Wednesday, Aug. 24, marks six months since the start of the Russian-Ukraine war. It is also, by a strange twist, Ukraine’s Independence Day, when Ukrainians celebrate their independence from the former Soviet Union.
By now, most Americans know the story of how, before dawn Feb. 24, Russian troops simultaneously attacked on multiple axes from the north, east, and south in an attempt to quickly seize control of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and install a puppet regime. And how, through a mixture of stout Ukrainian resistance and Russian tactical ineptitude, Russia failed in that goal.
So where do things stand six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
A Culminating Point
An 18th-century Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, first introduced the concept of a “culmination point of an attack” to describe the point when an attacker’s force has depleted its ability to continue an offensive. By March 19, Russian attacks had culminated.
Much has been written about the deficiencies of Russia’s attack on Ukraine: how Russian military leaders dispersed their forces over too many axes, how they failed to achieve control of the air, and how their tactical defects prevented coordination among air, armor, infantry, and artillery forces. This is all true.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s underestimation of Ukraine’s ability to mobilize its citizens in the defense of their country also has been described. Had Russia to fight only Ukraine’s active-duty military, the story would have been different, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call to arms effectively doubled the size of his nation’s armed forces.
Historians have described 1917 as the “Year of the Stalemate” during World War I. After three years of brutal fighting, neither side had the strength to mount an offensive strong enough to create a significant breakthrough.
By the end of March 2022, Ukraine resembled 1917 Europe, with battlelines snaking hundreds of miles through much of the country.
Russia began to withdraw forces from around Kyiv for reconstitution and redeployment. By April 9, that withdrawal was complete.
Russia Pounds East, Consolidates Along Coast
Russian efforts since then have centered on consolidating control over the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts.
Employing massive amounts of artillery, Putin has been methodically crushing small towns and the Ukraine forces defending them.
Once that destruction is complete, units move in to consolidate gains. These gains can be measured in a few dozen kilometers and, of late, have slowed to a crawl.
Of particular concern are reports that Russia soon intends to conduct pseudo-referendums in Luhansk and Donetsk, and other occupied territories, to create a pretext for annexing them into Russia.
Meanwhile, in the south, from March through April, Russian forces slowly took control of most of the Ukrainian coast stretching from the cities of Kherson to Mariupol, encompassing nearly all of Ukraine’s major ports except for Odesa.
On June 2, Zelenskyy announced that Russia had occupied a fifth of Ukraine. That percentage has not shifted appreciably since.
An equivalent percentage (one-fifth) of land in the U.S. would encompass all of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada.
Russia Feels Cost of Immoral War
By Aug. 8, the U.S. government estimated that Russia had taken between 60,000 and 80,000 casualties in the roughly six months of war. The term “casualties” includes killed, wounded, and missing.
By comparison, that number of casualties is more than the U.S. suffered in both Afghanistan and Iraq over the course of two decades.
In mid-June, reports began to emerge that Russia was having problems finding replacements for these casualties. Russia reportedly extended the age limit for military service to 49, enlisted private mercenaries such as the Wagner Group, and pressed civilians in occupied parts of Ukraine into military service.
Despite these measures, it won’t be easy for Russia to easily replace either its soldiers short of a full-scale mobilization, which Putin thus far has resisted, or the huge amounts of destroyed equipment, including 1,800 tanks.
Ukraine, by contrast, publicly acknowledges that 9,000 of its troops have been killed since February.
Western Equipment Helps Ukraine
Military equipment sent to Ukraine by the U.S. and NATO allies is making a difference.
The Biden administration was slow in starting to deliver equipment, delayed by overwrought fears about antagonizing Russia and a misconception that there wasn’t enough time to train Ukrainian soldiers on sophisticated equipment.
And despite Ukrainian requests, the U.S. has yet to find a way to supply aircraft.
But now, weapons and ammunition finally are flowing in militarily significant quantities. This includes 16 of the now-famous High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), over 140 artillery pieces, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. Although 16 HIMARS systems in a country the size of Texas is less than needed, it is still a significant number.
Ukraine is using these systems to good effect, destroying command and control headquarters and ammunition depots with HIMARS rockets and responding to Russian artillery attacks in kind.
Thus far, the U.S., Poland, and the U.K. have led the world in supplying Ukraine with the tools to fend off Putin’s thugs. Other nations now must step up their efforts.
A Southern Offensive?
On July 11, Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine would commence an offensive operation in the south to liberate territory along the coast.
What’s odd about that announcement is that countries normally don’t announce major military moves, preferring instead to preserve the element of surprise.
A month has passed without any such offensive, and experts are beginning to wonder whether the announcement represented a plan to spur the Russians to divert more forces to the south and force them to halt their grinding offensive in the Donbas.
Perhaps Ukrainian leaders envisioned a different kind of offensive. In the past two weeks, multiple explosions have destroyed ammunition stores and aircraft in Crimea, far behind the current lines of fighting. Ukrainian special operations forces are the likely cause of these well-crafted attacks.
Prognosis for Coming Months
Both the Ukrainians and Russians are weary from six months of fighting, and neither has fresh formations left to commit.
Thus, it will be difficult for either side to mount anything other than small offensives due to the inherent advantage of the defense. History provides ample evidence that an attacker needs three times the strength of the defender to succeed.
Too much blood has been spilt, too many villages and towns destroyed, and too many atrocities by Russian troops committed to make it likely that Zelenskyy will accept a negotiated settlement that keeps any of Putin’s forces on Ukrainian soil.
For Putin, famously preoccupied with his image and public persona, it is hard to imagine any scenario where he voluntary withdraws from Ukraine.
So, the question we should ask is: “Whose side is time on?”
Russia’s economy, under severe economic sanction, reportedly is devastated and ridden with supply chain problems that affect its ability to replace destroyed military equipment. One report has Russia scavenging for semiconductor chips to make new missiles.
These problems, along with Russia’s military recruiting challenges, will only grow, increasingly affecting Putin’s ability to wage war.
Ukraine has a different set of problems. Its future depends completely on the uninterrupted supply of weapons and ammunition from other countries. Moreover, the Ukrainian economy is in shambles, given the recent Russian blockade of its ports and Ukraine’s inability to collect internal taxes.
Zelenskyy therefore must assiduously continue to persuade world leaders to help Ukraine in its noble cause and to assure them that a plausible path to victory remains.
Further, to ensure continued international support, Ukraine must continue to demonstrate strict accountability for funds and equipment provided by other nations.
Winter Is Coming
And then, in a problem for both sides, winter is coming. Winter in Ukraine is cold, snowy, and long. Russian troop morale, already low, will plummet in the winter months. Citizens of Ukraine, deprived of reliable heat and energy, also will suffer.
European nations, confronted with Putin’s energy extortion, also will suffer energy shortages, leading to higher costs and increasing public pressure on governments to “do something.”
The ultimate outcome is still obscure. But what is unfortunately quite clear is that this tragedy still has several acts to play out and that thousands more will die, including innocent Ukrainian civilians.
A stable Europe helps give America access to other parts of the world, denies critical strategic space for the malicious actions of Russia and China, and delivers strategic partners that contribute to common defense and security.
For those reasons, it is in the national interest of the U.S. that Russia fail in its illegal war.
Deep in the midst of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Truly, for Ukraine these are trying times. In standing against Putin’s aggression, Ukrainian citizens and soldiers—in the words of Paine—“deserve the love and thanks of man and woman.”
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