‘The war in Ukraine in 2023, will see prolonged, grinding attrition operations along a line of control that neither side accepts’
Total multi-domain war in the times of no war
General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during Nov 22, sent shock waves through Western capitals when he declared that the war in Ukraine is unwinnable by purely military means[i]. He further suggested, “now that Ukraine is in a position of strength, and winter acting as an obstacle to both sides, it would be appropriate to consider peace talks with Russia”. He referred to World War I, when the adversaries’ refusal to negotiate led to millions of additional deaths, and stopped short of saying, that the world could well be heading for WW III under a nuclear backdrop. His remarks caused consternation not only in Kyiv but also in NATO, and many of its Western backers, including Poland, the Baltics, North America, and the United Kingdom, which have endorsed Ukraine’s pursuit of complete military victory. Many EU leaders like the Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas have categorically stated that the only path to peace is to push Russia out of Ukraine, which in essence implies defeating Russia militarily[ii]. Their rhetoric and wishes do not end there, they demand the trial of Russia’s political and military leadership for war crimes, reparation of damages and NATO membership to Ukraine. Frankly, even to a geo-political novice, these terms and conditions would be unacceptable to Russia. President Zelensky’s ten-point peace plan restates the same, making even talks forget about reaching a deal a non-starter.
We are looking at a long war of attrition, which would increasingly cause geo-political upheavals and conditions not in the control of even the most dominant player, the USA. Naturally, it would imply that the West and NATO led by USA would continue to support Ukraine in all domains; military, economic, diplomatic, information warfare (global perception management), intelligence sharing and psychological. All the while testing red lines which could abruptly explode, increasing the danger of escalation both in terms of span of conflict (nuclear conflagration), and inadvertently drawing in nations on both sides specially NATO. The war has already had a very deep and adverse impact on the global economy specially for the Global South, as also providing opportunities to non-conformist authoritarian/autocratic nations to secure their national interests at the cost of other nations and a stable security environment; Chinese adventurism, over-reacting USA raising fears of another cold war, energy crisis, right wing expansionism, decline of globalisation and multi-lateralism with rise in ‘my nation first’. It has compelled nations specially the smaller and poorer ones to adopt a policy of strategic/principled neutrality, to ensure they do not get singed to machinations of either side of the conflict. The West essentially would like to degrade Russia’s comprehensive national power (CNP) to such an extent that she no longer can impose her will in Europe and globally; for this Russia has to lose and President Putin has to go. Consequences have been colossal and tragic so far; over six million Ukrainian refugees and counting; over one million deaths on both sides[iii], destruction of essential infrastructure of Ukraine, freefalling Ukraine economy and a unified, stronger Europe robustly ganged up against Russia, whilst concurrently weaning itself off Russian energy and materials (ideal conditions for escalation).
Ukraine and the West are winning the information war
The outside world has been kept in the dark regarding the Russian perspective; why they started a calamitous war and how Russia is faring against the sanctions, and in the war. What emanates is also the western net and media inputs imagining the Russian thoughts. This article is focussed on the Russian perspective without being judgemental; difficult to access worthwhile material emanating from Russia as even the global tech and IT giants have corroborated in waging a ‘mother of all information and psychological wars’ highlighting and pushing their narrative, and as of now are winning in this vital information domain.
Crossing of Russia’s Red Lines: Existential anxieties
There is enough recorded evidence available, and supported by most strategic and defence experts that Ukraine joining NATO, has always been ‘The Mother of Red Lines’ for Russia. The Russian leaders, the military and public view this as existential, jeopardising their rightful place in the comity of nations. How can one forget that for many centuries and till two odd decades ago, Russia (albeit as USSR, but essentially Russia) was a global power with the largest nuclear arsenal. It would be reasonable to suggest that any leader other than Putin would have invaded Ukraine; before it is too late and a fait accompli NATO member.
