Military analysis: A protracted war

Photo: David Ryder /​​ Imago Images

Half a year after the start of the large-scale Russian invasion, the West should continue to support Ukraine with further arms deliv­eries. An analysis of the current military situation by Mykola Vorobiov.

On August 24, 2022, Ukraine cele­brated the 31st anniver­sary of its inde­pen­dence, exactly six months after Russia’s large-scale invasion began under the guise of a “special military operation”. Analysing the first six months of this war, one can see that the Kremlin’s goals have not funda­men­tally changed. Moscow still aims to destroy the Ukrainian state and annex most of its terri­to­ries as part of a “historic Russia.”

However, serious Russian losses on the battle­field (as of September 5, these amounted to about 50,000 men killed, and the loss of 234 self-propelled guns, 200 heli­copters, about 2,000 tanks and 4,300 armoured vehicles) and unprece­dented sanctions by the West are forcing the Kremlin to move from a blitzkrieg to a war of attrition against Kyiv and its key allies. And such a war could go on for years.

Fighting in the southeast of Ukraine

After a series of failures of the Russian army near the cities of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv, which the Kremlin had aimed to take over in the first weeks of the war, Moscow has concen­trated on the south-eastern regions of Ukraine. The army’s tasks were limited to the “protec­tion” and “liber­a­tion” of the Donbas and its inhab­i­tants from the “fascist regime” in Kyiv. Moscow’s military prior­i­ties currently include reaching the admin­is­tra­tive borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, securing a “land bridge” from Crimea, cutting off Ukraine from access to the Black Sea and Azov Sea to pose serious economic chal­lenges, and defending the already occupied areas around Kherson, Mykolaiv and Zapor­izhzhya, including the nuclear power plant in the city of Enerhodar that was occupied in March.

Although Ukrainian forces managed to organize an effective defence (which few had expected at the beginning of the invasion), the army continues to suffer heavy losses — mainly due to the Russian supe­ri­ority in terms of artillery and ammu­ni­tion (between 10:1 and 20:1 according to different estimates). Never­the­less, Kyiv began a massive coun­terof­fen­sive in Kherson region on August 29, while the 109th Regiment of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” along with Russian para­troopers withdrew from their positions and went into defence.

This was largely made possible by Western arms’ deliv­eries, for example multiple rocket launchers, ground-based air defence systems, so-called NASAMS from the USA, howitzers, self-propelled guns CAESAR, Slovak ZUZANA howitzers, German howitzers and Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, 30 Soviet BVP‑1 IFVs, Polish self-propelled artillery sstems, and other deploy­ments from more than 20 countries. In April, the German defence company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann offered Ukraine the purchase of 100 Leopard 2A7 tanks — and now it’s up to the govern­ment in Berlin to ensure that this delivery goes through.

Further Ukrainian advances

Military support, including from Germany and other European countries, also helped the Ukrainian forces prepare and conduct the coun­terof­fen­sive in the Kharkiv region which began on September 5. Within a week, about 40 settle­ments in the Kharkiv region were liberated, including the towns of Isyum, Balakliya and Kupyansk – areas which it had taken the Russian army more than three months to occupy. Moreover, because the Russian troops were caught off guard, the Ukrainian army took posses­sion of abandoned military equipment, including modern tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and an advanced “Zoopark-1M” counter-battery radar system. However, Ukrainian troops also suffered signif­i­cant losses during their advance (the number of casu­al­ties is unknown).

Although the Kremlin threat­ened to cut off the routes of Western military supplies, partly with direct attacks, Kyiv managed to secure these. This allows Ukraine not only to effec­tively defend itself and save lives, but also to attack Russian stock­piles, military airfields and other infra­struc­ture, including in occupied Crimea and across the Russian border in Belgorod, where Ukraine’s forces have elim­i­nated dozens of military targets in recent months. Although Ukraine’s Western partners have not yet provided Ukraine with a long-range artillery system (150–300 km effective range), Kyiv appears to be using its modern­ized cruise missiles “Neptune,” “Grom” and “Tochka‑U” effectively.

