The conflict in Ukraine is now 141 days old and is not ending anytime soon. My purpose in this blog entry is to outline how the conflict was expected to unfold by Russia, the way it has in fact developed and where things might go from here. I begin by referring back to a different conflict and a different time.
The United States is engaged in what will be a long war
2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)
By way of explanation, the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required the US Department of Defence (DoD) to engage in strategic reviews every four years. In 2018 the QDR was replaced by the National Defense Strategy, which features similar requirements, with some substantive differences.
The above quote from the 2006 QDR is famous within military circles, although it never really permeated out into the mainstream media. It was significant for what it said and for what it did not say. In terms of what it said, the idea that the US was involved in a long war was unpopular – governments generally like campaigns to be short and decisive, not long and indecisive. What it did not say was what ‘long’ means. It set the expectation that there would be no quick and easy victories, but did not say how long we would have to actually wait for them. Sixteen years later, the long war is still ongoing. It might have been more accurate to say that the war was likely to be never-ending. This raises a further question: is a never-ending war really a war at all? Wars usually have beginnings and endings. They can be analysed through their different campaigns and phases, with the political solution at the end marking their conclusion. None of this applied to the so-called War on Terror. Is it perhaps more accurate to describe this as an ongoing law enforcement operation, albeit one with global reach? It also startling how little this has felt like a war to non-combatants. In 1982 the United Kingdom fought a war to liberate the Falkland Islands from Argentinian occupation. In 1991 the United Kingdom was part of the coalition that freed Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. These both felt like wars: one knew people who were fighting; there were successes and failures and there was the pain of loss when combatants were killed. None of this has really applied within the United Kingdom since 2001. There have been significant terrorist attacks within the United Kingdom since then, but the people are accustomed to them and they do not cause much political concern. Most people simply regard them as one of the costs of a free society.
How is this relevant to Ukraine? For the simple reason that analysts are now telling us that the Russian military operation within Ukraine is likely to be ‘long’. Indeed, the suggestion is that it already is long, since 141 days is perhaps 134 more days than Vladimir Putin wanted it to be. My interest here is to explain why it is dragging on and where it might be heading. By way of apology and right at the beginning, I want to make it clear that I will be making no predictions as to exactly how many days it will last.
The expectations and intentions of the Russian political leadership and military are not as easy to ascertain as those of their Western counterparts. Russia is not a democracy in the exact same sense of the word as we use it and there is less separation of powers and the resulting checks and balances. Russian political and military figures by definition agree with President Putin because they know their futures depend on it. Nor is there any NGO-based civil society or strategic analysis sector as can be found in the West. There are well-funded independent institutions within NATO states whose whole function is to analyse and criticize NATO decision-making. In Russia, the media and other institutions see it as their job to support the regime.
We can, however, make some broad assumptions based on general military theory and some of the specific statement made by the Russian leadership.
First, Russia did not expect the level of resistance that they have met. It seems obvious to many that the Ukrainian military would fight, but President Putin seems to really believe his message about Ukrainians and Russians being one people. In his worldview, it was obvious that the Ukrainians would simply surrender and greet the Russian troops as liberators. It is worth noting that Hitler believed something similar about the United Kingdom: they would never fight against Germans, whom they respected.
Ukrainian resistance is not simply a matter of will. The Ukrainian military has been improved with modern Western equipment and training before the conflict began. We have long suspected that Western equipment and training are better than their Russian equivalents and this seems to have been proven.
Second, the Russian military has performed about as well as it always does. The Russian, and before that Soviet, military achieved some great successes in its history, but these are not as numerous as some would suggest. The Red Army was vital in winning World War Two, but since then it has not lived up to those high levels. the Soviet Union was engaged in Afghanistan from 1979-1989, an operation which not only failed in its goals of pacifying a neighbouring state, but helped to create a more radical and dangerous enemy in the Mujahedeen.
Overall, we can see that the Russian military employs ways of fighting, that reflect its strengths in heavy weapons and armour. These may not be as effective on a modern battlefield.
Prior to the commencement of operations in Ukraine in February 2022, the consensus amongst Western analysts was that the Russian military was emerging from a period of re-equipment and renewal. The (qualified) success in Syria, coupled with the US humiliation in Afghanistan, meant that the Russian military suffered from an excess of confidence. Excesses of confidence are dangerous when planning military operations. In fact the Russian military has shown little sign of recent improvement. Conscript armies are rarely very good at actual fighting, with the rather different example of Israel being an obvious exception. This poor performance is partly due to low morale and esprit de corps amongst the Russian military. It is also partly due to their inferior technology and their limited experience in using it. There have also been fundamental mistakes made at the highest level, which are inevitable in a political system where the Generals are perhaps unwilling to fully speak the truth to the leadership. The Generals were not given the right number and distribution of troops. Air power, which has been the cornerstone of nearly every successful military action since 1990, was employed in a piecemeal and uncoordinated fashion. It is staggering that Russia does not yet enjoy air superiority over Ukraine. NATO would expect to achieve air superiority over an enemy after 7 days, after which its air power could pivot towards attacking surface targets at will. Russia has fought a campaign that is a throwback to the Second World War, where air power is used as an extension of artillery rather than as a means of warfare in its own right.
Speaking of Generals, Russia seems to have lost eight Generals killed in action thus far. In most modern campaigns one would expect the figure to be zero. This probably reflects the very poor state of communications within the Russian military and the low confidence Generals have in their troops – they are forced to go to the front themselves and this puts them at risk.
In short, there has been an over-estimation of the capabilities of the Russian military. It seems to be no more effective than it was twenty years ago and faces fundamental problems in fighting a (near)-peer adversary, such as Ukraine.
In spite of all of this, in spite of the fact that Ukrainian forces have been successful in counter-attacks and in liberating territory, in spite of the fact that Russia has given up on its plan of total domination of Ukraine for now, and is focusing on the Eastern parts of Ukraine, a Russian victory is still the most likely outcome. Russia has more of everything and can fight a war of attrition. Ukraine cannot. Ukrainian resistance is lauded around the world, but we should have no illusions that this resistance is delaying the inevitable and causing more Ukrainian lives to be lost. This is morally acceptable. There are worse things than fighting wars, there are worse things than dying. Giving up and accepting subjugation may be worse.
Russia will continue to pour resources into Ukraine, to make marginal gains. The campaign may go on for years, Russian losses may reach absurd proportions, but none of this matters to the leadership. Western media claims that in the end the body bags returning to Russia will be decisive, that people will quickly tire of this war. This is flawed in two ways: First, the Russian people will simply not be told about the body bags. The funerals of soldiers in villages will seem to be a series of isolated events. No one will know that these funerals are happening in almost every Russian town and village at the same time. Second, even if the Russian people tire of the war, what can they do about it? Russians have always been more concerned with security than liberty, with order rather than the chaos of democracy. The idea that they will rise up and overthrow President Putin is romantic nonsense at its worst.