The Ukraine war hits a critical juncture
For Ukraine’s president, fighting forces and citizenry, this war is existential, and every phase has been critical. Now, especially so. Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought a lightning end to the Zelensky government, but he’ll settle for a slow death if that’s all he can get. Unless the United States, NATO and other allies up their acknowledged generous support, a slow death is likely where the Ukraine war is heading.
Ukraine forces, with allied aid, stopped Putin’s initial attempt to seize Kyiv, sparing their nation from becoming a vassal to Putin’s regime. Then Ukraine used allied support to push the Russians back to their borders in most of Ukraine’s northern territories and to prevent Russia from breaking out of the annexed Donbas region. But the territory that Russia controls in the South, less Odessa, puts Putin in a position to slowly choke Ukraine’s economy while continuing to pummel Ukraine’s cities, civilians, industry, cultural sites and infrastructure. This is what winning looks like to Putin right now — and he is counting on it.
President Biden is right that this is a war the West must win. In public statements, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, have agreed. NATO leaders, too, have adopted similar positions. The allies are aligned in words, but words don’t win wars. Force wins wars.
In this phase of the war, what Ukraine needs is what is most difficult for the U.S. and the allies to deliver: consistent focus and sustained support. Focus is already beginning to dissipate.
Some are calling Ukraine the next “forever war.” And the calls for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations are growing. This, after just three months. Global inflation, supply chain issues and residual pandemic effects — all contribute to dissipating allied focus. In the U.S., the Jan. 6 Committee hearings, attention to increasing gun violence, and the coming midterm elections are reasons for some to put Ukraine on the back burner and for others to try to force negotiations too early. Either of these would benefit Putin and reward his aggression.
Sustained effort also is eroding. American support, as vital and massive as it has been, arrives in surges. The result has been a reactive, pulse-like flow of military arms, ammunition and equipment. Battlefield momentum needs a steady flow of logistics that anticipates the demands of fighting. “Just in time” or “almost on time” logistics inhibits operational momentum. Further, for some allies, the gap between announcements of support and delivery of that support is too large.
Without doubt, the allies have been generous — the latest U.S. pledge of $1 billion being the latest example. And their support has been essential to Ukraine’s battlefield success. But equally without doubt, they have not yet figured out an effective and efficient way to translate intent into anticipatory action. Rather, it seems that promised support for Ukraine is delivered through multiple bureaucracies, each of which contributes to both the surge-and-ebb flow and the announcement/delivery gap.
The key to preventing Putin’s success at his “slow death” approach lies in southern Ukraine. Russia has seized almost all of Ukraine’s seaports. Before the war, about 70 percent of Ukraine exports were shipped. Now, that’s a trickle. EU roads and rail will help, as will Ukraine’s rivers and airports. But they cannot handle the full load. All this adds up to one thing: the Zelensky government must stay on defense in what has become mostly an attrition battle in the Donbas and return to maneuver by expanding its offensive operations in the South. War is won on the offense.
A southern offensive adds a new degree of complexity, however, for it has a maritime dimension. The crisis of Kyiv was an air-ground crisis. So was the war’s second crisis in the Donbas region. The war’s third, southern crisis has air-ground-sea elements. Further, to force Russia out of the territory they now control, a southern offensive will also require (a) more firepower — hence increased flow of allied support — to offset Ukrainian losses as well as support offensive operations, and (b) coordination of conventional and “behind-the-lines,” irregular activity. The bottom line: A southern counteroffensive not only demands a degree of sophistication in planning and coordination but also a significant adaptation of allied support.
Such an offensive is possible, but the challenges are three. First, determine what minimal set of air-ground-sea actions are actually possible and will achieve the desired end — driving the Russians back. Second, derive the set of logistics requirements from these actions. Third, integrate Ukraine air-sea-ground conventional action with partisan operations within the Russian controlled areas. Hopefully, the allies have conferred with Ukraine weeks ago to do all this. If not, the benefit of time goes to Russia — time to attrite more Ukraine forces, stiffen their southern defenses, continue their barbarous and criminal behaviors, and begin Ukraine’s slow death.
Americans may be tempted to ask, “How long will this take?” Before we do, remember our own history, when we were fighting a global power for our right of self-determination. France came to our aid, first in secret and then, in 1778, overtly as an ally. Over years, they supplied millions in cash, vital arms, ammunition, clothing, equipment and military advice that helped keep the Continental Army in the field. Then, at a critical juncture, a French army and navy joined George Washington’s forces to help end the major combat operations phase of our Revolution at Yorktown in 1781. Military leaders from other nations also helped us.
Direct U.S. or NATO involvement may not be required in the Ukraine war, but Ukraine’s government, fighters and citizens are counting on the allies for full and unwavering support so they can carry on the fight for their self-determination.
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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