an irregular campaign, the deeper the Russian army penetrates into Ukrainian territory, the more vulnerable it will be to Ukrainian ambushes and raids against targets of opportunity.

Ukraine will also need to bring the fight to Russia. After training special operations forcesperhaps with U.S. and NATO supportUkraine can send small units on cross-border raids to destroy logistics hubs, training areas, and infrastructure that support Russias war effort. Largely because of Putins nuclear saber rattling, Western leaders have warned that cross-border operations would be unnecessarily escalatory. But Russian attacks on Ukraines energy infrastructure and civilian population centers have already escalated the war. At this point in the conflict, cross-border raids that directly target Russias war machine are a calculated risk. Avoiding them merely gives Russia a safe space from which to attack Ukraine. If Kyivs Western partners prohibit such strikes within Russia, they are consigning Ukraine to defeat.

To complement cross-border raids, Ukrainian cyber forces should continue to engage in the digital information war. The goal of cyber operations would be to wear down the Russian populations support for the war and counter Russian narratives about the conflict. Specifically, Ukraine should highlight the tactical successes of the Ukrainian resistance and the incompetence of the Russian military. An information campaign aimed at undermining Russian civilians resolve is thus part of a broader slow-erosion strategy.

Russia is sure to attempt further incursions, and Ukraine will need to prepare its defense. In a war of exhaustion, Ukraine would need to be willing to temporarily cede some territory in order to preserve its forces and buy time. But as Russian troops advance, Ukrainian forces should focus on inflicting casualties and destroying equipment. They can achieve these aims using portable weapons distributed among the small infiltration and guerrilla teams: Ukrainian troops already have expertise with drones, and they can continue to use them to identify targets and provide real-time intelligence; the shoulder-launched Javelins and other easily carried weapons can target larger Russian military equipment and installations; and larger artillery can be used in a more limited way to support the operations of the small groups. As Ukraine transitions to unconventional warfare, the U.S. Army Special Forces would be the ideal advisers to give Ukrainian troops a competitive edge. These U.S. forces specialize in providing instruction that integrates new technology, and they could train Ukrainian soldiers in guerrilla tactics and infiltration operations.

To adopt this strategy, Ukraine would have to embrace a different concept of victoryone based on staying in the fight and resisting Russian aggression, instead of routing all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory. Once Russias equipment and political appetite for war wear down, Ukraine can resume a direct confrontation designed to drive out Russian forces. For Ukrainians, who remain committed to liberating every inch of occupied land, this will be a bitter pill. But their current objectives are simply unattainable while Putin remains in power. Kyiv, then, has no choice but to shift.

Ukraines partners, in turn, have an obligation to keep helping the country; this change in strategy does not let them off the hook. In addition to training, the United States and other countries would need to continue providing arms to Ukraine, although the tactical shift should mean that Ukrainian troops go through weapons more slowly. Ukraines international partners must also help wear down Russia by enforcing economic sanctions and communicating clearly that these measures would be lifted if Russia were to retreat. Most important, Kyiv must have support after the eventual end of the fighting. Waging a war of exhaustion will decimate Ukraine, and its people need to know that they will not be left on their own to rebuild. Ukraines partners owe the country that assurance for its sacrifice.




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