As time goes on, the date of February 24, 2022, appears increasingly to have a decent chance of becoming one of those dates that future generations of schoolchildren will be forced to spend time memorizing. It is becoming clearer that the date that Russia invaded Ukraine will be one of those dates when history abruptly took a sharp turn and began heading down a different path. Although the outlines of what the ultimate geopolitical impacts of the invasion will be are not likely to be fully understood for years (if not decades), the outlines of the military campaign itself are becoming clearer.
While the outcome of the current war is still very much in doubt, the last 3 months have at least provided some initial lessons in both Russian and Ukrainian capabilities, as well as some factors that are likely to have an impact on this war and wars in the future. These factors are as follows:
1.) It is difficult to understand what is really going on.
For people who analyze this war, either as a professional analyst, commentator, or consumer of news, it is important to not only rely too heavily on what you read online, see on TV, on YouTube, or TikTok. The fact is that in addition to the Ukrainians and the Russians trying to manage perceptions to benefit themselves, there is just the “fog of war” which renders quick judgements most likely false. My source with connections in Russia reports of people who are seeing a war very different from the one portrayed in western media. While western media over the last 3 months has tended to depict a Russian onslaught that is failing and a Ukrainian resistance that is extremely effective, Russian media is depicting a righteous and just war against Nazism in which Russian troops are having some success, and alleged war crimes are deemed to be the work of Ukrainians trying to make Russia look bad. Western media report Russian casualty figures that are given to them by the Ukrainians, whereas Russia has been reticent to publish casualty figures. Up until recently, Ukrainians weren’t really saying much about their own casualty figures. However, Ukraine is starting to report losing between 200 and 500 soldiers per day. Casualty figures such as would be alarming as they imply an annual death rate of 73k and 183k; a casualty rate which would mean the complete destruction of the prewar Ukrainian grounds forces (126k) as reported by Wikipedia. As effective fighting force, this group would be finished long before that. While it is certainly possible that the situation is this dire, mass mobilization and reserve units being introduced into the fight notwithstanding, it is also possible that these figures are somewhat exaggerated to garner western sympathy and put pressure on western governments to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine. From a Ukrainian perspective, this need to spur the West into action must be balanced against damaging Ukrainian morale by publishing high casualty figures. The relative lack of panic coming from Kiev and the recent visits from heads of state to Kiev imply that the situation is more stable than the casualty figures would imply. Regardless the competing propaganda needs and perception needs of the Russians and Ukrainians means that they will necessarily be skewing their narratives. For those who think they understand the situation in Ukraine based on watching CNN or some supposedly obscure “in the know” website, they are fooling themselves.
2.) An army still marches on its belly.
Probably one of the biggest failures of the commentariat and intelligence community was to fail to predict the inability of the Russians to manage the logistical aspects of armored warfare. As someone who has attempted to follow Russian military developments over the last 15 years, I had expressed some doubts in the run-up to the war as to whether they would be able to pull this off. I remembered the logistical difficulty that Russia had experienced in the 2008 war in Georgia. However, after 14 years of a military modernization program, it wasn’t impossible to think that the Russians might have become skilled in this all-important military specialty.
The most enduring image of the first 3 months of the war to a military strategist was the miles long stalled Russian armored column north of Kiev. While the Ukrainians can take some credit for understanding the importance of logistics and that a mobile/flexible defense strategy of attacking the supply lines was a better option than trying to slug it out directly with Russian armored columns, the Russian drive on Kiev was largely stopped by inept logistical planning and the inability to improvise a logistical solution under fire.
Ironically, this Russian failure exposed a major Ukrainian weakness; namely lack of a competent air force. The fact that an armored column could be stalled for days like that and still exist to be able to retreat back into Belarus is a testament to the lack of Ukrainian air power. Even a semi-effective air force could have essentially destroyed that column as an effective fighting force. Had Russia been facing the United States Air Force, that column would have been destroyed in place and ceased to exist. We don’t really have to wonder what that would have looked like. The famous “Highway of Death” outside of Kuwait City in 1991 shows what happens when a stalled column comes up against a competent air force.
It should also be noted that as poorly as the they performed here, the Russians should be given some credit for recognizing very early that running 4 or 5 different lines of advance into Ukraine is beyond their capabilities, withdrawing these forces back into Russia, and moving them to another axis of advance. Often in war, one sees leadership that is unwilling to admit that it made a mistake and continues to press on in hope that somehow things will turn around for the better. Usually, it doesn’t, and the army pays a high price in blood for leadership’s unwillingness to admit that they made a mistake.
