Les Kasyanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images
The Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun, but if we are going to try and consider its progress, we need to appreciate that Kyiv is really fighting three wars in one: a kinetic one being fought on the battlefield, a political one inside Russia, and a different political struggle to keep the Western alliance of support intact. In all three wars, time is likely to favor Moscow, even if the brief and bizarre mutiny by the Wagner mercenary chief is also a reminder of how unpredictable events on the ground can be.
Ukrainian forces have engaged along a wide front, making limited territorial gains. That is, though, the least important way to measure success. Wars are won by breaking the other side’s will or capacity to continue fighting, and the Ukrainians are clearly trying to do two things: identify weak spots in the Russian defensive line and try to get Moscow to deploy its reserves, so that it has less flexibility later on. To this end, they have begun deploying some of their best forces. In recent weeks, images of burnt-out, U.S.-supplied M2A2 Bradley armoured infantry fighting vehicles and German-made Leopard 2 tanks appeared on social media. No more than two of the nine brigades equipped with these NATO systems have been deployed as of writing, however, and Kyiv’s reserve is still ready and waiting.
The Ukrainians have perhaps 500,000 troops, including reserves. Some of them have been through Western training (especially through Britain’s Operation Interflex program), while others have hard-won combat experience. Although some Ukrainian units are equipped with Western tanks and long-range artillery, crude numbers of attackers and defenders, or comparisons of their equipment, are not adequate indices of power and capacity.
Thus far, the Ukrainians have demonstrated their ability to out-think their enemies, and while they retain the initiative, they can decide where to focus their attacks. They have the advantage of interior lines of communication: Fighting on their own territory, they can shift forces around in hours or days, while for the Russians it may take days or even weeks. Increasingly, two potential axes to the south are looking as if they will become crucial, one through the vital transport hub of Tokmak and then toward occupied Melitopol, the other toward Mariupol, whose three-month siege last year made it an icon of Ukrainian resistance. If the Russians shift forces from other fronts to strengthen their defenses along these lines, they risk inviting the kind of one-two punch they suffered last year. In September, the Ukrainians launched an attack on Kherson in the south, and as the Russians stripped their other lines to repel this, struck from Kharkiv in the north. Facing only scattered and skeleton defences, they were able to recapture more than 4,000 square miles of occupied territory.
Lined up against the Ukrainians, the Russians have at least 300,000 troops—a mix of disgruntled mobilized reservists, enlisted convict cannon fodder, mercenaries, and seasoned regular formations. They are well-entrenched: Moscow knew the counteroffensive was coming and has prepared as well as it could to weather the storm. Although they have not taken full advantage of it until recently, the Russians largely control the skies and also have a significant advantage in artillery forces.
Russia has also learned lessons from the war, even if it lacks the bottom-up flexibility and initiative of the Ukrainians. Human wave attacks and a willingness to flatten whole cities may all sound very medieval, but these tactics have their own ruthless logic. Russian commanders used recruits raised from labor camps to wear down the defenders of Bakhmut and force them to reveal their positions for follow-on bombardment, for example.
Backed by heavy artillery and bombers, dug-in Russian troops can be determined in the defense—but will they be? The great unknown is their morale. Many of these troops are unconvinced by the narrative that they are fighting an existential struggle for the Motherland’s survival in the face of a hegemonic America using Ukraine as a proxy for its imperialist goals. Although accounts of “blocking troops”—units deployed in the rear, charged with gunning down any who try to flee or retreat—have not been proven thus far, the big fear for the Russian commanders is precisely that individual units may break, and panic will spread along the line.
Holding the line as far as is possible is clearly the chief Russian war aim. Vladimir Putin, for all his apparent unwillingness to face facts on the ground, must realise that he can no longer dream of Ukrainian troops fleeing before a triumphant Russian advance. Instead, his only chance of success is political, to outlast the Ukrainians’ ability to fight and the West’s willingness to continue to provide billions of dollars’ worth of military and financial assistance every month. To this end, he believes he wins by not losing, so long as he maintains his positions on Ukrainian soil.