Broad Russian public support and Russian resilience
Contrary to Western media tirade, Russia is stronger than many would have predicted, and importantly her economy, leader and army have all weathered the storm. Putin has not lost his mystique and confidence, at least in his media interactions and speeches. Undoubtedly, Russia lacks the broad and deep support that Ukraine has received from its partners and allies, The Russian military would be dispirited by repeated defeats, but it has survived, learnt lessons, consolidated its defensive positions by shortening its front line and logistic tail. Its economy has by all counts withstood the storm though it will progressively weaken; currently down by just 3% , significantly less than some had predicted, and its financial system has proved sustainable and macro-economically stable. History has proved that economic pressures and sanctions have rarely ended a war. Russia’s war machine remains funded and equipped, and is suffering the same inadequacies which the West and Ukraine is facing; albeit with lesser avenues for procurement sensitive and key weaponry and munitions.
In today’s world of hyper nationalism, it is hardly surprising that the majority of Russians continue to support the Russian government and are not ready to accept defeat (grudgingly accepted by West). The common man has accepted Putin’s grave warning that Western sanctions were imposed to crush the Russian people. Many regard Crimea and its stronghold of Sevastopol worth fighting for, and Putin remains the guarantor of Russian sovereignty and stability. To many oligarchs and even most ordinary Russians, the possibility of a defeat and Putin’s removal is a nightmare scenario, which they fear may precipitate implosion of Russia. Hence, the outcome of the war is existential to most Russians. Putin has over the years written and declared “We always considered the Ukrainian people as brotherly, and I still think so,” and “What’s going on is certainly a tragedy, but it’s not a result of our policy.” Like in all totalitarian regimes, supporting numbers could change and reverse direction rapidly against Putin, as causalities rise and defeat seems more probable. Putin is fully aware of the consequences of a defeat to Russia and to him personally.
The ongoing winter and spring will be a crucial test for the Russian army’s ability to endure, but military experts do not predict its collapse. Many more defeats and retreats would be needed to change this assessment. The Ukrainians are already warning of a spring offensive when the freshly mobilised troops are available; what could be Putins operational objective is currently a matter of speculation. The new Russian military commander Gerasimov would have a strategic objective (Kyiv, strengthen the land corridor to Crimea, consolidate the Eastern and Southern fronts, establish credible governance structures), and be ready to slug it out against Ukrainian counter offensives.
Current US and NATO Approach will only fortify Russia to fight on
Western leaders including President Biden and allies have made no secret of their intentions of permanently defanging Russia. Apart from conditions stated earlier, they have implemented numerous unprincipled hypocritical steps prior and during the war, frozen over 300 billion Russian reserves; all of which only cement their intentions. Russians with access to the Western media on the internet do not accept that Russia is a “terrorist state” or an “imperialist nation.” Russian elites and many ordinary Russians believe that it is in their best interests to rally around the flag. Most importantly, the obvious intention of fighting to the last Ukrainian, only confirms the Russian populations belief that it will continue till Russia is defeated.
Strategic pointers emanating from Russia
Quoting French expert Emmanuel Todd, TASS reports that the United States is in a phase of long-term decline and is in real danger of losing control of the global finance network, hence, decided to press for greater influence in its “original protectorates,” acquired after World War II, combined with stunting the growth of its peer adversaries Russia and China[iv]. Todd interestingly adds that this war “has become existential even for the United States. It cannot get out of the conflict before Russia. They cannot let go. This explains why we are now in an open-ended war, in a confrontation that is bound to result in the collapse of one side or the other. As late as 18 Jan 23, Putin has vowed to pursue his campaign until Russia’s goals are met, while his defence chief announced start of military reforms[v], and plans to increase military to 1.5 from one million[vi]. This would include 695000 volunteer contract soldiers. TASS has repeatedly stressed President Erdogan reaffirms Turkey’s readiness to act as mediator in Ukrainian settlement[vii].[viii].
Salient aspects of the War in 2022 as perceived by Meduza[ix] an independent website based in Riga, and other sources (daily reporting by TASS and TV channels RT, Moscow and NTV)
Interestingly and contrary to Western media, while the war narrative could well be controlled, but also surprises by candidly highlighting reverses, miscalculations and setbacks of the Russian military; in consonance with western inputs. Major inputs on the war during 2022 are bulleted below:-
Ground positions held by Russian and Ukrainian Forces on 13 November 2022
In first 48 hours, Russian military captured a significant amount of Ukrainian territory, taking advantage of an unprepared Ukrainian military less the Donbas region.
