The Ukraine war is far from over
Wars ebb and flow, momentum shifts back and forth, success and setbacks intertwine. War demands immense physical, emotional and spiritual energy of those involved — whether on the battlefield or in capitals. Perseverance required to achieve one’s aims mixes with adaptation required to respond as war unfolds. Commitment in the face of uncertainty takes a toll. In some sense, war is just a hard slog. The war in Ukraine is no different.
In the initial invasion, the Ukrainian forces defeated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Kyiv. Russia withdrew because it was forced to do so. But they have not abandoned their goal to conquer and subjugate Ukraine. In Putin’s mind, he is merely modifying how. The Russian military shifted forces to the east and went with Plan B: bite off more of Ukraine’s east and south to make it a landlocked country. If they succeed, they are likely to revert to Plan A.
The brutality of Putin’s aggression and criminal behavior goes unabated. Attacks on noncombatants and hospitals, murder and rape, using starvation as a weapon of war, preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid, stopping refugees from fleeing the fighting — all are stomach-turning, constant reminders of the Russian way of war. And all are harbingers of what is to come should Russia succeed.
Phase 2 has begun. So far, Ukraine resistance is holding steady. With the up-gunned support coming from the United States, NATO and other allies, the Ukrainian forces have prevented any major progress on the multiple Russian axes aimed to permanently carve up Ukraine. Allied weaponry, ammunition and equipment appear to have arrived just in time. But Putin’s forces are inching forward in some areas, and a few Russian units seem to be learning from previous mistakes. The Russians will not merely give up.
Unable to take the ground they want, the Russians likely will rely more and more on conducting war by missile, rocket and artillery. Massive destruction offsets Russia’s lack of tactical proficiency. Targeting logistical support will grow in importance in this phase of the war because logistics is the lifeblood of war. For the Ukraine forces, keeping their supply lines open will become a key requirement. So, those lines increasingly will come under Russian attack. Likewise, Russian supply depots and shipping will remain Ukrainian targets.
Putin will stay focused on achieving his campaign objectives until Ukraine’s combination of active defense and local counterattacks “teach” the Russians that they cannot win. This phase of the war will be intense and has several possible endings.
One has Ukraine defeating the current Russian attacks then transitioning to Phase 3: the counter offensive — maybe simultaneously in the north and south, or maybe sequentially. The purpose of these offensives would be to eject Russia’s invaders to their pre-February positions. To make this happen, the allies must stockpile the materiel necessary for the counter-offensive. Anticipatory massing of the arms, ammunition and equipment necessary for major Ukrainian offensives must replace the just-in-time methods used so far.
A second possible Phase 3 could unfold: stalemate. Russia could achieve partial success. That is, expand a little from their current positions, but not enough to take Odessa or to seize the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts in the east. In this possible scenario, Ukraine’s forces might not be able to transition to the offensive. Stalemate leads to two other possible scenarios.
First, protracted war. Putin’s Soviet-era KGB mindset will seek ways to weaken allied coordination, perhaps using cyber attacks and continued weaponizing of his energy resources; to erode allied will through mass distribution of misinformation on social media; or to intimidate allied leaders by expanded conventional attacks and threat of nuclear weapons — all to try to create an advantage in the prolonged fighting. Throughout, Russia will continue pounding Ukraine forces and civilians.
Second, negotiations. Russia, by virtue of occupying so much of Ukraine’s territory, might believe it has the upper hand to begin talks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hand may not be strong enough to demand Ukraine’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity to pre-February conditions — a loss for Ukraine and the international community, because Putin’s aggression will have paid off.
It’s too early to declare success and too early to predict how the war might unfold — even if Ukraine and its allies can see potential success in the distance. War has a way to surprise and to unfold in ways neither side anticipated. War is a contest of wills. That’s why the side that can adapt the fastest has the better chance of success. The war in Ukraine is only in its second phase. The path from today to the war’s end is neither clear nor predictable. All Ukraine and the allies can do is anticipate likely forks in the road, try to set conditions to move the war in the direction they want it to go, and adapt faster than the Russians.
The keys for the United States, NATO and other allies right now are two: help Ukraine succeed in stopping the Russian advances and then transitioning to the counter-offensive. To do this, they must continue expanding the sanctions on Russia, maintain NATO’s coherence, sustain the defense of NATO’s eastern flank, ensure its nuclear deterrence posture is well known, and supply Ukraine’s defense and stockpile what Ukraine will need to eject Russian forces. And then, be prepared to adapt as the realities on the ground dictate.
Defeating Russia’s Phase 2 offensive will take weeks for sure, maybe months. Conducting two major counter-offensives will also take months. There’s much slogging left to do.
James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. He served in military command and operational roles in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq, and helped train forces in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Honduras, and many NATO countries.
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