Russia’s offensive in the Donbas region is making slow progress. Having rushed to launch the operation to avoid giving Ukraine time to bring up new weapons from the west, Russia has found that its depleted and exhausted units are unwilling and unable to assault Ukrainian positions without incurring unacceptable losses. The Russian army has, therefore, fallen back on the mass application of artillery, destroying village after village, which they occupy after Ukrainian units withdraw.
For the Ukrainian military, the current Russian tactics may be unsophisticated and nihilistic, but they are also dangerous. To stop the Russians from advancing, the Ukrainian armed forces must occupy the ground. This subjects their units to heavy bombardment, and is producing a steady accumulation of Ukrainian casualties. The Ukrainians are trying to limit the weight of Russian fire by raiding and striking the logistics supporting the Russian artillery.
The challenge for the Russian military is maintaining troop levels. Moscow has begun an unannounced mobilisation of citizens with former military service, complementing a recruitment drive for volunteers to take up short-term service contracts. The short-term contracts are intended to keep up the strength of units until mobilised personnel are organised and equipped. But with little training, low morale, poor unit cohesion following significant casualties and a steady influx of new personnel, Russian units continue to perform badly and suffer disproportionately in engagements.
Although the short-term military trends currently favour Ukraine, the country faces hard choices. So long as Russia has a significant number of artillery systems and its air defences deny Ukraine air support, the Ukrainian military is forced to remain dispersed, limiting its available combat power at any one point and slowing the rate at which it can liberate territory. Ukraine must also guard against the risk that Russia moves into a large and more overt mobilisation of its population that, while politically risky, would threaten a significant offensive late in the year, requiring Ukraine to hold forces in reserve.
If the Ukrainian military cannot liberate significant tracts of territory or bleed out the Russian army this summer then there is the risk of a protracted conflict. The principal security concerns for Kyiv are economic and political. Without a peace settlement, Ukraine will remain economically paralysed, its ports blockaded, its cities heavily damaged, and investment or reconstruction deterred by the ever looming prospect of missile strikes. Kyiv is expected to lose almost half of its GDP this year. Many internally displaced Ukrainians have been living off their savings. These will begin to run out.
A protracted conflict also risks damaging internal cohesion. Ukraine has so far been politically unified, with Russia’s sympathisers in the Ukrainian state keeping a low profile or enthusiastically supporting the war effort. It would be dangerous to do anything else. As curfews and movement controls are lifted, however, and the political clarity of the need to defend Kyiv dissipates, there are renewed opportunities for subversion. How the government ensures it can provide heating for citizens away from the front as winter approaches, for example, is an issue over which criticism may be justified. But such issues can also be weaponised by Russia to degrade the country’s internal unity.
In a protracted conflict, Ukraine will probably depend upon financial assistance from abroad, but it is also likely to need that assistance precisely when its international partners are under the greatest economic strain. Inflation in the UK is approaching 10%. There is a serious risk of recession. If job losses come in the autumn, it will coincide with people’s renewed need to heat their homes. Energy prices, meanwhile, are expected to remain high, and Russia has so far kept supplying Europe. Under these conditions European citizens may become less supportive of aiding Ukraine to fight a grinding war in Donbas when there is acute pain felt at home.
Given these dark clouds on the horizon, Ukraine’s partners must pursue two courses of action. First, Ukraine must improve its security position as much as possible over the summer. To do this it requires long-range artillery that can challenge Russia’s fires dominance. The US provision of M777 155mm howitzers is a good start. Ukraine’s partners must also help in training new Ukrainian brigades so that the country can withdraw and reconstitute some of its units. It is also critical that the Russian army not be given the opportunity to recover the initiative. To prevent this, it is important to keep the rate of Russian casualties in Donbas high, so that mobilised personnel have to be immediately pushed into maintaining Russian positions rather than organised into new units able to open up new axes.
The second line of effort must be a coordinated approach across Europe to build resilience for this winter and to begin working out the best means of offering economic support to Ukraine. There is also a need to inform the public early and clearly as to the direct correlation between Russia’s actions and the economic pain to come. Russian disinformation will inevitably portray the economic pain as a consequence of supporting Kyiv. Such distortions need to be preemptively undermined.
Finally, there is the question of alliance unity. There are growing calls across Nato to consider negotiated solutions, often premised on trading Ukrainian territory for peace. While negotiations should never be abandoned, pushing for a ceasefire that would lock in Russian gains, allow the Russian army to recover and prepare for a renewed offensive and leave Ukraine economically crippled, is deeply naive. It is vital that the disagreements about objectives between key European partners are thrashed out and resolved as soon as possible. As Ukrainian citizens are put through filtration camps, and Russia plots the annexation of more of its territory, it must be understood that peace on Russia’s terms would be a very violent affair.
Jack Watling is senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute
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