Nearly four months into the invasion of Ukraine, the Russians have changed the political objective of their operation. No longer do they seek as a short-term goal to install a puppet dictator in Kyiv; they instead now intend to annex eastern and southern Ukraine.
In this new phase of the war—or, one could argue, this fundamentally new war—resilience and endurance are the factors that will make the biggest difference for each side. With the arrival of HIMARS—a U.S. artillery system—and Russia’s reversion to artillery fire, the land war is shaping up to be one of competing artillery. This type of engagement is extremely taxing on man and matériel, even by war standards. As retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling mentioned yesterday (on Thursday Night Bulwark), the Russians have a lot of low-quality artillery—heavy, inaccurate, and comparatively immobile—while the Ukrainians have limited artillery fire of excellent quality—light, accurate, and highly mobile. It remains to be seen which side of this asymmetry will prove more advantageous in the current conflict.
Leaders in Kyiv expect to outlast the invaders; leaders in Moscow expect to outlast the “Ukraine-plus” side—a term denoting Ukraine and all the countries providing it with matériel, intelligence, diplomatic, political, and economic support, while also putting pressure on Russia through sanctions. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, however, the question of whether they will remain standing by the end of the war will be answered not in Kyiv but in many foreign capitals.
In short, each side is trying to exhaust the other—draining both morale and matériel—in the hope of winning by causing surrender or retreat.
This is where that “plus” becomes important. “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them,” Winston Churchill quipped. The Ukrainians would already have lost by now if not for having received years of foreign support—including training drills with NATO forces—and more recent supplies of military hardware and humanitarian goods. In addition, the unprecedented and growing sanctions on Russia are a further help to Ukraine, especially in the medium term, as the effects come to be felt across the Russian economy with greater force. (Don’t be confused by the rising ruble; the Russian economy is not in good shape.) This will add further pressure on Vladimir Putin and his regime—and on the Russian people, who could give up on their enthusiastic support for the war and turn against Putin once the standard of living drops.
But fighting with allies entails its own risks. Ukraine and Volodymyr Zelensky are at the mercy of foreign governments that all have choices to make about whether to keep the economic pressure on Russia and the supply of goods to Ukraine—and both modes of support come at a high cost for ruling parties. As the war continues in its new form, two fronts are seeing action: One is within Ukraine itself, while the other stretches between Moscow and the capital of each member of the “plus” coalition.
Russia and Ukraine have both lately scaled back combat operations. Both are suffering from troop and matériel exhaustion and need a recovery period. A rule of thumb for the U.S. military is that for each uniformed service member in the field, two more need to be at home: one who has just come back from deployment to recover, and one who is preparing to be deployed. The continuing existential risk facing Ukraine prevents the country from enjoying that advantage, and the Russians, mostly for domestic reasons, have decided not to legally declare war, choosing instead to keep its scale limited to the initial deployed force. For now, neither side has substitutes for its exhausted fighters and must rely on recovering fighters who have already seen combat while minimizing their ongoing military operations. Buying time is a way for each side to press an advantage—but doing so will also incur disadvantages. In other words, any way forward will involve an inescapable gamble for both sides.
The Russian Advantage
Russia is currently trying to recruit new contractor fighters, making use of a procedural loophole that allows contractors to be sent into Ukraine without formally declaring war against the country. The pay for these roles is good—the starting rate is more than twice Russia’s median national salary—in a country with a declining economy. It is unclear whether the recruiting drive has been successful in a way that could affect the outcome of the war.
Meanwhile, Russia has created new units out of the remnants of the units destroyed by Ukraine. This attempt to consolidate damaged forces suggests major constraints for Russia’s operational capabilities:
That's proven to be true.
Regeneration is hard under favorable circumstances. And RU doesn't have favorable circumstances
RU morale & psychological conditions are extremely low & not improving. Outlets are reporting poor conditions & extremely bad leadership. 9/
— Mark Hertling (@MarkHertling) June 21, 2022
In an attempt to counteract the problem of not having enough combat units, Russia has returned to its classic doctrine of reliance on heavy artillery to keep pressure on Ukraine’s ground forces. This strategy is meant to provide cover for Russia to fix its manpower problem by giving new units time to cohere and also to recover physically and mentally.
