I see a lot of commentary on the war in Ukraine that is fundamentally misguided. As usual, I do not have a forecast answer to the question in the title of this article, rather I want to discuss how to think about it.
I am not a military analyst, but I am not writing anything that is particularly deep. I am just explaining the basics of post-World War I military doctrine that are not understood in pop culture. Readers only interested in economic commentary probably want to skip this.
There are three main problematic stories I keep seeing.
Russia is inevitably going to win if Ukraine does not immediately launch a counter-offensive that recaptures all Ukrainian territory. That is, it is like a video game where Ukraine has to win ahead of some arbitrary timer. One of the roots of this belief was the Russian propaganda line that the Western economies would collapse over the past winter as a result of the loss of Russian energy exports.
On the pro-Ukrainian side, many believe that is soon as the mud dries, there is going to be an Operation Cobra-style breakout and Ukrainian tanks will be dashing to Sevastopol. This accepts the “win within the time limit” framing.
The war is a stalemate, dominated by “trench warfare” (a term used by Yanis Varoufakis on Twitter) presumably like World War I. Since this is just a horrific waste of life with allegedly no prospect of the front line moving appreciably, NATO countries are supposed to strong-arm Ukraine into accepting whatever cease fire deal Russia feels like offering.
Although I have no inside knowledge on what will happen, the following rebuttals need to be kept in mind.
- If we look at the post-World War II history of wars of national liberation versus nuclear-armed powers where the colonised country is supplied with modern weapons, the historical record is tilted massively in favour of the insurgents. Russia’s genocidal policies ensured that Ukraine has no choice but to go on to a total war footing, whereas the war is an optional one for the imperial power. Given the gullibility of the consumers of Russian propaganda, it will be very easy for the Russian regime to declare victory and go home.
- Ukraine has amassed multiple mechanised brigades with older NATO tanks and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) — notably Bradleys. At the time of writing, I have not seen a credible report that those brigades have seen action in combat.
- The dependence of Ukraine upon all NATO countries is overstated. They already have the heavy equipment needed to overrun defensive lines, and the Russians have made enough enemies in Eastern Europe that logistical support will remain.
- The optimal strategy for the Ukrainians is to destroy the effectiveness of the Russian military in Ukraine at the current front lines. As in the previous counter-offensives, the Russians will effectively run away once their positions are untenable — but this time they face the possibility of being run down by the Ukrainian mechanised brigades that are held in reserves. Although unlikely, it is entirely possible that the Russians could abandon Ukraine without large amounts of territory being recaptured before the retreat.
- The only hope for the Russians is to re-assert artillery superiority across the entire front line.
- Since the Ukrainians can see a path towards their annihilation of the Russian military in Ukraine, they have no need to discuss any peace plan other than the full return of their internationally recognised pre-2014 borders.
Stalemates and Trench Warfare
The Western Front of World War I was very important for shaping attitudes towards warfare in the English-speaking world, but there are a lot of myths about it. Bret Devereux — a military historian — has good two part article on trench warfare here. I am going to paraphrase what he wrote here.
The usual story about trench warfare was that the generals were idiots who ran infantry across No Man’s Land into prepared machine gun nests, who then died horribly. The corollary — important for the Ukraine War — is that trenches are impregnable defences where attrition favours the defender. This is not true.
The key technical advance in World War I was the destructiveness of artillery. Artillery could obliterate infantry in the open, hence they had no choice but to dig into trenches with bunkers that allowed them to hide from shrapnel. Once the trench lines formed, attacks involved hammering defending trenches, forcing them inside. Since the artillery was flying the attackers needed to hang back. Once the artillery stopped, it was race to the parapet, and the first side that got there won. Although infantry advancing in the open were vulnerable, troops in tranches are at a disadvantage. They are on lower ground, so they cannot throw grenades as far, they cannot see attackers without putting their head above cover, and being on low ground is a huge disadvantage if the attackers close to bayonet range. In fact, attackers won the race a lot of the time. The problem is that they only overran the first trench line, while the defensive strategy was to have the strongest defensive line being the second. The first line was expected to be lost, but the attackers were ahead of their support, and easily dislodged from that first trench in counter-attacks.
At the strategic level, the problem was that even if a breakthrough was achieved, attackers could only advance at walking pace (the tanks at most moved slightly faster than infantry). Defenders could ship reserves in by train quickly, and seal the breach in the line. World War II tank doctrine was about being able to exploit holes in the line.
If we imagined a scenario where both sides only had infantry and their armoured vehicles, the Ukrainians would have a massive combat power advantage and we would see something like World War II: armour massed at a weak point in the line, and the Russians sending their mobile reserves in to prevent a break out and encirclements of formations. (The most efficient way to eliminate enemies is to encircle them and force a surrender.)
This is not happening because of Russian artillery and their air force. Both sides air forces have a hard time operating near the front line, but it would be much easier to attack units that advanced past ground-based air defence. More importantly, Russian combat power is artillery-centric. They started the war with a massive numerical advantage in the number of artillery tubes and available ammunition. At present, both sides are nursing their ammunition stocks, but the Russian advantage mainly only shows up in their assaults inside the urban part of Bakhmut.
The Ukrainians will not attempt a breakout unless they believe they have the Russian artillery neutralised on that sector of the front. That neutralisation would be result of artillery/drone duels, and it is going to be hard for outsiders to have a reliable guide to how that is evolving.
In the meantime, it is clear that Russian artillery coverage has degraded along at least parts of the front line. The Ukrainians have been able to pin down defenders in bunkers with drone dropped grenades, and they are then easy targets to be swept out by infantry. This is creating opportunities for attacks that have a favourable loss ratio for the Ukrainians.
The length of the Russian front line and their logistical chains is the longest they will be for the rest of the war. This means that attrition losses will be the worst possible. The only way to slow the losses is to retreat in the absence of a Ukrainian counter-offensive to more defensible positions (where the process will be repeated). Attempting to do that when the Ukrainians have multiple mechanised brigades ready to spring into action is going to be awkward.
The only military hope the Russians have is to win the artillery war. Otherwise, the war of attrition favours Ukraine. It is unlikely that it will be easy to gauge the effectiveness of the attrition war unless it is extremely one-sided. This means that nothing will happen on the diplomatic front.