Currently, the Russians appear to be managing their logistical weaknesses by moving forward slowly and preceding it with artillery. This strategy pretty much precludes a lightening armored advance that can quickly take large swaths of territory. A breakthrough of Ukrainian lines would be difficult to exploit logistically and would also expose Russian forces to the same sorts of tactics that hampered them during the first month of the war, leading to shortages of food, fuel, and ammunition at the front of the advance column and the loss of more military equipment.
In short, the Russians have recognized a weakness and have moved to correct it to the extent that they can. While Russia may continue to move slowly, expect to see fewer massive logistical failures as Russian planners will probably design less ambitious military operations that will fit with the lower level of logistical capability that currently exists within the Russian military.
3.) Russia, and everyone else, overestimated its abilities.
Russia’s failure to achieve its original goals has been on display for the world. At the time of the invasion commenced, there seemed to be little doubt in the West that Russia would have Ukraine finished off in a couple of weeks. While it’s understandable that people reporting up to Putin would tell him what he wanted to hear and thereby give him a grossly inflated and unrealistic picture of what the Russian armed forces could accomplish, it’s not clear why western intelligence services didn’t have a more realistic grasp on things, given that they had obviously penetrated the Russian armed forces at a level significant enough to understand what was about to happen.
The impacts of this over-optimism (in Putin’s case) and over-pessimism (in the West’s case) are huge. In the case of Putin, had he known that his army might perform so poorly, he likely would have maybe left the door open for some negotiated settlement involving Eastern Ukraine without war. Instead, he deliberately put himself in a diplomatic position where he couldn’t back down, in that he put demands to the West that he knew that they could never accept. The West, by overestimating him, refused to send Ukraine the weapons that they are now at least promising to send, because they assumed that these weapons would just fall into Russian hands when the inevitable collapse came. A better armed Ukraine and a more realistic assessment of Russian capabilities might have prevented the war. But we will never know.
A more important question going forward is why western intelligence services weren’t able to understand that a Russian Army that still relies on conscripts for a significant fraction of its manpower, would be unlikely to be able to manage the logistics necessary to support a 1945 Red Army style armored offensive given its lack of the necessary combat experience. While it’s not clear, the answer could lie in the fact that those staffing the institutions have spent the last 30 years engaging in either small military actions (think Somalia, Kosovo, Serbia, and Libya), or large counter-insurgency operations (Afghanistan, Iraq). The only experience the West has with armored spearheads (Iraq, 1991 and 2003) ended very quickly. This perhaps skewed perceptions into assuming that what a professional army could do in roughly a month (Iraq, 2003), could also be done by a semi-professional army. While bureaucracies can leverage a nation’s resources to better defend itself, the people in them can often become prisoners to institutionalized thinking. An idea becomes accepted within an institution, and becomes something that “everybody knows”, and then it never gets questioned. While it will likely be known someday what happened internally at the CIA and other agencies, it’s clear that they badly misjudged what Russia could do, and now Ukraine, Europe, Russia, and the world are all paying the price.
4.) Russia is now likely to be underestimated going forward.
The danger now, for the West, is that conventional wisdom has now swung all the way to the other direction and appears to be underestimating Russia. In this view, which seems to be well represented among the journalist/pundit class, the Russian military is a joke and can always be counted on to fall flat on its face and fail in the mission.
If the tone of discussion in the West is any indication, we may risk assuming that Russia would perform as poorly as it has in Ukraine in some future war. While the U.S. military would likely perform reasonably well in a conventional confrontation, and the strength of the European and American economies would eventually overwhelm Russia’s as the war went on, Russia would still initially have weaponry that could harass NATO operations. It should also be noted that European militaries don’t have battlefield experience conducting armored offensives, and most have little to no combat experience of any kind, something that the Russian army is gaining in spades in Ukraine. Consequently, expecting NATO forces to perform at a level that the U.S. did in the initial phases of the 2003 Iraq war as it launched and armored invasion is probably unrealistic. NATO force could, in fact, perform quite poorly initially, thereby undercutting NATO’s operational plan. This could lead to a significant amount of destruction is Eastern Europe, before NATO forces eventually got things under control.
