by Michael Clarke, 1 August 2022
From a strategic point of view, we are entering the second phase of the Ukraine War. If the Ukrainians were not conquered within the first few days, this war was always likely to escalate. President Putin sees no option but to double down on his ambitions and escalation follows, not in terms of crossing so many weapons thresholds (and nuclear use remains a distant prospect) but in its geographical extent. Western powers no longer have the option of ‘avoiding’ war with Russia. They are at war with Russia already. Moscow has effectively declared it in the last month. Moscow, Kyiv and western capitals have all got some pretty big decisions to make, and soon. Michael Clarke explains.
Most media outlets seem to assume that the Ukrainian war has begun to settle into some sort of stalemate. It hasn’t. There is a lot going on and between now and the late autumn there are a number of big military and political decisions to be faced by all the participants, including western governments, the most important of whom are all currently distracted by domestic political weakness. And in these circumstances, not deciding will constitute some pretty big decisions once it is too late to make a difference.
Kyiv’s Military Decisions
In a country fighting for its life, it is often easier to take big strategic decisions. Ukraine is staking a great deal on holding up Russian forces in the Donbas until the winter, and recapturing the key city of Kherson in the meantime.
Kyiv’s strategic counter-offensive against Kherson is about to swing into a full scale operation. Ukrainian forces crossed the Inhulets river some weeks ago along a 50 kilometre front northwest of the city and established secure bridgeheads that would enable them to move from the north, in a left hook, possibly to encircle Russian forces in the city. A secondary objective, the city and the dam at Nova Kakhovka, which controls the water supply into Russia-occupied Crimea, has also been subjected to Ukrainian attacks and will be a clear military objective once the main battle begins.
Western weapons have helped Ukraine ‘prepare the battlefield’. The effect of deliveries of more precision western artillery and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to Ukrainian forces have had a significant impact on their ability to disrupt Russian logistics, destroy many ammunition dumps, and attack Russian command posts and S-300 air defence systems. They have made it much harder for Russia to pursue its offensive in the Donbas, or prepare to defend Kherson. These successes also indicate that Ukrainian forces have good intelligence of key locations; whereas Russian logistics have difficulty in dispersing, or protecting their stockpiles. While the ‘HIMAR’ MLRS and NATO’s 155mm howitzers will not turn the tide of battle in themselves, they are having a considerable impact in degrading Russian military capabilities.
Such ‘long range fires’ have effectively degraded the ammunition stocks of Russia’s 49th Combined Arms Army in Kherson oblast and cut it off from reinforcements coming from Crimea and further east. The key Antonovskiy bridge, to the east of Kherson over the Dnieper River, has been destroyed by Ukraine’s precision rocket fire. Russian engineers very quickly laid a pontoon bridge beside it. But that, and the small ferry with it, has become the focus for congested military traffic on both sides of the crossing, presenting easy targets for Ukrainian artillery. In addition, partisan activity against Russian forces inside Kherson city has stepped up considerably in the last two weeks. It is reported that the Rosgvardia internal security forces are no longer manning the extensive network of checkpoints inside Kherson.
There is evidence of Russian forces being redeployed from the Donbas region to bolster the defences of Kherson, but Chornobaivka airport near the city is under Ukrainian attack and only available for Russian helicopter use. There can be no Russian trooping flights into Kherson and road access from anywhere east of the Dnieper river is now restricted.
Ukrainian leaders have made no secret of their ambition to ‘liberate’ the city by September. They have talked it up in the western press and for very obvious reasons. The political stakes in Kherson are now very high. It would be a major strategic victory for Kyiv, and a very important demonstration to Ukraine’s supporters in the west that military victory on the ground, at some level, is certainly possible. The Ukrainians, it would be saying, are not just losing slowly and gallantly in the face of overwhelming Russian firepower; they can go on to defeat this latest Kremlin aggression if only they are supported properly by NATO members. If Ukrainian forces can hold on for a while longer in the Donbas, while scoring this more significant strategic victory in the south west, the immediate dynamic of the war will change. Everything is now militarily in place for the battle that Ukrainian politicians have confidently predicted.
