With their defeat in the Battle of Kyiv, Russian forces have started to concentrate in the east and south of Ukraine to build upon their greater advances there. Too many commentators have overlooked the battles in the south where Moscow’s troops were more successful in taking territory. The defense of Kyiv got all the media attention, as did Bucha, despite the wanton destruction of Mariupol. While it lost its battles in the north, the Russians have taken a swath of territory in the south and east that is roughly three times larger than the prewar area in the Donbas that the separatists held. Ukraine’s tenacious defenders have performed exceptionally well so far in the war, but continued success, especially in the south and east, cannot be assumed given the nature of the terrain there and current force levels. The next phase could generate larger and more decisive battles, depending upon the interaction of the contending strategies.
Success in war is often a clash of institutional adaptations, according to scholars including Williamson Murray and Theo Farrell. The Ukrainian way of war will have to evolve from the initial successes of the war’s opening six weeks. Having observed poor Russian performance up close, Ukrainian forces must avoid the same tactical mistakes their adversaries have made. On the other side, Russia is already demonstrating some adaptation, including designating a general officer, one with significant experience in Syria, as campaign commander. Russian military leaders certainly will not underestimate the motivation or lethality of the resistance. Attritional warfare, however, may still favor the Russians and their heavy artillery and ballistic missiles. Ultimately, I foresee three alternative scenarios that could emerge in the next few weeks.
Scenario 1: Ukraine on the Offensive
In the first scenario, Ukrainian forces go on the offensive in an effort to counter any attempts to surround their brigades holding the line in the Donbas. As part of this campaign, the Ukrainians would attempt to clear Kharkiv and Kershon. As Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov noted, this requires more—and different—weapons than those Ukraine has received from international supporters so far. “To win such a war, we need different help than what we have been receiving before,” he said. “We want to liberate the enemy-occupied territories as soon as possible. To do this, we need other weapons.” Yet Ukraine does not have troops familiar with some of these, especially those that are not legacy Soviet systems. The new weapons that would be most effective are not as easy to operate or maintain as most of the handheld munitions the West provided earlier.
What would the outcome be if Ukraine goes on the offensive? This type of fighting could generate massive levels of casualties for the Ukrainians and it is likely that they would ultimately fail while expending much of their manpower and munitions stocks.
Scenario 2: A Renewed Russian Offensive
In the second alternative, Russian forces go on the offense. If the Russians could mount assaults from both the north and south and seize the key city of Dnipro, it could isolate significant Ukrainian combat power in one fell swoop. But this assumes a degree of skill at combined arms maneuver that Russian units have largely failed to demonstrate since invading. While some feel that the rolling plains in the east play to Russian advantages in large mechanized operations, the success that the Ukrainians had against armor, from the air and on the ground, could be replicated in the Donbas—although the engagement ranges will be greater. Moreover, if Dnipro becomes key terrain, it will become significant that Russia’s approach to urban warfare ignores the basic rules and overlooks the effectiveness of decentralized operations when fighting in cities.
In this scenario, the Russians may also try to expand their position and close off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea entirely. Odesa is less likely to be taken than other coastal cities, however, given its size. The loss of its port and access to the Black Sea would be a severe reverse for Ukraine’s long-term economic prospects. The Ukrainian defense will have to weight its effort against that thrust.
The Russians would probably fail again in this scenario. They may have improved some elements of their readiness posture, but I doubt that they learned enough from their poor performance so far, and many of their deficiencies (logistics and small-unit leadership) cannot be corrected in the near term. This approach could doom the Russian military if they continue their failures in operational art, pursuing too many objectives with too few troops to cover the tasks assigned. Russia is likely to lose under this scenario, almost as badly as it has so far in the north.
Scenario 3: A War of Attrition
Another option would be for both sides to avoid taking to the offensive with massed assaults, instead preserving the current contact lines and conducting a war of attrition. Because of its material advantages, Russia might have the upper hand here but will still suffer from poor theater command, degraded operational leadership, and manpower constraints. In this scenario, we would expect to see Ukraine make a strong effort to impose costs via unconventional warfare, leveraging the training and concepts developed by American practitioners.