Also, it should not be forgotten that armies tend to make changes rapidly during wartime, and I expect that the Russians will become somewhat more effective at tasks like logistics, the longer the war goes on. Contemporary histories of World War II like to remember how the war ended with the U.S. Army storming into Germany in 1945. What is often overlooked is that the 1945 U.S. Army was the result of many mistakes and failures of the 1942 U.S. Army. It took the lessons of 1942 to create the 1945 U.S. Army. Just as the Russian Army has had its nose seriously bloodied, it would be a mistake to believe that the Russians are incapable of learning from some of their errors and improving on their performance to some extent.
None of this is to say that Russia will improve to the point that they will conquer all of Ukraine. What they have lost up to this point, and the fact that they now have the entire economy of the West arrayed against them feeding weapons to Ukraine makes this outcome virtually impossible, as long as the West remains united and actually follows through on its promises to send weapons and economic support. However, the idea that Russia won’t be able to draw on the lessons of Ukraine and modify its military to become somewhat more effective than what it has shown up to this point is also likely wishful thinking.
Someone one once said that Russia is not as strong as she seems, nor as weak as she appears.
With conventional wisdom on Russia changing from “able to take Ukraine in a week” to “a complete joke” within the span of few weeks, this sentiment is worth keeping in mind.
5.) While Russia has been forced to pare down its war goals, Ukraine hasn’t been able to mount anything more than local counterattacks.
In reading about the war from the West, one could be forgiven for thinking that Ukraine is winning. But if one follows the war maps, one can see that this opinion is more wishful thinking than reality. If “Ukraine winning” is that something calling itself “Ukraine” survives the war, then perhaps. But if “winning” is defined as coming out of the war in a better strategic position than when the war began, then Ukraine cannot be said to be winning.
In order for Ukraine to win (i.e., recover the strategic position that they had when the war began), they are going to have to retake a significant amount of territory. And while they have shown the capability to launch successful local counterattacks, they have not yet shown the strength to be able to launch a major offensive, such as what the Russians are doing in the Severdonetsk region. Most of Ukraine’s perceived success in this war has come from their defensive strategy coupled with the inability of the Russians to organize and sustain a blitzkrieg-type of armored advance. This perception was further enhanced as a result of the Russian retreat from Kiev on the north and the east. However, if one is being honest, this wasn’t due to the powerful Ukrainian army launching an offensive, and annihilating the Russian forces. Rather it was the Russian General Staff likely recognizing that a narrow line of advance, confined to roads, through terrain that was too wet to handle cross-country armored movement was susceptible to the sorts of mobile tactics that Ukrainian forces were capable of launching. While you can’t take anything away from the Ukrainians as they had the right capabilities and right tactics to take advantage of a Russian blunder. But that’s a far cry from saying that Ukraine has the capabilities to push the Russians out.
Being able to conduct large scale offensive combat operations takes a lot of time to assemble, organize, and train. Ukraine doesn’t appear to be anywhere near having sufficient tanks and airpower that it can collect in one place and launch a massive offensive to retake significant territory. And even if Europe begins sending weaponry such as tanks into Ukraine now (some claims say that only 10% of promised weapons have arrived), it will likely take between 9 to 18 months, to amass and train a force capable of going on the offensive and retaking large amounts of territory. It isn’t clear that Ukraine has that kind of time, before it is faced with either losing even more territory and ending up in a weaker position, or is forced to negotiate away territory for some sort of peace.
6.) Russia doesn’t have an air force capable of completely controlling the skies over Ukraine.
Prior to the start of the war, many (myself included) were expecting the Russian Air Force to overwhelm the small Ukrainian Air Force, and then completely control the skies over Ukraine in much the same manner as the U.S. Air Force controlled the skies over Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Controlling the skies to this extent would make Ukrainian movement difficult to impossible, thereby essentially allowing Russia to fix Ukrainian units in place and destroy them with the overwhelming firepower of artillery and air attacks.
What has been revealed in the last 3 months is that Russia simply does not possess an air force capable of doing this, which seems to have allowed Ukraine to be able to keep its front-line units supplied for the time being. One factor is that the Soviet/Russian anti-air missile systems that Ukraine has used along with man-portable air defense systems have done a decent job in allowing Ukraine to contest the air-space so that Russia can’t simply fly anywhere it wants with minimal threat. The second, and more significant, factor is that the Russian Air Force does not appear to be conceived as a strategic force to control the skies over an entire country, but rather as a sort of “flying artillery” in support of its ground forces. In this way, it is similar to the German Luftwaffe of the second world war.