- Within few weeks, the Russian army suffered a major defeat: completely withdrew from Ukraine’s north (with the exception of the Kharkiv area), and retreated South to 50 kilometres outside of Kherson.
- Russia’s troops weren’t prepared to attack the positions of a fully deployed and well-motivated opponent.
- Units very short of manpower: This affected troops’ ability to conduct combat operations and secure supply chains.
- Vladimir Putin was unwilling to mobilise, and ordered only partial mobilisation end Sep 2022.
- Battalion tactical groups (BTGs) consisting of soldiers at constant readiness turned out to be unsuitable for a full-scale war, being trained for hybrid war, with dirty work done by others like in Syria.
- The Russian Aerospace Forces tried and failed to gain dominance in Ukrainian airspace. Anti-air defences were ineffective, lack of precision guided munitions (PGMs) was a big drawback. Aviation could not play its part in defence or offensive, allowing Ukrainian forces to manoeuvre at will.
- Logistics system also proved ill-suited for intensive fighting, as it depended on railroads. Offensive operations restricted to parts of Donetsk, western parts of the Luhansk region, and eastern parts of the Kharkiv region.
- The arrival of HIMARS multiple rocket launcher systems in Jul 22, considerably changed the situation on the front, exacerbating Russia’s already-serious logistics problems. Large Russian weapons storage facilities were blowing up practically every day. Russian artillery activity decreased markedly after July.
- The Russians pulled off one of the hardest military operations: retreating during a major attack without suffering the disintegration or annihilation of their forces. It was no small feat to move over 20,000 soldiers and most of their combat equipment across the Dnieper after Ukrainian forces had destroyed key bridges, combined with intense intelligence surveillance by the West and Ukraine; they managed to maintain the element of surprise.
- The Russians have launched a cunningly effective bombing campaign against Ukraine’s electricity generation, transmission, and distribution system, which are particularly effective. Apart from winter survival of public, it imposes direct and indirect military costs. Modern military systems like air defence, command and control, and intelligence gathering will now run on generators. This would degrade their performance, and impose additional burden on Ukraine’s military logistics system. The heat signatures produced will help Russian intelligence to produce a more accurate picture of Ukrainian forces.
Russia’s Current strategy
Moscow now seems reconciled to a simple war aim: hold on to the land it has seized. Follow two military strategies to pursue this objective. The first, fight smarter like retreating from Kharkiv, by creating compact, dense defences and make the Ukrainians pay dearly for every effort to recover territory. The second, is to exploit the vulnerability of Ukraine’s infrastructure (specially electric) and hitting Ukrainian society and dividing force application, and concurrently making it costlier for allies. Deliberate offensives cannot be ruled out.
- Which side has an edge in 2023?
- Ukraine is totally dependent on the West, and will find it more difficult to recapture real estate; both sides will mobilise more manpower; will fight with less munitions. However, Ukraine will still have an edge till the West continue supporting her, and sanctions slowly and steadily corrode Russia’s economic and military power.
The Road ahead once sanity prevails
As of now, neither side including the West, have any intention of stopping military operations and reach the negotiating table. Understandably, Ukraine fights to get her lands and honour back and even thinks of re-capturing Crimea (red flag for Russian) and achieving lasting peace with the big bear, while for Russia the outcome of the war is existential for Putin and Russia. Of the two, Russia is more amenable for talks having consolidated a compact defence line West of Dneiper. There appears to be no starting point for negotiations. The ‘likely outcome during 2023, is a prolonged, grinding war along a line of control that neither side accepts’.
A plan requiring statesmanship on all sides
There is no coherent geo-political plan currently. A visionary map needs to be drawn up by the major powers in which neutral India has a major role to play, with credible access to friends Russia and Ukraine. Both sides need to be explained the risks of continuing the war as neither side is capable of winning, and achieving their strategic aims. Russia’s future, is economic degradation and dependency on China as a junior partner. The CNP and clout of Russia will certainly reduce, possibly causing internal unravelling. Russia (people, oligarchs, Putin) must feel assured that Russia’s sovereignty and integrity will be respected after a peace settlement with Ukraine, no attempt at regime change from West, sanctions will be lifted, her frozen reserves will be accessible, and major security red lines will not be crossed. As wishful as it may sound, offering Russia to be part of Europe’s security architecture other than NATO could be thought of[x].