Buying time could also prove useful politically. A few months from now the war will be old news, and foreign governments might make different calculations about supplying Ukraine with military aid. Exhausting Ukraine’s military capabilities later in the conflict could result in greater overall attrition on the Ukrainian side because there will be less popular and political will to replace losses. Then, too, Europe still relies on Russian natural gas to heat itself in the fall and winter. Waiting until the cold season to exploit this leverage over a large swath of the “plus” coalition could discourage the Europeans from sending more supplies; Russia could use its leverage then to release economic pressure, seeking to extract concessions such as sanctions relief. The food shortage being caused by the Russian blockade might compound Russia’s advantage: The prospect of a drop in prices and the preemption of another refugee crisis will tempt many European governments to give the Russians what they ask for.
The Ukrainian-Plus Advantage
The Ukrainians cannot recruit more fighters in the way the Russians are doing. As the war is reduced in scope, the Ukrainians need a smaller force, and soon they will also be able to rest some of their forces to begin something similar to the three-part cycle of the U.S. military. But Ukraine can assess the recovery of its fighters more accurately than Russia can, since senior Ukrainian officials—even Zelensky himself—can safely visit their troops near the front. Russian commanders who get close to the combat run a considerable risk.
Another advantage: Unlike the Russians, the Ukrainians are not afraid to report accurate information up the chain of command—which could shorten recovery periods and help political leaders to make more informed decisions on crucial matters such as whether and when to return to large-scale operations.
As noted above, time may benefit Russia. But extra time would also help the Ukrainian military, for which a few extra weeks or months would make it possible to receive and operationalize more of the incoming military aid. This is a bottleneck for the Ukrainian-plus side: They have mostly run out of the Soviet-made weapons that the Ukrainian military knows how to use. Supply times for incoming matériel have remained slow—or, in the case of Germany, they have frozen completely. Time will make it possible for the Ukrainian military to receive slow-moving replacements and teach itself to operate them—even using Google Translate to read new weapons manuals, if necessary.
Before the cold season begins, the rest of Europe needs time to become resilient against Russian natural gas blackmail. Finding new customers for Russian gas would likely require building entirely new pipelines, which the Russian government will soon be too poor to afford. It will be more feasible for the Europeans to find alternatives to Russian gas.
Ukraine has one additional economic advantage that will redound to it in time. In the fall, Russia will begin to experience the real economic effects of the “plus” coalition’s sanctions. This will make sustaining a medium-term offensive war much more difficult. Domestically, once the average Russian finally begins to have a taste of the war’s consequences, the resulting unrest could potentially unravel Putin’s rule over the country.
A final advantage for the Ukrainians is that, unlike past sanctions, the sanctions presently imposed on Russia do not have an expiration date. And to lift the sanctions, the European Council will require a unanimous vote—a practical impossibility.
Democracy vs. Autocracy
While the Ukrainians have demonstrated their valor and effectiveness on the battlefield, the war’s outcome is mostly out of their hands: Balance sheets will play as much of a role in their victory or defeat as bravery or bullets. The question is how many hardships the “plus” coalition will accept in order to continue providing support, and those hardships will continue to multiply.
Each side has three decisions to make in the coming months. The Russians need to decide whether they will declare a state of war, whether they will cut off natural gas to Europe, and whether they will continue the war at all if their military and economy collapse.
And the “plus” coalition will have to decide whether it will keep sending aid to Ukraine until the end, whether it will be able to live without Russian energy, and if so, how to make up for the loss of that energy.
This war poses again the old question of whether democracy or autocracy will triumph in human history. Autocratic governments can endure more pressure than democracies can, but at some point, people under autocratic rule are willing to risk revolution. Democracies are more responsive to the problems of the people, but historically they have been shown to be more resilient and adaptable in self-defense. The question is whether democracies will be resilient and adaptable for the sake of another country.