At the time of the the recent Russian regional elections, Moscow failed to organize ”refer­en­dums” in the occupied Ukrainian terri­to­ries due to a massive counter-offensive operation in Kharkiv oblast which was almost liberated from the Russian troops in just two weeks. It took Russians over three months and high levels of casu­al­ties to occupy these terri­to­ries. In total Ukrainian troops liberated about 6,000 km² of its lands due to the effective actions of its military force and the inter­na­tional assis­tance, including the modern weapons from Germany. In his recent interview, President Zelenskyy stated that the annex­a­tion of Ukrainian terri­to­ries will bring any peace nego­ti­a­tions to a complete halt. At the same time, he called on Ukraine’s partners to implement an EU visa ban for Russian citizens and impose further restric­tions. He also called on NATO to imme­di­ately include Ukraine in the Member­ship Action Plan, which would provide the country with access to NATO’s arsenal of weapons and other much-needed equipment.

Support from the US

From Moscow’s point of view, the stakes are high, because the Kremlin wants to seize as many Ukrainian terri­to­ries as possible before holding “refer­en­dums” — even if the dates have not yet been set. Unlike on Crimea, these plans could be thwarted by the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Kyiv is currently awaiting the US “Lend Lease Act”, which is expected to take effect by October 1 and will provide Ukraine with military assis­tance worth billions of dollars, including long-range missiles. This will allow Ukraine to strike more Russian military targets in the future, including in occupied terri­to­ries and within Russia.

Most likely this will prompt the Kremlin to act even more aggres­sively. Just recently, President Putin increased the size of Russia’s armed forces by 137,000 troops to 1.15 million. The decree will come into force on January 1, 2023. As a result, the Russian-Ukrainian war has entered the stage of a protracted conflict. Moscow is trying to undermine the Ukrainian will to resist and cause divisions among its Western allies, espe­cially Germany, before the winter heating season.

Following this strategy, Russia recently cut gas supplies through Europe’s main supply route Nord Stream 1 — a move aimed at increasing the prospects of a recession in European countries, espe­cially those actively supporting Ukraine. While Gazprom said the latest shutdown was necessary to carry out main­te­nance work, the German Minister of Economic Affairs, Robert Habeck, has clarified that Nord Stream 1 was “fully oper­a­tional” and that there were no technical problems. Further restric­tions on European gas supplies would exac­er­bate the current energy crisis, which has already led to a 400 percent increase in wholesale gas prices. Already consumers and busi­nesses are under pressure and govern­ments are being forced to spend billions in subsidies.

Further arms deliveries

Ukraine urgently needs more weapons — in partic­ular tanks, armoured vehicles, howitzers, air defence systems and other equipment that Germany possesses. This is the only way to reduce casu­al­ties and help Ukraine withstand the over­whelming Russian military aggres­sion. This can serve as an addition to the supplies that the country has already provided since January.

As winter approaches, Russia will continue to blackmail Europe with manip­u­la­tion of energy supplies, nuclear threats like the recent one at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zapor­izhzhya, disin­for­ma­tion, inter­fer­ence in domestic political processes, cyber­at­tacks, and other tools. These are tactics that Moscow had already used before the begin of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. They should not be new to European governments.

Europe faces the greatest military (and possibly nuclear) threat since the worst days of the Cold War. Therefore, Western allies should be united as never before.

On September 10, during his speech at the Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum in Kyiv President Zelenskyy stated that the upcoming 90 days of winter will be “more crucial” and decisive for the country than 30 years of its inde­pen­dence and all years of European Union’s existence. This means after the recent military failures Moscow will do every­thing possible to desta­bi­lize Ukraine and its partners through the energy supplies as a Russian “final argument”.

Mykola Vorobiov is a Ukrainian jour­nalist and former fellow of the Austrian Marshall Plan Foun­da­tion at Johns Hopkins Univer­sity (SAIS).


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