All wars are ultimately political acts. This war will therefore not be won by killing every Russian soldier, or even by driving them from every square inch of occupied Ukrainian territory. Even such sweeping successes would merely move the front line to the national border. So long as Putin is determined to fight, he can continue to send missiles at Ukrainian cities, launch cyberattacks on Ukrainian critical national infrastructure, and regroup his forces for a new attack in a month, a year or—if he lasts that long—a decade. Even if Ukraine is admitted to NATO, this will not prevent nonmilitary aggression, and in any case NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that no invitation to join will be issued to Ukraine at the alliance’s forthcoming summit in Vilnius.
Kyiv would therefore ideally hope for “spectacular,” an obvious and impressive victory from this summer’s offensive. The odds are that this would be obtained by driving down through the occupied Zaporizhia region, perhaps via Melitopol or Mariupol, so as to cut the so-called “land bridge,” the road and rail links connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland, and thus bring the peninsula under siege. While Crimea is linked to Russia by the 12-mile-long Kerch Bridge, this has been cut once by a truck bomb and would now be vulnerable to Ukrainian rocket and missile artillery. Without the bridge, Moscow would be reliant on vulnerable ships and aircraft to provide Crimea with everything from food to reinforcements. The thought is that this would in turn make a long-term Russian defense of Crimea untenable.
Crimea matters to Russians in a way the rest of occupied Ukraine does not, despite Putin’s rather surreal annexation last September of four regions—Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhia—that even then were not under full Russian control. Whether or not the Russian people would regard the loss of the peninsula as grounds to storm the Kremlin (and there are good reasons to doubt it), Putin, as a man who has seen not one but two authoritarian regimes collapse around him (East Germany and the Soviet Union), may not be willing to risk it.
Of course, Putin is currently refusing to countenance any suggestion that he may be willing to negotiate on Crimea’s future. Indeed, after chief propagandist Margarita Simonyan unexpectedly suggested that “it would be so good to stop the bloodshed right now, stay where we are, freeze it and hold referenda” in the occupied territories, questioning whether Russia “needs territories where people don’t want to live with us,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov was forced to warn that “now there are no bases for agreements” with Ukraine, “no foundation, even a flimsy one, in order to build at least some kind of a dialogue.”
Nonetheless, hope remains, both in some Western capitals and certain quarters of the Ukrainian political elite, that, in the words of one optimistic Ukrainian official, “Putin might regard negotiated withdrawal from Crimea as less dangerous to him than being forced out of it without the pretense of a deal.” For now, it has to be said, it is premature to be thinking in these terms. It is still uncertain whether Ukraine will be able to punch through the Russian lines and then surge forces in to exploit any such breach, let alone then pivot toward Crimea, which would be a very hard military target. It seems that only substantial Ukrainian success on the battlefield could force Putin into any kind of talks.
Ultimately, Putin’s most important goal is survival, and thus Kyiv’s long-term strategy is to force the Russian leader to negotiate by creating a situation in which a reasonable alternative is that he loses power. Having elevated an elite composed of ruthless kleptocrats and opportunists, who were never “Putinists” except insofar and as long as it served their own interests, the Russian leader must always be wary of the knife in the back, the conspiracy in the shadows, or the simple refusal to support him in a crisis.
Kyiv’s decision to send supportive Russian “foreign legionnaires” into neighboring Belgorod is part of this political war. It posed a dilemma for the Kremlin: shift troops from the front line to defend against this threat or refuse to be drawn into the trap, essentially leaving Belgorod to its fate. It chose the ruthlessly pragmatic second option, which makes sense in military terms, but not politically. Symbolic drone strikes on the Kremlin, arson attacks on draft offices, the assassination of outspoken cheerleaders of the war—in and of themselves, these measures have little practical impact. However, they challenge the Kremlin’s narrative that everything is under control and highlight the degree to which it is either unwilling or unable to protect its own people from the consequences of the war it has unleashed.