Despite not being strategically powerful as was originally thought, Russia’s air force is still capable of being concentrated over an area of front and achieving results. In the current fighting at Severdonetsk, the air force seems to be having a positive effect in assisting the Russian ground troops as they move forward. It should be noted that the Ukrainian air force is absent from the fight over Severdonetsk, likely because it doesn’t want to expend its limited resources at this location, and retain some, albeit limited, air attack capability.
While there is no doubt that Russia retains the upper hand in the air war, it doesn’t appear that its air force is able to play the strategically decisive role that many had believed in would at the outset. Ukraine air defenses, although seriously degraded since the start of the war, still do exist in some capacity. And Ukrainian units are still mobile and able to be resupplied.
7.) Drones will play a much larger role in future conflicts. They create disruption and can allow for quick reconnaissance, enhancing tactical flexibility.
During the War on Terror, the U.S. used large drones for reconnaissance and the occasional fire support of an embattled ground unit or an assassination of some terror leader. Today’s drones are cheaper and can still do these things, but many of them are smaller and very difficult to defend against. Over the last 20 years, drones have become widely available, and incredibly cheap. There are even stories of Ukrainian civilians using personal drones to find Russian armored columns, call their position in to Ukrainian forces, who then were able to target them. Some of them are even small enough to be carried in a backpack and are intended to be used as kamikazes. Even an organization like Islamic State in Syria was able to create a swarm of drones and target a Russian airbase. Although both sides in the current conflict are using drones, Ukraine is able to use them to partially replace the reconnaissance capability that would have been done by aircraft 30 years ago.
Leaving aside satellites which can detect a large buildup of forces (as it did in Russia and Belarus), small, portable drones today can engage in the immediate tactical recon tasks that would otherwise require an aircraft or a large drone to be called in from some distance away. Being able use drones for kamikaze attacks or for recon gives local unit more options that they would have had in earlier conflicts.
Given the fact that the cost of drones has gone down over the last 20 years along with the fact that have become smaller and easier to use, expect these to become a bigger part of every country’s arsenal going forward.
8.) God is on the side the of those with the best artillery.
Although Napoleon may or may not have said this, Russia is showing itself to be heavily reliant on artillery for what success that it is having, both in the defensive and offensive side. Currently, Russia is using artillery defensively to try and keep Ukraine from launching offensives in area where Russia is clearly weak and has gone over to the defense (such as Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine, or Kharkiv Oblast in eastern Ukraine). As for as the current Russian offensive near Severdonetsk in eastern Ukraine, it appears that Russia is concentrating masses of troops and artillery to try and overwhelm the defenses. Although nothing is completely clear in war, Russia appears to be using artillery to essentially flatten an area, and then have its troops occupy the rubble. While Russia is moving forward and having some success, its advance is slow and therefore easier to handle logistically. For the moment, Russia appears to be doing well enough on the logistics front to be able to sustain this pace of operations for the time being, even though this method of advance will often result in a destruction of economic assets in the areas that they intend to control after the war.
What is unknown is how this clear artillery advantage will be impacted should Ukraine ever develop effective counter-fire capability at sufficient levels that could find Russian howitzers at their firing points and neutralize them. Currently, Ukraine doesn’t appear to have this capability at any sort of level that would be decisive. In addition to being currently outgunned, there are some reports that Ukraine may be running out of Soviet-era ammunition that their artillery pieces use. Although the West appears to be sending in artillery, it’s not clear that it will be coming quickly enough or in sufficient quantities to be decisive. In addition, the Ukrainians will need to be trained and need experience on the units to become effective. At the very least, they seem to be at least months (and perhaps even a year) away from being able to field an artillery force can compete with the Russians when the Russians have massed their forces in one place. That being said, given the tactical flexibility that the Ukrainians have shown relative to the Russians, a matchup between an evenly matched Ukrainian and Russian artillery unit where the key to winning was tactical flexibility would likely not have a good outcome for Russia.
The other factor to bear in mind is that for all of the success that Russia appears to be having at the moment in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, they clearly lack the capacity to achieve the superiority that they are achieving there throughout the entire length of the front.
With the West sending in weapons, one of the key questions of this war is whether Ukraine can hold out until they reach a point of some sort of armament parity with Russia, before Russian advances force them into a more unfavorable negotiation position.
9.) The Russian lack of autonomous Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO’s) & junior officers is rendering them less flexible than the Ukrainians and getting their generals killed in the process.
While the fact that the Russian military doesn’t have the cadre of NCO’s (sergeants) that western militaries have has been long known, the weakness of not having this structure is being revealed on the battlefields of Ukraine. In the U.S. and similar militaries, sergeants basically run everything. They are typically professionals who have spent many years in the military, and they understand how things really work in practice. While the young lieutenant or captain fresh from officer school may have the education, it is the sergeant who knows how to make things actually happen. These sergeants are often viewed as advisors to the officers, and their input is well-respected. They have typically worked their way up from the bottom ranks and have the respect of their teams. An officer ignores the sergeant’s advice (especially when the officer is young and/or inexperienced) at everyone’s peril.
In addition, western armies expect junior officers (such as lieutenants, captains, etc.) to take initiative on the battlefield to respond to an ever-changing tactical situation. Note that this is a western, not a democratic, way of warfare. Even the German armies under Hitler were organized in this manner.
The current Russian army, which is based on the old Soviet model, operates in an extremely top- down manner. Information has to flow up to the top, and then orders are sent back down to the junior officers and ground troops who are expected to carry them out. In an ongoing battle, conditions change very quickly, and orders based on information that is several hours old are often the wrong orders for the situation as it has evolved in the meantime.
Fixing this situation would take years and an entire culture change, which means that it isn’t something that the Russian military can do in a timeframe that will have any relevance for it in Ukraine. So, Russia has been doing the next best thing, which is to have its generals near the front line in order to develop a feel for the battle and reduce the time it takes for the information to go up to the commander and then back to the troops. This is undoubtedly providing the Russians with some increased level of tactical flexibility relative to what they would have if they had their generals safely away from the front. However, the price of this is that Ukraine has managed to kill several Russian generals, which is highly disruptive to the Russian command and control process and doesn’t help overall morale either.
Contrast this with the fact that Ukraine has spent the last several years moving away from the Soviet model and adopting a more western military structure. The effectiveness of this model was on display during the first weeks of the war as small Ukrainian teams with anti-tank missiles, working under a looser command structure with some autonomy, were able to harass Russian supply chains, and render their armored thrusts towards Kiev from the north and the east untenable for the time being.
10.) Russia conscripts are having difficulty fighting a modern war.
This actually shouldn’t really be a surprise, as it mirrors the experience of the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam. In the case of the Russians, their conscript soldiers are only in the military for one year. This is not nearly enough time to develop the training and professionalism needed to be effective in combat, especially when one is on the offensive. In the case of the Americans in Vietnam, their conscripts spent more time in military, but a tour in Vietnam only lasted around 12 months, give or take. And while 12 months of combat is enough time to become very proficient at it, most American troops would be rotated home after a year and be replaced by new, inexperienced troops.
The reason we remember World War II the way we do (a highly effective army storming the beaches of Normandy and rampaging across Western Europe) was that the army that landed in Normandy, although it was full of conscripts, had been fighting for 18 months. This army and had assembled a cadre of men and officers who had learned how to find, albeit at a high cost in blood. An army of conscripts usually has to pay a heavy price in blood to become combat tested and effective. This is what appears to be happening to the Russian army in Ukraine.
11.) Russia is running out of military equipment.
During the campaign up to this point, Russia has lost a significant amount of military equipment. While the Ukrainian governments numbers appear to be exaggerated, most western analysts believe that Russia has lost at least 1,000 tanks in this war. Evidence of low equipment inventories is starting to accumulate in that Russia appears to be using much more non-precision weaponry, indicating that its inventory smart bombs is running low. In addition, Russia is starting to take old T-62 tanks (produced in the 1960’s) out of storage and moving them into Ukraine. This is a desperate move as these tanks were obsolete 30 years ago and are completely unsuited to offensive operations on the modern battlefield. While Russia can in theory produce more updated tanks to replace losses, many of the parts required for these modern tanks come from western countries, who now won’t be shipping these components to Russia. In addition, there are indications that at least two Russian tank manufacturers have already had to shut down for lack of parts.