On the other hand, if the counter-offensive fails it will likely have a major impact on Ukraine’s realistic political objectives in this war, and on the willingness of western powers to keep supplying Ukraine with the types and numbers of weapons it will need to go onto the strategic offensive against Russian forces. What happens next in Kherson will be more important than the next few weeks in the Donbas.
Russia’s Military Decisions
Russia is almost – but not quite – stuck in the Donbas. Following the capture of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk on 3 July Russian forces have not progressed much – about 20 kilometres westwards – putting pressure on Siversk and Bakhmut, which they may well take in the coming days. There has been a clear ‘operational pause’ while Russian forces have reorganised themselves and repositioned their logistics.
But most significantly, there has been little progress for Russian forces advancing on Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, the two key cities in Russia’s attempt to occupy the whole of the Donbas region. Indeed there has been little fighting around these areas in recent days. Ukrainian counter-attacks further north, around Izyum, may be diverting some Russian military efforts away from Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Nor is there any sign of a more complete or rapid encirclement of the remaining territories of the Donbas running from Mazanivke in the north to Marinka in the south. An offensive along that line would complete a Donbas conquest for Russia and threaten the encirclement of some 40% of Ukraine’s army, but there is no evidence that Russian forces are capable of manoeuvring along that line with any speed. Since early June Russian forces seem destined to make slow progress only from the east. The coming battles for Slavyansk and Kramatorsk will probably be fierce and there can be no guarantees for the Kremlin that they will be captured before the middle of autumn and the arrival of the wet season. Ukrainian authorities have evacuated the vast majority of the civilian population from both cities, in the evident expectation that they will fight them both as active war zones. For the Russians they will probably be tougher nuts to crack than Severodonetsk turned out to be, even if they were not distracted by having to defend Kherson at the same time.
The key point that the Kremlin now obviously grasps, is that Russia is not obviously losing this war – yet. But it is certainly not winning it. And it will not win it, and may indeed effectively lose it, unless a lot more Russian resources are devoted to it.
As of 31 July, Russian forces are visually confirmed to have lost 5,010 items of significant military equipment, including 916 main battle tanks and 507 armoured fighting vehicles. Of the total number of losses, 34% have been abandoned or captured. Ukraine’s visually confirmed losses in the same categories amount to 1,378 items of significant military equipment (45% of which has been captured or abandoned), including 229 main battle tanks and 115 armoured fighting vehicles. Across the board, Russian equipment losses are more than four times greater than Ukrainian losses. Manpower losses are far harder to estimate, but total Russian casualties (dead and injured) may now exceed 100,000 and corresponding Ukrainian casualty figures may be between half and two thirds of that number, following heavy losses in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
In the medium to long-term, Ukraine can sustain these losses, as a fully-mobilised society in defence of its own country. Russia cannot sustain this loss rate unless it mobilises to some significant degree. There is every indication that President Putin is undertaking a process of crypto-mobilisation, with a big push on both short-term recruitment into the armed forces and more extensive conscription. The Kremlin has also introduced laws that will direct Russian industry to undertake war work and the construction and repair of military equipment. Pressure among the policy-making and military elites in Russia for more complete and explicit mobilisation appears to be growing.
Notwithstanding the income Russia is still deriving from energy exports and the short-term strength of the Ruble, there is now growing hard evidence, however, that the Russian economy is becoming structurally weaker. Europe may have been dependent on Russia for 40% of its gas energy needs; but Russia was dependent on selling 85% of its output to its European customers. This coming year will be dreadful for European gas energy. But thereafter, it will be increasingly dreadful for Russia as it loses most of its European market forever, before it can build pipelines to any new customers in Asia. There are (shamefully) around 1,000 western companies still operating in Russia, but the 1000+ that have now pulled out were drivers of some 60% of Russia’s GDP before the invasion. Now something else will have to drive that big wedge of Russian economic activity. Automotive, electronics, metallurgical and chemical industries in Russia are all badly hit by its pariah status, in ways that will have a long term impact.
