The next step: Push the Russians back

Wars are fought on the battlefield, but they are waged in capitals. Conditions have changed dramatically in Ukraine. Such changes force all parties, including NATO, to adapt how the war is fought and waged.

Ukraine’s military, with NATO’s military aid and Western sanctions, has stalled the Russian offensive. Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot continue his ground assault with the forces he now has available. But he has not given up his initial objective to subjugate Ukraine to his will. He has only shifted tactics: going on the defensive, refitting some forces in Belarus for redeployment into Ukraine, and continuing to bomb and shell Ukraine’s forces and cities.  

{mosads}Russia announced its main effort has shifted, from seizing Kyiv to securing the Donbas region with the intent to partition the country permanently. If this proves true, it is a shift of necessity that may indicate that, should Putin have to negotiate an end to his illegal aggression, his minimum acceptable end-state is retaining Crimea and an expanded position in the Donbas. 

But Russian lost momentum does not equal gained Ukrainian momentum.      

Ukraine must seize it by assuming the offense — first, through local counter-attacks to push Russian positions back. These have begun, but they’re not enough. The Ukrainian military must conduct a general counter-offensive to push Russian forces back to their pre-February 2022 positions. But the Ukrainians cannot do this with the weaponry and equipment they have now.  And it’s an open question whether even the expanded military aid promised by NATO will be enough.

The Zelensky government must ask itself a fundamental question: Are pre-February conditions a satisfactory strategic goal? NATO also faces a fundamental question: Will it supply enough military aid to Ukraine so that it can conduct a general counter-offensive necessary to re-establish pre-2022 invasion conditions?


Such a counter-offensive will take months. It will require both sequential and simultaneous operations. In sequence, Ukraine will have to decide where to concentrate forces large enough and powerful enough to push the Russians back and hold them there. Simultaneously, they will have to conduct both defensive actions and local counter-attacks to prevent the Russians from expanding their hold in the Donbas and Crimea areas. Sustained sequential and simultaneous operations are complex and will have costs in lives, weaponry and supplies. 

Throughout, Putin will contest every Ukrainian advance. He will order Russian troops to continue bombarding non-combatants, shelling non-military targets, blocking humanitarian assistance, using starvation as a method of war, and shelling refugees who try to escape the horror his forces create. He will continue his threats of chemical and nuclear escalation.

Following the series of summits in Europe last week, NATO seems committed to defend itself, deter Putin from widening or escalating the war, and assist Ukraine enough to conduct local counter-attacks. NATO has strengthened its force posture on its Eastern flank, adding more combat units, air and missile defense units, and artillery and rocket forces; reinforcing and repositioning air forces; beefing up its surface and subsurface naval fleet; and increasing the readiness of some of its nuclear forces. All this strengthens NATO’s defenses and acts as a deterrent to Russia’s widening or escalating the war. It also serves a secondary purpose: having the forces available and in position should Putin’s actions require NATO political leaders to make other decisions.

NATO also seems committed to providing large amounts of humanitarian assistance to help with refugees and displaced persons, but not to protecting delivery of this assistance inside Ukraine.  International humanitarian law calls for unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need. NATO should insist on safe passage immediately, and provide protection for such delivery, initially, and at a minimum, in Western Ukraine. This is not a provocation or an escalation.

{mossecondads}Also unclear from the summits is this: Will the Allies provide whatever Ukraine needs to push Russian forces back to their pre-February locations — to include providing aircraft spare parts and, if necessary, aircraft commensurate with what Ukraine has now? President Biden’s speech in Warsaw posed three wartime challenges that democracies must meet: If the Allies meant “We stand with you, period,” the answer must be “yes” to full support of a counter-offensive. If the Allies want to win the fight on behalf of a rule-based, and prevent a force-based, international order, the answer must be “yes.” And the answer must be “yes” if NATO and other democracies want to pass the “test of the moment and the test of all time.” 

Supporting a general counter-offensive protracts the war, but it also helps Ukraine win the war and keeps NATO forces from fighting Russians directly — unless Russia’s continued inhumanity finally shocks Allied public conscience and pressure builds for direct action. NATO actions, not speeches, will determine whether the Allies meet Biden’s three challenges. Deeds, not words, are the coin of war’s realm.

The U.S. does have limits, however. Among them are these three: Whatever Washington decides to do, it cannot risk eroding NATO unity. Nor can it exceed what the American people are willing to support. Further, the U.S. must keep an eye on the Pacific and the Middle East.  

American political and military leaders face multiple security challenges; they cannot develop security-myopia. But within these limits, the U.S., NATO and other Allies must continue humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and the pressure-increasing sanctions on Putin’s Russia. And they must assist Ukraine in pushing back Russian forces at least to where they were before the February 2022 phase of the war began — or else the Allies will have set conditions for Ukraine’s permanent partitioning.

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.

Tags Joe Biden NATO Russian forces Vladimir Putin Warsaw

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