The most likely result is a stalemate, and the West is the biggest loser if that scenario plays out as it continues to cover the costs for Ukraine’s military operations, absorb the flow of refugees and meet their humanitarian needs, and see the economic impacts (including a possible recession in Europe) of its efforts to maintain pressure on the Russian government and elites. The more protracted this war becomes, as Sir Lawrence Freedman wisely counsels, the greater the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin escalates in an insidious manner or that some miscalculation results in NATO becoming a direct belligerent. However, given Putin’s history, another frozen conflict could be the long-term result.
What it Means for the War’s Termination
All told, we should expect Putin to consolidate his hold on the Donbas region and most of his gains. It is likely that Putin will claim the crescent of terrain now held, from Kharkiv to Kershon, as his spoils regardless of whether he elects to retake the offensive or not. How much of that he intends to keep permanently and how much would become chips at the bargaining table will depend on the negotiations and the results of the battlefield. Yet, after their operational success, coupled with the depravity of Bucha, it will be politically difficult for the Ukrainian people to accept the loss of territory and diminished political independence that Putin will demand. A cessation of hostilities in some form, de facto or agreed, is arguably the best of many bad options including a wider war.
Putin will claim a victory after any deal, despite the manifestly clear evidence that he has lost the war in a strategic sense. For a leader seeking to reassert a global leadership role and a prestigious or respected position in the world, he has badly blundered. He cannot obtain his original objectives and certainly not at a cost that a reasonable leader would consider proportionate. His political position is much weaker today than it was before the invasion, and he has cost his nation grievously in terms of its losses and diminished future economic prospects.
However, he will remain in the Kremlin, even if as an international pariah. Peace negotiations may at some point produce some form of ceasefire or armistice to stop the ongoing and massive human costs. Any agreement or pause will be abused by Putin, who needs time to recover and retrain his depleted legions. Negotiation will also be odious and present difficult decisions for Ukraine. Yet, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should not be forced into a poisoned peace, a phony deal that merely extends the conflict and the numerous costs it poses both for Ukraine and the West. Whichever of the scenarios takes shape in the weeks to come, Kyiv should not lose at the table what its forces have gained on the battlefield.
Dr. Frank Hoffman is a retired Marine infantry officer with over forty years in the Department of Defense as an analyst and strategist. A distinguished military graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in 1978, he earned his PhD in war studies from King’s College London.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: President of Ukraine
From the second-to-last paragraph above:
"Putin will claim a victory after any deal, despite the manifestly clear evidence that he has lost the war in a strategic sense."
If we consider that Vladimir Putin's strategic objective in today's New/Reverse Cold War — this is much same as Ronald Reagan's strategic objective in yesterday's Old Cold War — this being, in both such cases, to "contain," and to "roll back," threatening political, economic, social and value "change" models (that associated with market-democracy re: Putin in the New/Reverse Cold War of today; that associated with communism re: Reagan in the Old Cold War of yesterday),
Then might we see Putin's aggressive strategic efforts in Ukraine (etc.) today; this, in much the same way that we might have seen Reagan's aggressive strategic efforts in Central America (etc.) yesterday?
(In support of this New/Reverse Cold War thesis, note that Putin, today, much like Reagan, yesterday, seeks to work "by, with and through" the more-conservative elements of the states and societies of the world; this, so as to achieve their — common — "containment" and "roll back" strategies.)
The Ukrainians have already shown the ability ti conduct limited raids into Russia. It may be time for a major armored raid across the border to demonstrate the lies being told to the Russian people.
Combat vet here, cold war, i know, i know, ancient history, only its not. The Russian Army is the direct lineal descendant of the Red Army. GEN Petraeus' article covers many of the failures. I wanted to highlight some at the lower levels that also cause huge problems.
Primary groups is where the last 100 meters are lost or won. A grievious fault is having no professional NCO corps. This is exacerbated by a viciously intimidating environment for the lower ranks. It is rigidly enforced by a corrupt heirarchy, reminiscent of the lines of the Mafia. Lets pile on minimal & unrealistic training geared to impress the chain of command 1st & foremost. On top of that a corrupt and spectacularly incompetent supply service. No beans, bullets or mail is a great de-motivator. Lets also couple that to known minorities problems in the ranks too.
The Ukrainian Army of 2022 is head and shoulders past that of 2014. Ukraine has blooded a whole generation of combat vets, by cycling the entire draft years through front line service in Donbass & Luhansk. This not only built combat skills, it also fostered patriotism. A professional NCO corps has been formed & in use. Their special forces and irregular warfare skills are paying dividends.
The Russian Army has nothing to compare. They used militias and mercenaries for the most part in Donbass & Luhansk. Typical conscripts are cowed and basically cannon fodder. Watching video of (Chechen Warlord) Kudryov's/Kadryov's 'dragons' battalion, in prayers to kill Ukrainian infidels is really telling. Ukrainian units opposite them, are greasing their bullets… a throwback to another war. Rumor has it that sympathetic FSB personnel betrayed the Chechen assasins dispatched to kill Zelenskyy. More of these wooden-horse russians, may come out after. There was the slav brotherhood that Russia & Ukraine had destroying fascism. That's been thrown away and gets worse every hour.
That's not to say Russia still can't crush all in their path regardless of cost. These are the folks that brought you miles & miles of hub-to-hub artillery. There simply is no public opinion mechanism to stop it.
Russia is too big and too connected to us to be allowed to behave like a bully that is freed from all consequenses. Either our response to this war puts a stop to it or our world will collapse. The Ukrainian people are voting, in person & blood, for their warts-and-all stumbling democracy, over a dictatorship lead by a nuke-kook.
Did you miss the part where they want Alaska back now?
just my 2¢
thanx for letting me express an opinion!
There's three scenarios.
1. War of Attrition where there's an inevitable "peace" via loss of Crimea and no NATO for Ukraine.
2. Russia nukes Kyiv and there's a "peace" via lloss of Crimea and no NATO for Ukraine.
3. Putin is assasinated either before #2 because of attrition, upon giving the order for #2, or possibly after #2, and the result of which is a "peace" via loss of Crimea and no NATO for Ukraine.
Putin can't survive with a loss, so the invevitable answer has to involve him winning at all costs or being dead.
While B.C.’s verbosity has always confounded me, I agree with the idea that it’s incorrect to label Russia’s efforts in Ukraine as a strategic failure.
There have been plenty of tactical and operational missteps, I see no reason to assume a strategic failure.
There appear to be two views of Russia’s motivations – either a proactive effort to deny western influence over Ukraine, or a blatant attempt to reclaim the former USSR. The White House seems convinced that it’s the latter; I believe the White House is wrong. More than that, I believe the White House is negligent in not planning for the possibility that their assessment is wrong.
There’s a third possibility, of course, that Putin is simply a madman who is acting like a crazy man would. A supervillain with some inane goal of world domination. The Brain, with no Pinky to balance him. If wishes were horses, we’d all be eating steak. Putin’s no madman.
Russia wins, strategically, as long as Ukraine isn’t Westernized: Not NATO, not EU, not anti-Russia. They don’t lose if they can’t directly control Kyiv, they simply win less; indirectly helming Kyiv still meets her goals.
The author argues that it won’t be at a proportionate cost, but the value of men and materiel is vague and variable.
I believe Putin IS in pursuit of Russia's single desire to have a buffer state on its borders, it's not looking to create the Soviet Union, as Putin isn't a communist, but a different type of totalitarian. You're spot on that Putin's legacy play here is to not have NATO in Ukraine, and if anyone looks at a map, it's easy to see why. Ukrain sticks far into Russia. Russia want's the Crimea back. It used to belong to Russia until Kruschev ceremoniously gave it to Ukraine as a symbol of their unity, and Putin wants it back as a symbol of Russia's greatness.
What I find curious are the people who say Putin's a madman, but he won't use nukes on Ukraine. Those two asssessments are diametrically opposed. I don't think "madman," I just think "he can't afford to lose."
Let's hope I'm very wrong.
I agree, the people who insist that Putin is simply acting as an insane warmonger are largely restricted to those unwilling to consider perspectives they don’t personally hold.
Even should he order a limited nuclear strike, I can see plenty of legitimate justifications before leaping onto the madman train. By legitimate, I mean from a perspective of ideal war, not from a legal standpoint – there’s a certain hubris in the very concept of “rules of war,” after all, and I believe that’s a big obstacle for Western players in the game… they expect everyone else to play by the same ones.
Russia does not have the resources to win a war of attrition, which will cost Putin more than he thought he was wagering.
I think the Ukrainians need to execute a targeted, smart offensive. Cut off Russia's newly gained land route to Crimea. This much sought after goal of Russia would give Ukraine a much stronger position to negotiate a peace settlement.
What happens if the Russians attack, as they're widely expected to do, get decisively defeated, -and then crumble- due to leadership, morale and logistical failures? Is Ukraine positioned to exploit that situation? We've seen the losses in senior leaders, I have to believe the losses in company grade officers are no better, and probably worse. Add to that the jumbled together/reconstituted combat units, particularly motorized rifle, and that's a likely very brittle force!
Even if this happens, and this is a huge if, Ukrainians will never be in a position to exploit this edge to great effect. It would be the height of folly for Ukraine to invade Russia, which will only result in another Russian Great Patriotic War. But even practically speaking, given Ukrainian losses, which nobody seems to want to cont, and Russian material and population advantages, this scenario is implausible.
I appreciate much more an analysis that sticks to the facts, uses more numbers and historical examples, and avoids offering advice and free consultation.
I came here expecting measured unbiased analysis and just got more of the same CIA drivel. You guys clearly have no understanding of what's actually happening on the ground.
Just reading your commenters they also have no clue about Ukraine. I saw one claiming that Ukraine was cycling soldiers through Donbas. This is patently false. I've been there. Donbas was forgotten by Ukraine which wanted to forget the war even existed. Donbas was largely fought by paramilitary militias like Azov, who became early heroes and call-to-arms rallying points for the Ukraine military in Feb 24.
Well Azov is now all dead. So the Veteran Core of the Ukrainian army is now dead. The people left are stuck in a trench the dead left for them as their graves, and the military that now remains are the "volunteers" who 1 year ago forgot there was even a war in the Donbas.
Your people apparently don't know anything about Ukraine, and you're in for a very, very rude awakening soon because none of your scenarios are the most likely outcome.
Total destruction of the Donbas Pocket.
Please, DarthTrader, educate us on the strategic factors for the “destruction of the Donbas Pocket.”
Also, please illustrate how our various views regarding Moscow’s strategic intentions toward Kyiv are in conflict with such.
Clearly, this is an issue close to your heart – and I genuinely sympathize… but simply insulting professional and aspiring allies (most of whom would eagerly address the issue if they could) isn’t the most constructive approach. I, personally, am no expert on Ukraine; I am, however, learning as I go and would love to refine that knowledge.
Why not simply Russia's adjusted and realistic goal now is to take by force valuable chunks of land, the Southern corridor, full control of the Azov sea, the coal & gas-rich Donbas, the freshwater channel to Crimea, and then keep it through a frozen conflict, keep selling a lot of gas to Europe, refocus other exports to Asia, and that's it.
Yes, he has lost Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine will be out of the Russian sphere of influence forever, BUT the seized land would still be a good enough "victory", Putin is a nationalist that has expanded Russian territory with valuable lands and potentially 10M+ inhabitants, he has made Russia bigger and hence greater (in the mind of nationalists to whom land and territory are sacred).