Ukraine: Stalemate in an Attritional War?
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) arrives at the Headquarters of the Dnepr Group of Forces, Kherson Oblast, April 17, 2023
The Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to the country’s “new territories” of Lugansk and Kherson/Zaporozhye Regions on Monday to assess the military situation.
The countdown has begun for the Ukrainian “counterattack”. The arrival of Patriot missile system in Ukraine testifies to the scale of mobilisation to impose heavy losses on Russia. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg paid a surprise visit to Kiev today, his first since the war began.
The leaked Pentagon documents are sceptical about the success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, but Moscow makes its own assessments. Primarily, the neocons are not going to pull the plug on the Zelensky regime, since that means opening the Pandora’s box when President Biden is about to announce his bid for a second term as president and cannot accept that Ukraine is losing the war.
In reality, Ukraine is haemorrhaging. It is in the nature of attritional wars that at some point, the weaker side breaks and thereupon, the end comes very fast. This was how in Syria where once the five-year old Battle of Aleppo was won in December 2016, the government forces swept through the country in a string of military victories bringing the curtain down on the conflict.
The attritional war in Ukraine may look “stalemated” but the clincher will be which side is inflicting the greater casualties. There is no question that the massive military, intelligence, financial and economic assistance by the West notwithstanding, Russian forces have ground down the Ukrainian side all along the line of contact.
The Russian ambassador to the UK recently said the ratio of losses in the attrition war is roughly seven Ukrainian soldiers to every Russian soldier. To put things in perspective, Western media reports estimate that around 35,000 Ukrainian soldiers will be involved in the upcoming counter-offensive along the 950-km frontline while Putin is on record that the Russian reserve forces on the frontline come to 160,000 soldiers!
The Ukrainian air defence system is in a critical state. Russians have a predominance of artillery and Russians have heavily fortified the frontline in the recent 5-6 months in multiple layers of defence such as mines, earthworks and bollards to impede advancing tanks, etc.
Russia’s Fortification Line
This is a desperate gambit for Ukraine, which has lost a large share of its most experienced soldiers (estimated 120,000 casualties), to take on the Russians who are having air superiority and missile superiority, air defence superiority and artillery superiority, and trained manpower superiority, above all.
The areas that Putin chose to visit — Kherson / Zaporozhya and Lugansk — are where the Ukrainian counteroffensive is most expected. Putin heard from the commanders the military situation and, of course, most certainly, that will be inputs for his decisions on Russian counter-strategies, both defensive and offensive.
Despite the Pentagon leaks and the ensuing disarray and confusion in Washington and European capitals (and Kiev), the Ukrainian counterattack will go ahead to gain back at least some of the lost territory. This is a desperate throw of the dice.
However, delusional thinking still prevails in Washington. This is apparent from a recent article in the Foreign Affairs co-authored by two veterans of the US establishment — former State Department official Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations — titled The West Needs a New Strategy in Ukraine: A Plan for Getting From the Battlefield to the Negotiating Table.
The article largely sticks to the myths spawned by the neocons — that Russia’s special military operations failed and the war has “turned out far better for Ukraine than most predicted” — but has occasional flashes of realism. It builds on the refrain currently in vogue in Washington that “the most likely outcome of the conflict is not a complete Ukrainian victory but a bloody stalemate.”
Haas and Kupchan wrote that “By the time Ukraine’s anticipated offensive is over, Kyiv may also warm up to the idea of a negotiated settlement, having given its best shot on the battlefield and facing growing constraints on both its own manpower and help from abroad.”
The authors take note en passe that Russia’s leadership has options and calculations too, as Western sanctions have failed to cripple Russian economy, popular support for the war remains high (above 70%) and Moscow senses that time is on its side as the staying power of Ukraine and its Western supporters and their resolve will wane and Russia should be able to expand its territorial gains substantially.
Fundamentally, Haas and Kupchan hail from another planet. They cannot comprehend that Russia will never accept a scenario where the conflict ends with a ceasefire but NATO will continue to beef up Ukraine’s military capabilities and steadily integrate Kiev into the alliance.
Why would Russia want to play another game of musical chairs while the West formalises Ukraine’s NATO membership — that is, acquiesce in a replay of the grotesque interregnum between Minsk Agreements of 2015 and Russia’s special military operations?
Putin’s visit to the new territories at this crucial juncture with the attritional war at a tipping point conveys a powerful signal that Russia too has an offensive plan and it is not up to Biden to blow the whistle and call off the proxy war — out of sheer fatigue or pressing distractions in the Asia-Pacific or due to cracks in the western unity or whatever else.
Equally, it is improbable that Russia can ever reconcile with the Zelensky regime, which Moscow sees as a puppet of the Biden administration. But how can Biden possibly dump or lose sight of Zelensky while the skeletons are rattling in the family cupboard?
Most importantly, the Russian public opinion expects Putin to redeem the pledge he made while ordering the special military operations. Anything short of that will mean tens of thousands of Russian lives perished in vain.
It is not in the grain of Putin’s political personality to ignore the groundswell of Russian opinion — or overlook the wounded national psyche as images are playing out of forced eviction of hundreds of monks of Pechersk Lavra, the 11th-century Orthodox cave monastery complex in the heart of Kiev, branded as Russian fifth columnists. It was a calculated political move by Zelensky with tacit western encouragement. (here and here)
What the neocons in the US are yet to grasp is that they failed to subjugate Russia despite all the humiliations poured on its national honour, proud history and enviously rich culture. Why would Russia normalise with states that appropriated its sovereign wealth and imposed such draconian sanctions to bleed and weaken its economy?
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has admitted on CNN that sanctions may ultimately risk hegemony of the US dollar. But her remarks do not go far enough.
Meanwhile, Russia-China strategic partnership has strengthened, the signal this week being Moscow’s willingness to coordinate with Beijing to counter military challenges in the Far East. (See my blog China, Russia circle wagons in Asia-Pacific)
Russia is far from isolated and enjoys strategic depth in the international community. Whereas, through the past one-year period, the systemic decline of the West and the US’ waning global influence has become an inexorable historical process.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.
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