Which is why Putin and his circle feel they now have no alternative but effectively to declare war on the west. Russia will not win, and may actually lose in Ukraine, if it does not mobilise to a significant degree. The Kremlin needs the rhetoric of war – general war against Russia – to justify what it has already done, let alone what it now knows it will need to do in the coming year to put significantly more resources into its ‘special military operation’. During July, Putin emphasised that Russian power was hardly yet deployed in Ukraine and much more would now follow, since Europe was prolonging the fighting in Ukraine. Foreign Minister Lavrov then stated that western involvement with Kyiv would now mean that Russian ambitions would (again) extend well beyond the Donbas and across the Black Sea coast. And on Navy Day on 31 July, Putin launched a new naval doctrine that placed the United States as Russia’s erstwhile enemy. All this, the official tip of an iceberg of nightly fantastical war and victimhood commentary on Russia’s state-controlled Channel One, Russia-1 and NTV channels.
The Kremlin has upped the ante in deploying the new weapons systems it has developed in its confrontation with NATO. Its air force and nuclear missile forces – where Russian military power does have some real substance – are repeatedly being rattled in response to NATO’s reactions. Russian gas supplies are now being explicitly manipulated to cause as much political distress as possible in western countries this winter, and attempted political subversion in many European states, from Italy to Kosovo/Serbia, is now higher than at any time since the deepest depths of the Cold War. In the confrontation with NATO, the Kremlin’s gloves are now at least half-off.
If there is a clear strategy behind this it is to threaten Europe, in particular, that Russia will not give up on this military operation and there will be much worse to come for Ukraine’s backers next year. At the same time, if Russian forces can just seize the rest of the Donbas before the winter, a cease fire offer is quite likely (which Ukraine will reject) to tempt the European into a well-judged bit of appeasement. If it worked, it might buy time for the Kremlin’s crypto mobilisation to have some effect by mid-2023 when the invasion of Ukraine would doubtless be renewed.
The West’s Political Decisions
For western political elites, the troubling times occasioned by this war are only just beginning. There are short and long-term realities to be faced. The short term reality is the maintenance of western unity. Initial outrage and the strong western consensus can be expected to soften as time goes on without a clear military outcome in Ukraine. All the easiest gestures have been made (and to some genuine effect) but from now on, maintaining pressure on Russia alongside the sort of support Kyiv needs will come with greater financial and human costs. In the short term, Europe in particular, stands to suffer a bleak winter. If it can get through it without succumbing to the temptations of appeasement, however, the outlook for next year, at least on the Ukraine front, is likely to be a lot better.
But the longer-term issue is no less immediate for being long-term. Ukraine has brought back to Europe the spectre – now the reality – of industrial warfare. The side that will win a war between developed economies is the one that is willing and able to deploy sufficient hard resources to fight it. Western military planners always knew, but kept it quiet, that NATO’s ammunition stocks and logistical sustainability were too low – ‘don’t worry, we won’t actually need them for a few years in any case’. Now we understand that almost all the elements of military sustainability are ridiculously, recklessly low. Significant western countries not only have to replace the weapons and ammunition stocks they have given to Ukraine. They now know that they may have to hold far more stocks of everything, far more quickly, than they ever assumed. And western defence industries, even in the US, simply cannot produce new systems at the levels now apparently required. Decisions taken – or not taken – during this year will have major effects on Ukraine’s ability to create some success in its war for survival. They will also have major effects on the west’s military credibility in doing all the brave things NATO summits have committed them to do. As the new British Chief of Defence Staff expressed it in June this year, we have to be capable of going into combat now, somewhere in the European theatre, against Russia, ’prepared to fight the war we seek to deter’.
The bottom line is that the west may perceive it is choosing between a bad – that is, temporary – peace, which may well be on offer in the autumn; and a good war that rightly frightens us all. But the Ukrainians don’t get that choice. In reality, Ukraine’s backers in the west may have less of a choice than their political elites would like to believe. If the political hiatus in western capitals continues much longer, it might leave us caught between a truly bad cease-fire in the name of peace and the continuation of a war that neither the Ukrainians, nor we, can actually win, even against an enfeebled Russian army.
Michael Clarke is co-author (with Helen Ramscar) of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London, I.B. Tauris, 2019 and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Taurus, 2021. He is the former Director General of the Royal United Services Institute and Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. Twitter: @MikeClarke2020s
Banner photographer: PO Phot Dave Jenkins Copyright: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021