How Ukraine lost the war

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By ROSTISLAV ISHCHENKO*

Russia won the war against Ukraine and NATO. However, Kiev is not ready to capitulate and accept Russian peace terms, which could lead to the advance of the Russian army

Seeing the map of the development of the Special Military Operation (OME), people periodically ask a question: why not attack the flank and rear of the Ukrainian armed forces, again crossing the border of the Kharkov, Sumy, Chernigovsk regions, and entering the from the territory of Belarus.

After everything that has happened, nothing limits the territorial space of the “war zone”. The territories bordering Russia are constantly besieged by the Ukrainian armed forces; its sabotage units try to carry out incursions into Russian territory (not very deep, but still trying) and Russian troops have also entered Ukrainian territory from Belarus in the spring of 2022. Since then, relations between the Kiev regime and Minsk will only get worse, so there is no serious obstacle to this type of movement being repeated.

It is true that Poland has already declared that it is ready to defend Ukraine if the Belarusian armed forces enter hostilities on Ukrainian territory. But, firstly, we are not talking about the involvement of the Belarusian army (just passing through the country's territory) and, secondly, Poland is no match for Russia and will only send its army to the front if it has at least a hope of reaching a draw, avoiding complete defeat. At this time, Poland has not yet completed the reform and rearmament of its army, which is why a full-scale conflict with Russia, without the active participation of its larger NATO comrades, is clearly beyond its capabilities. Warsaw itself would not hold out for long, and the United States and other Western European allies do not appear to want to fight with Russia.

If there are no significant contraindications, why then does half of the potential front remain unused? The answer is simple: because it is not profitable for Russia. The Ukrainians try to spread Russian forces across as wide a front as possible, while the Russians try to concentrate them in as narrow an area as possible, in the main sections.

At first, Russia tried to apply the theory of Blitzkrieg

In the first phase of the Special Military Operation, Russia sought to wage a war of maneuver on a broad front, based on the fact that Ukraine in no case (even with the most massive mobilization) would have enough troops to guarantee the necessary military density over a period of time. huge arc, from Odessa to Zhytomyr. And the Russian army, better prepared and equipped, would gain a significant advantage once an effective maneuver was carried out.

Strictly speaking, this was a modern application of deep operations theory,[I] developed in the early 1930s by the Red Army –  better known by its famous German name: “Blitzkrieg" (lightning war). The wars of the 1990s-2000s, as well as the experience of limited conflicts, such as Syria, confirmed the relevance of this theory. They testified that a modern, high-tech army has a considerable advantage over an enemy armed and trained in the style of the late 80s and early 90s, not only if that modern army is on equal numbers, but even that this ratio is significantly lower.[ii] It was then assumed that Russia would maneuver easily, with its technological superiority.

However, the pause held in March and April for negotiations allowed Kiev not only to mobilize manpower, but also to receive modern combat means from the West, in the form of counterbattery radars, as well as air defense systems and antimissiles. Russia did not fear the relative multiplicity of the latter, but their ability to work together with Western reconnaissance complexes[iii] it became an unpleasant surprise, which sharply and for a long time reduced the effectiveness of Russian combat aircraft.

Early that summer of 2022, Ukraine received Western artillery systems, which, in conjunction with the drones reconnaissance, posed a serious threat to the immediate rear of the Russian army. All this together made the rapid movement of powerful columns of troops impossible.[iv], which is the distinguishing mark of any Blitzkrieg.

A deep operation means the least possible mobilization of personnel for combat and the maximum possible movement in marching columns. Rapid movement solves the problem of isolating a front that is still resistant, maneuvering to its rear, blocking the delivery of reinforcements of manpower, weapons, ammunition, fuel and lubricants, thus destroying troop reserves in parts, depriving the enemy of the opportunity to create an attack force to relieve the blockade of isolated units or, at least, create a new front line in the depths of the defense.

Deep operation is a fine-tuning system. All its components must operate in full and effective interaction with each other. If one of the elements of the system cannot be implemented, the Blitzkrieg will not be feasible.

The main advantage of the Russian political-military command is the talent required for decision-making in military matters: once a problem is discovered, it is not sought to overcome it with stubbornness or the automatic overinvestment of greater resources, it is sought quickly, rather, an alternative option, which can lead to victory, perhaps slower, but no less effective.

If superiority cannot be assessed by the format Blitzkrieg, it is necessary to implement a different format

Clausewitz also categorized wars as lightning wars and wars of attrition (or attrition). In the 20s of the XNUMXth century, this cleavage was exhaustively worked out by the Russian and Soviet military chief and theorist Alexander Andreyevich Svechin (general of the General Staff of the Imperial Russian Army and army commander of the Red Army). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Svechin advocated preparing the country for a long war of attrition[v], noting, rightly, that the vast Russian expanses and their mobilization capabilities would not allow the theory of Blitzkrieg be applied against the country. Furthermore, the experience of the First World War had shown that opposing blocs mobilize such large resources that an advance on one of the fronts or even the withdrawal of one of the allied powers from the war is not a guarantee of a final victory.

The Second World War brilliantly confirmed all of Svechin's predictions - and his work Strategy (1927) [Strategy, East View Information Services] is still relevant and easy to read for such specific literature. Despite all the Blitzkriegen of Hitler, despite France's withdrawal from the war, despite Germany's capture of the Balkans and establishment of control over Scandinavia, despite the initial successes of Wehrmacht in the 1941 campaign against the USSR, in the end, the war became protracted, and the victory was won not by a brilliant and profound maneuver, but by a more powerful resource base.

Russia opts for war of attrition

It is logical that, upon realizing the impracticality of Blitzkrieg In the circumstances that emerged, the Russian political-military leadership turned to the second type of war, a war of attrition.

Russia did not set out to conquer Ukraine. In fact, it is worth noting that both the Blitzkrieg, such as war of attrition, as a rule – with rare exceptions – do not pursue this objective. The objective of every war is not to capture more territories, as some think, but to achieve the expected strategic objectives in the shortest possible time and with the minimum of losses and costs.

Thus, all definitions of classic military operations are fully applicable to the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine, especially from the moment the milestone of a short liberation campaign was surpassed, in support of friendly local forces. But, even within this framework, the classic objectives of a military campaign are also pursued. Simply, the main emphasis is not on the military component, but on the political component.

War of attrition does not require general mobilization

A war of attrition requires the creation of strong and stable fronts. This requires a dense concentration of forces in priority areas. In order not to carry out large-scale mobilizations, unnecessary from the point of view of the objectives of a war of attrition, Russia reduced the front line as much as possible, withdrawing troops from three regions in northeastern Ukraine. Later, to increase the stability of the front, it was necessary to leave part of the Kharkov region, as well as retreat below the Dnieper, in its lower reaches.

Ukraine cannot launch a large-scale attack across its northeastern border. It is not a sensible objective for the Ukrainian military: Russia has too much strategic depth, which exceeds any capacity of Ukraine's forces to conduct an effective offensive operation.

Russian defenses minimized the possibility of major troop advances

Any advances by Ukrainian troops across the border, including relatively large forces, would be suicidal, would be of an exclusively political and media nature, and would only aim to exert psychological pressure on Russian society. However, the relatively rapid construction of fortifications along the border and their occupation by troops has reduced the possibility of major advances to zero, while periodic attempts to penetrate Russian territory by small Ukrainian DRGs (sabotage groups) only result in loss of personnel and similar retaliatory actions by Russia, without causing greater damage.

At the same time, since there is a possible threat of Russian troops breaking through the border in the northeastern regions of Ukraine, the Ukrainian armed forces are forced to maintain relatively large contingents along this entire line, from Kharkov to Kovel and Lutsk, diverting these forces from other fronts. By using relatively small forces, Russia commits much larger resources of Ukraine's armed forces to its northeastern border.

At the same time, on the great front from Kherson to Kupyansk, the work of crushing the Ukrainian forces has been carried out successfully, due to the production and sustained increase in the advantage of the Russian armed forces in armor, artillery, aviation, drones, missiles, as well as in their firing intensity. No matter how much Kiev dodges, no matter how many general and massive mobilizations it announces. Their reserves are running out, the density of troops occupying the front is decreasing, the quality of these troops is falling, and a front-wide catastrophe is approaching.

This was already noticeable from the beginning of summer until the end of autumn. The Russian armed forces first went from defending in the most immediate battles (south and east) to putting pressure on the Ukrainian forces, keeping them on the defensive along almost the entire front line. And then they continually increased the pressure, forcing the Ukrainian General Staff to transfer the same units from the south to the north and center to fill the constantly emerging gaps in battle formations. The Russian army thus began to slowly but surely strangle the enemy.

The speed of withdrawal of the Ukrainian armed forces will only increase the frequency and depth of the advance of Russian forces. Soon, the Ukrainian General Staff will be faced with a choice: quickly retreat to unprepared positions beyond the Dnieper – risking a total collapse of the front – or transfer brigades covering Ukraine's northeastern border to another temporary stabilization of the front. If Kiev chooses the second alternative, the reiteration of the Russian offensive movement as in February-March 2022 in the Belarus-Kharkov sector (now correcting the mistakes made) will again be relevant.

The fundamental difference between a war of attrition and a Blitzkrieg is that the latter implies the destruction of the enemy army during a deep advance. If the advance was not successful or the destruction of the enemy did not occur for some reason, a Blitzkrieg Unsuccessful often produces a crisis for the side that launched it. A war of attrition has its negative aspects – in particular, it can cause problems in the economy and fatigue in society, as well as being more expensive than a war of attrition. Blitzkrieg successful – but its resolution, from a purely military point of view, is less risky, once the balance between one's own capabilities and those of the enemy is correctly carried out.

In a war of attrition, the deepest advance occurs after the enemy has suffered sufficient human and material losses, in addition to being sufficiently exhausted, physically and mentally, to reach the point of losing the ability to resist another offensive. At this moment, normal pressure on the enemy's positions turns into a deep advance, which he cannot stop, not because he does not have time to transfer reserves, but because these reserves simply no longer exist; they were burned during the weathering process.

In effect, Ukraine has already lost the war of attrition. She simply didn't have the right resources. And the West has exhausted its resources – which it bitterly admits. However, Kiev is not ready to capitulate and accept Russian peace terms. If this stubborn position does not change (and we have no reason to believe that it will), then we will still have the opportunity to see both the collapse of the Ukrainian front and the rapid advance of Russian army columns, against which Ukraine simply will not have, for alone, of no recourse.

*Rostislav Ishchenko is a political scientist and former Ukrainian diplomat exiled in Russia.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published in Revuelta Global.

Translator's notes


[I] Operations eventually also known as big arrow maneuvers.

[ii] In fact, independent international experts estimated the first Russian contingent in action in Ukraine in February/March 2022 at not much more than 90 thousand fighters, compared to what would be supposed, at the time, as 209 thousand Ukrainian fighters (figure from the “Military Balance ” from the unreliable International Institute for Strategic Studies– IISS).

[iii] Read ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance).

[iv] An image well established, at the beginning of the conflict, by the long columns of Russian tanks on the highways of northern Ukraine.

[v] This cost Alexander Svechin the frontal indisposition of Josef Stalin, leading him to be executed on the latter's personal order in 1938, during the Great Purge. Stalin defended an offensive profile for the Red Army, which led him to dismantle internal defense structures, which, in turn, produced the well-known disaster in the face of the advance of the Wehrmacht in 1941. Svechin's reputation would only be restored by Mikhail Gorbachev.


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