Such pinpricks will probably not get the Russian people to rise against the regime, especially so long as Putin is able to command the loyalty of the security apparatus. They are best seen as grit thrown into the workings of the state machine. Putin must either spend time and effort trying to remove the grit, or just keep grinding, even if this bit by bit begins to damage the state machinery.
So far, Putin seems to be committed to the latter approach. But if and when there is some systemic crisis, the machine’s weaknesses will become evident, and Putin may be faced with tough choices about whether to continue to prosecute the war. He has, for example, shied away from further mobilisation of reservists, despite pressure from the military, precisely because it would be unpopular: When he first did this, last autumn, twice as many Russians fled the country as were eventually called to arms. Yet he will need at least 200,000-300,000 more troops to make up his losses, and attempts to recruit volunteers and mercenaries are falling far short of this target. Kyiv’s hope is that the harder it can strike now, the more pressure it puts on that machine, and the greater are the chances that Putin will be faced with a choice between war and survival.
There is also another political war under way, or at least another struggle: to maintain and motivate the Western alliance in support of Ukraine. Without the constant flow of not only weapons but also ammunition and, every bit as important, financial assistance to keep the economy on life support, it would be so much harder for Kyiv to keep up the struggle. A Ukrainian official recently told me that “if we had to, we’d be fighting with Molotov cocktails or our bare hands.” This is true enough, but these weapons would be rather less effective than Abrams tanks or HIMARS.
Despite the repeated mantras that support will last “as long as it takes” and rejection of the notion of “Ukraine fatigue,” the truth is that there are real divisions in the West about how best to deal with the war, what the desired end state should be, and how long Ukraine’s blank check can and should last. So far, this has been a relatively affordable war for the United States. Europe’s abandonment of Russian natural gas has opened new markets for American LNG, and most of the spending on weapons to make up for transfers to Ukraine is going to domestic producers. The situation is rather different in Europe, which is grappling with a recession driven by German economic woes. There are hawkish nations such as Poland and the Baltic states; Mediterranean countries who see the greater threat coming from the Middle East and North Africa; Emmanuel Macron’s France, which apparently sees in the crisis an opportunity to assert French continental leadership; and Victor Orban’s Hungary, which is eager to stay out of the fray altogether.
Time and again even supportive officials in D.C. have told me that Ukraine needed to demonstrate a “return on investment.” Behind this rather tasteless phrase is an awareness that the coalition could begin to come under pressure if the conflict looks as if it is bogging down into stalemate, a “forever war” draining the resources national governments want to spend on everything from social care to tax cuts.
Partisans of Ukraine’s cause, who eagerly talked up the likelihood of early, dramatic victories, did Kyiv no favours, and the Ukrainian government has since been trying to moderate expectations. Even so, this summer offensive is in part thus a bid to demonstrate that Ukraine has the momentum to make serious advances and thus help its friends in the West maintain the coalition, and extend it to cover both the new systems they need—with F-16 jets currently on the horizon—and to maintain existing levels of support.
In all three wars, the more rapid Ukraine’s successes, the better its prospects. It is close to being fully mobilised and cannot replenish its human losses as easily as Russia, with its population three times the size of Ukraine’s. A war of attrition is likely to play to Russia’s strengths rather than its weaknesses. With no dramatic change in the situation, the Russian people will likely become acclimated to wartime conditions, and despite early (and massively overoptimistic) Western expectations about a quick collapse of the Russia economy under the pressure of sanctions, there will be money available to fight this war for at least another year or two. In fact, as both Iran and North Korea have demonstrated over the past two decades, authoritarian regimes can force the costs of sanctions onto their people nearly indefinitely, relying on coercion and propaganda to make it stick. The longer the war lasts, the greater the pressures on the Western coalition will grow—and the greater the temptation to try and pressure Kyiv into making an ugly peace with Moscow.
Mark Galeotti heads the consultancy Mayak Intelligence and is an honorary professor at University College London. His most recent book is Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine.