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Ukraine-The Third Summer of War

As the third summer of war in Ukraine approaches, pundits, commentators, new sites and TV analysts are becoming increasingly less optimistic on Ukraine’s situation and becoming increasingly concerned with Russia’s apparent strength and improvement on the battlefield. While some of this commentary might have been exaggerated and intended to push the recently approved Ukrainian aid package through Congress, the fact remains that there is some improvement in the Russian performance. And whatever exaggeration exists in the western press, Ukraine did recently lower its conscription age from 27 to 25; a deeply unpopular move. While one might wonder why Ukraine has such a high minimum age for conscription (one might expect conscription to start at 18 and move up from there), the reason is that Ukraine has a demographic problem with low birthrate and the Ukrainians have taken the decision to try and protect this younger generation from being possibly decimated at the front line. The action of lowering the conscription age reflects that Ukraine is starting to feel the need to replenish its manpower. While an indication of a situation that is on a downward trajectory for Ukraine, lowering the conscription age by 2 years isn’t an act of desperation, but rather more of prudence. And one must remember that these newly conscripted soldiers won’t be at the front for many months. A sudden lowering of the age to 20 and a shortened training period would be more of an indication that things are dire, rather than merely challenging.

On the battlefront, some western analysts have expressed some surprise at the improvement of overall Russian performance. In recent weeks, Russia has taken some additional territory, and their drone/missile attacks appear to be having more of an effect. While some of the improvement is undoubtedly due to declining stockpiles of air defense missiles and artillery ammunition that is forcing some rationing on the part of the Ukrainians due to delays in U.S. aid, some of it is also due to improving Russian tactics where missile attacks are concerned. In addition, Russia has shown some level of ability to learn from their experiences in conducting ground assaults and the logistical aspects inherent in them, at least on a limited and local scale.

None of this should come as a surprise.

Armies, even poorly led ones, that are engaged in combat for months or years on end eventually absorb some lessons at the local tactical level at least. Even with high casualties, over time there develops a cadre of individuals that have made it through all of the battles unscathed, and these soldiers pass on their knowledge to the less experienced ones, generally leading to some overall improvement on the battlefield.

And this is what we are seeing now.

Strategic Significance:

Despite the heralded Russian gains in taking Avdiivka and making advances in other areas, none of the Russian gains on the ground so far are what can be called strategically significant. The Russian drone and missile attacks, however, do perhaps have the potential to be strategically significant at some point. The Russians appear to be attempting to use their missiles and drones to collapse the Ukrainian electricity grid by destroying power generating capacity. It is not clear from the reports if this new missile offensive is only showing results because of reduced Ukrainian air defense munitions, because of more effective Russian missile tactics, or if Russian forces are only now after 2 years making a serious attempt to collapse the energy infrastructure with the intention of reducing Ukraine’s capacity to produce its own weapons. What also is not clear is whether the current Russian missile/drone inventory is sufficient to fully achieve this goal. Only time will tell.

However, on the ground, it still doesn’t appear likely that Russia can achieve its stated goal of removing the Zelensky government, which would effectively mean conquering Ukraine. Some western analysts are expressing concern that the Ukrainian front at some point could be worn down by Russian artillery, air strikes and continued ground assaults that it could collapse, thereby allowing Russia a major strategic breakthrough; one that could possibly allow them to go all the way to Kiev. While certainly a breakthrough is possible, and Russia currently has the initiative on the battlefield, it still isn’t clear the Russians have learned to master the logistics necessary to exploit a breakthrough, even if one came. The logistics associated with an armored offensive of the kind employed by the Germans (and later the Americans and the Soviets) in World War II that resulted in strategic breakthroughs, are of a different kind and magnitude to those employed in local attacks, such as what the Russians are currently engaged in.

The Ukrainians could reduce the likelihood of this happening if they were to construct a series of “defense-in-depth” fortified defensive lines. This is substantially what the Russians did last year, which was able to largely thwart the much-hyped Ukrainian counter-offensive. There are indications that Ukraine is starting to do this is in some sections of the front, although how in depth and how extensive these fortifications will be is yet to be determined. In the case of the current war, Russia appears to lack sufficient air power and control of the air that would be necessary to pulverize a series of “defense-in-depth” fortifications. While construction of such fortifications is likely militarily advisable when one is the militarily weaker side as Ukraine is now, politically it might be a hard pill to swallow as it contributes to freezing the lines in place as the Russians, rather than attack these fortifications, will likely construct “defense-in-depth” fortifications opposite the Ukrainian ones. This would make any future Ukrainian attempt to retake the currently captured territories very difficult.

Economic Situation:

One of the primary factors currently pushing the war Russia’s way is that they appear to have somewhat successfully shifted their economy on to a war footing. This is allowing them to turn out more munitions, as well it seems to develop some newer or modified technological solutions. And in the short-to-medium term, this may very well be enough to produce some battlefield success. The question is what will happen if/when the West decides to shift to a war economy, both to build out its own forces in Europe as well as supply Ukraine. The fact is that economic size of the U.S. and Europe + Japan and South Korea are roughly close to 30 times the size of the Russian economy, of which the recently approved $61 billion in US aid to Ukraine represents a rounding error. In other words, Russia having to face the combined economies of the West (plus Japan and South Korea) that have gone on to a war footing where the production of armaments is concerned is a fight that it can’t possibly win. Having said that, if China were to fully align itself with Russia, as opposed to its current “friendly, but neutral” stance that it has today, the West’s advantage drops from roughly 30 to 1 to roughly 4 or 5 to 1. While still difficult for Russia, it isn’t hard to imagine many countries of the “Global South” deciding to hedge their bets in such a situation and maintain a more open relationship with Moscow, thereby providing some space for the Russian side to maneuver through a still very challenging and difficult situation.

However, China is not likely to move much beyond its current “friendly, but neutral” policy towards Russia, because its entire social contract of “prosperity in exchange for giving up political rights” depends upon economic linkages with the West. The kind of punishing sanctions visited on Russia, were they to be applied to China, would act as a destabilizing factor to a government that is already facing challenges to its legitimacy. Evidence of Chinese hesitancy to push the U.S. too far can be seen in the refusal of several large Chinese banks to do business with Russia. While China will do what it feels that it can do to help Russia mitigate the effects of western sanctions, it is not likely to go full-on in support of Russia like the West has done with Ukraine. Consequently, China isn’t likely to ever be able to help Russia close the economic gap from 30:1 to 4:1, but rather perhaps to 20:1 or 15:1, which is still a fight that Russia has no chance of winning.

Currently, the West (aka Europe) does seem somewhat serious about building out its armed forces and reinvigorating its defense industry which will eventually bear fruit. Although how quickly this can/will be done is still an open question as talk has been more prolific than concrete action up to this point (i.e. 2 years into the war. Regardless, however, over the long run time does not appear to be on Putin’s side.

The Road Ahead.

In order to accomplish its stated goals in this war to demilitarize Ukraine, Russia is going to have to launch a major (and successful) offensive just as a start. The idea the Russia could conquer all or most of Ukraine with a single breakthrough is not grounded in reality. Ukraine is simply too big geographically speaking for this to happen, unless the entire front were to somehow collapse. Given the lack of panic observed in Kiev, this does not appear likely.

If Russia is to achieve a strategically significant breakthrough that will allow it to take wide swathes of territory before Ukrainian forces can reestablish defensive lines, it will almost certainly have to concentrate its forces a single point, with possibly some smaller concentrations to at one or two other points to launch supporting or feint attacks designed to draw Ukrainian forces away from the main effort. The difficulty with this is that pulling together a massive force at one point can’t really be done in secret anymore. Satellite imagery as well as every person with a cell phone camera/recording device makes WWII-style troop staging/concentrations impossible to keep hidden. A Russian troop concentration of significant size capable of achieving a strategic breakthrough would have to be staged an unusually far distance from the front at a point from which it could be moved quickly into an offensive in one of several directions, thereby not allowing the Ukrainians time to move additional defensive forces to the point of attack.

In addition, such a troop concentration would be an inviting target for Ukrainian missile/drone attacks, which at this point the Ukrainians still seem capable of launching. While the Russians also have defensive capabilities allowing them to knock down Ukrainian missiles and drones and making it unlikely that Ukrainian attacks could destroy the Russian troop concentrations, the attacks themselves could be disruptive to the organization and logistics of the planned Russian offensive. This fact and the fact that they don’t have complete control of the air makes me skeptical that the Russians will be able to pursue a successful WWII-style major offensive, like everyone imagines.

That being said, even if they are able to pull one together, we still have not seen that the Russian army is able to manage the logistical challenges of a fast-moving armored offensive; something that they would need to be able to do if they were to be able to strategically exploit an achieved breakthrough. Failure to do so would slow the armored breakthrough, and/or bring it to a stop and allow Ukrainian forces time to re-establish defensive lines further north or west, thereby containing the breakthrough and likely limiting its strategic impact.

Further diminishing the likelihood of a strategic breakthrough is the fact that the Russians don’t appear to have been able to effectively cut the supply lines to sections of the front through the use of artillery or other methods (drones, missiles, air strikes, etc). Ukraine wasn’t able to do this either in their 2023 counteroffensive, a fact that contributed to its lack of effectiveness. While supplies from western countries may have slowed and may be forcing some reduced level of military action on the part of the Ukrainians, they don’t yet seem to be at such a reduced level as to render certain Ukrainian forces as effectively cut off. Although it’s not impossible that such a point could be reached later at certain sections of the front, it’s not a sure thing either. And new aid coming into Ukraine in the next weeks/months makes it even less likely.

In short, I expect Russia to continue to do what it is currently doing in pursuing a war of attrition, but with additional forces available to be moved into action to exploit local breakthroughs and capture more territory. I also expect that Russia will continue its missile/drone attacks on the electricity grid and other critical logistical infrastructure to attempt to disrupt the ability of the Ukrainians to effectively wage war and support their front lines. Whether this strategy largely succeeds or not is going to depend significantly on the support that Ukraine receives from the West. To return to the start of this article, although there may be some exaggeration as to the how critical the supply situation for Ukraine is at this moment, they will need a certain level of continued arms shipments from the West to continue the fight. Whether the $61 billion on top of the $74 billion already provided by the U.S. will have an effect beyond preventing Ukraine from losing remains to be seen.

In short, there appears to be still a lot yet to be written in the story of this war.

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