While the Russian army doesn’t appear to be at breaking point yet, the fact that they clearly are having trouble replacing losses is a positive sign from the Ukrainian perspective. Russia appears to be putting these older tanks areas where they are building in-depth fortified defensive positions, which indicates that they too understand that these tanks are not suitable for offensive operations. At some point, Russian losses will eventually reach a level that it can no longer sustain serious offensive operations. At this point, either Ukraine will have managed to assemble sufficient combat power to launch a major counter-offensive, or things will settle into a stalemate and perhaps negotiations will start.
12.) Summary: The current strategic balance.
Overall, this war isn’t going the way most folks thought that it would. While the media in the West had spent most of the first 3 months of the war playing up Russian losses and pointing out that Russia has failed in their main objective of regime change, it is starting to become apparent that Russia is still in a solid position as it pertains to Ukraine. They have most of southern Ukraine under their control, and appear to have found a way to grind forward slowly and at great cost in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. For those not familiar with Ukraine’s economic geography, much of Ukraine’s heavy industry is located in this region. It would be a great loss to Ukraine if this area fell into Russian hands. In addition, the Russian navy is successfully blockading Ukrainian ports, which is largely preventing Ukraine from exporting one of its major products, namely grain. However, the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles may end up being a pivotal event in this war, as it clearly removed the immediate danger of an amphibious landing to capture Odessa, the last major port in Ukrainian hands. Although Russia would still like to capture Odessa and thereby impede Ukraine’s economic development in the post-war period, it clearly lacks the combat power to conduct significant offensive operations in southern and eastern Ukraine at the same time. A ceasefire or peace agreement now would still leave Russia in a good strategic position, as its forces are currently placed to be able to quickly cut off Ukrainian shipping again if hostilities broke out. This would provide Russia with significant leverage, not only in peace negotiations, but also in future disputes.
This is the current state of affairs as it pertains to Ukraine.
On the broader geopolitical front however, Russia’s position has significantly weakened. Not only has the West united in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades in support of Ukraine, but Finland and Sweden are looking to join NATO (Turkish veto threats notwithstanding) which will eventually expand Russia’s land frontier with NATO from 750 miles (including the border surrounding the enclave of Kaliningrad) to about 1,600 miles. In other words, this war has undone decades of Russian diplomatic work to keep Sweden and Finland neutral, out of the western alliance, and to keep NATO away from Russia’s border to the extent possible.
It should also be noted that western claims that the “world is united” against Russia are inaccurate. Currently, China is attempting to be favorably neutral towards Russia, while India, Israel, and a host of other countries are trying maintain a position of “not hostile”. That being said, Russia is facing an enemy that that has the economies of the E.U. and U.S. behind it, looking to feed it weapons and supplies to keep it in the fight. These economies combined are 28 times larger than Russia. If Russia is, as it appears, effectively in a proxy war with the West, it’s a war that it can’t possibly win in the long run.
Assuming continued unity from the West, it’s imperative that Russia find a way to bring this war to something that it can call a successful conclusion, before heavy weapons arrive from the West in sufficient quantity and begin to tip the balance against it.
13.) The road ahead.
Currently, although the immediate danger of Ukraine’s government being overthrown has passed for the moment, Ukraine is still in a difficult position. The war has shifted from a war of maneuver which Ukraine’s mobile, flexible defense excelled at to a war of position and attrition featuring high levels of artillery use & concentrated air attacks, which favors Russia. While the idea that Russia could conquer the entirety of Ukraine one artillery shell at a time is not realistic, they currently hold important parts of Ukraine, and are positioned to take (or destroy) more of its industrial base. If Russia had shown itself capable of conducting a blitzkrieg style of warfare, there would be danger that the artillery could cause the Ukrainian line to break, the tanks to move through the resulting gap and roll up Ukraine’s defensive front, thereby forcing a Ukrainian retreat to reestablish a defensive line further west. If Russia had the logistical capability and broke through the lines with armored units, reestablishing a Ukrainian defensive line further west might not be possible. The fact that the Russians don’t seem at this time to possess the logistical skill to exploit such a break-through, means that break in the Ukrainian lines is likely to be tactically or regionally significant, but not strategically catastrophic to the point the Russia could take over the entire country.