Bringing Ukraine to the negotiating table is another matter altogether. Zelensky’s plan focuses on retaking all lands including Crimea, and retribution for Ukraine and forcing Russia to comply. Frankly, Ukraine must be coerced to understand that such an absolutist approach will only devastate Ukraine completely, with no guarantees that the West will continue to support her, with their dwindling war fighting reserves and economic woes. Attempt to retake Crimea could cause unimaginable consequences even a nuclear conflagration. Often, it is a wise strategy to leave an intractable subject for future negotiations. A deal could even awaken the Russian population to change their regime, stop the war, with their desire to integrate with the world.
The likely Outcome: Attrition warfare
One has suggested a roadmap, but based on existing ground and geo-political realities, cease fire or disengagement through talks for the present appears improbable. The world needs to be prepared for a long drawn out war. The West not only needs to continue supporting Ukraine (already NATO countries are baulking at supplying potent and long-distance weapon systems like Germany and its Leopard tanks), but also ensure no escalation geographically (now a very realistic probability). A tragic deadlock/ stalemate indeed. At some stage, either or both sides will be forced to negotiate. It must be pointed out that Russia is no stranger to frozen conflicts (Georgia, Moldova and even Syria and Sudan) and sieges (Stalingrad). Given the perception of the Russian people, a regime change too is unlikely, and even if it occurs, the new leader could well be cut from the same cloth, or worse fearing implosion. We could well be staring at the start of World War III. The only glimmer of hope is that all sides have maintained communication.
Forecasting the war in Ukraine is fraught with uncertainties and unpredictable complexities. But understanding the destabilizing effects of long and highly destructive wars should compel all actors to arrive at a pragmatic agreement. It naturally should offer Ukraine her security, and Russia her future. Rather than waiting to react to Moscow and Kyiv’s latest actions or hoping for Putin’s imminent downfall, the West must take the initiative to outline terms and conditions to initiate talks. Increasingly it appears that India with its robust international standing and outreach to friends Russia and Ukraine, along with USA and NATO, can play an incisive and decisive role to initiate the peace process.
[i] ‘Very difficult to militarily eject Russian forces from Ukrainian territory in 2023, says US general’, https://indianexpress.com/article/world/russia-ukraine-war-end-military-us-general-8395057/.
[ii] No One Would Win a Long War in Ukraine: The West Must Avoid the Mistakes of World War I, by Vladislav Zubok, Foreign Affairs, December 21, 2022, available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/no-one-would-win-long-war-ukraine.
[iii] ‘Ukraine war: US estimates 200,000 military casualties on all sides’, BBC News, 10 Nov 22, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63580372.
[iv] ‘US may lose control of world finance due to conflict in Ukraine — French expert’, TASS, 13 JAN 2023, available at https://tass.com/world/1561887.
[v] Reforms include large-scale changes to the composition of the Armed Forces, increase in its size, and changes to the military-administrative divisions of the Russian Federation, and plan for inclusion of Sweden and Finland into NATO.
[vi] TASS Updates 17/18 Jan 2023, https//www.tass.com – military -operations-ukraine
[vii] TASS, 16 Jan 23, https//www.tass.com – military-operations-in-ukraine; Erdogan reaffirms Turkey’s readiness to act as mediator in Ukrainian settlement,
[viii] TASS News and update on Ukraine War dated 20 Dec 2022, carried by CNBC News, 21 Dec 2022, Associated Press, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/russia-ukraine-war-vladimir-putin-win-military-1-million-shoigu-rcna62758.
[ix] Source: Meduza, available at https://meduza.io/en/feature/2023/01/05/the-true-war-of-attrition-begins, Translation by Sam Breazeale.
[x] ‘Russia’s Rebound: How Moscow Has Partly Recovered From Its Military Setbacks’ by Barry R. Posen, January 04, 2023, Foreign Affairs, available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/russia-rebound-moscow-recovered-military-setbacks.
(This article was first published in Bharatshakti.in)