This is significant, because if Russia lacks the power to take over the entire country, then the flow of weapons into Ukraine, assuming it continues, will eventually bring the Ukrainians to a point of parity with the Russians. The wild card in this calculation is how fast and in what quantity the weapons arrive. Because every day that goes by, Ukraine is losing more troops that it can ill afford to lose. Ukraine has many of its best units in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, and they appear to be being ground down. While Russia is having trouble replacing its losses on the battlefield, Ukraine isn’t having an easy time of it either.
The key factors that will determine this war are the following:
1.) How fast can western military aid be deployed?
2.) Can it be deployed in sufficient quantity to appreciably raise the level of Ukrainian combat power to a point that it can compete with Russia anywhere on the front that it chooses?
3.) Does Ukrainian combat power get depleted to the point where it must sue for peace before the arrival of sufficient arms to turn the tide?
4.) Does Russia’s combat power get depleted to a point where it can no longer launch offensives?
5.) How fast can Ukraine develop the capability to launch a massive offensive to retake territory and can this happen before Russian weakness provokes a push for serious negotiations from the Russian side, which could have the effect of weakening overall support in the West for continuing the war.
On the battlefield, I expect Russia to continue to make gains in the Donbass and Luhansk region in the short term, with the use of artillery and airpower. They have lots of it, and moving forward slowly doesn’t present the logistical challenges that an armored column racing across the countryside does. In addition, Ukraine doesn’t have an air force capable of bombing the artillery locations, or otherwise going head-to-head with the Russian air force, that would make the current Russian strategy untenable. The fact that Russian forces are having some success with artillery, likely means they will keep using it. While Putin will likely never give up his overall goal of swallowing Ukraine, reality and the fact that he has publicly stated that the “real goal” is to take over Luhansk and Donetsk gives him an off-ramp to declare victory of some sort. The trouble that Russia is having recruiting folks for this war (and the fact that Putin seems resistant to calling it a war and drafting people into the army to fight in Ukraine) is an indication that this war lacks sufficient support inside Russia for a mass mobilization. Putin’s likely best option at this point is to focus on finishing the takeover of Donetsk and Luhansk, maintain the land corridor between Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and then declare a ceasefire. After that, Russia can try and negotiate to get the sanctions removed or reduced.
It should also be considered it is possible that rather than declare victory and a ceasefire, Putin could just let things go to a stalemate and refuse to declare a ceasefire nor negotiate peace treaty. At the same time, he could have his troops build out defensive lines, largely refrain from attacking, while annexing the parts of Ukraine currently under his control. In doing this, he can keep up the blockade of Odessa while under an effective, if undeclared, ceasefire, thereby putting pressure on the West for concessions. In order for Ukraine to end the war on somewhat favorable terms, Russia will have to be facing defeat. And that can only happen if Ukraine has a credible threat of retaking a significant amount territory.
Ukraine, for its part, needs heavy weapons, especially tanks and artillery from the West in order to prevent the open-ended stalemate from happening. It absolutely needs to focus on defending what it can and building up a force capable of launching significant offensive operations, as well as being able to build up an artillery force capable of matching the Russians. This is not going to happen quickly, if it ends up happening at all.
In one sense it appears that time may be on Ukraine’s side, assuming they are able to maintain a cohesive frontline. However, a credible ceasefire offered by Russia under a stalemate condition could upend these calculations. In such a case, there would likely be political pressure from Western Europe (especially the current German government) to accept it. The German government clearly isn’t comfortable with this war, and appears to just want it to go away. Also, historically, maintaining a sanctions regime where many countries are involved has historically proven nigh impossible over the long term. It isn’t difficult to imagine the war ending in something like a North Korea/South Korea kind of situation with a cold peace (and no peace treaty) in place and fortified borders, or at least fortified borders and some of the sanctions lifted. Before this happens, Ukraine really needs to push the Russians back towards Crimea and retake as much of the coastline as it can before a ceasefire. Whether it will be able to amass the combat power necessary to do this before a ceasefire is questionable.
After whatever ceasefire happens, expect that Ukraine will become a frontline state singularly focused on its survival; much like Israel or South Korea. Expect it to spend a large fraction of its GDP on defense and procurement of weapons of all kinds. In ceasefire negotiation, Russia is likely to try and force Ukraine into some sort of neutrality and limit what weaponry it is allowed to have going forward. The more well-armed Ukraine is and the better its strategic position pre-ceasefire, the less leverage Moscow will have in forcing this concession, and the greater the chance that Ukraine be able to remain an independent state capable to defending itself into the future.