Ukraine is waging a sinister war of attrition. Only NATO can help change that | Jack Watling
OOne of the main aspirations of the professional military is to deploy a force capable of delivering victory while circumventing the war of attrition. Attrition warfare develops when neither side is able to gain a decisive advantage. Unless new abilities or new terrains change the logic of a fight, attrition warfare ends when one side exhausts its supply of people, equipment, or morale. This is the sad state of the current fighting in Ukraine.
For Russia, the low morale and weak cohesion of its infantry prevents its army from undertaking major offensive maneuvers without suffering unsustainable levels of losses in personnel and equipment. So far it has lost about a quarter of its armored forces in Ukraine.
Russia therefore resorted to saturating Ukrainian positions with artillery, destroying defended villages and rows of trees until Ukrainian troops were forced to withdraw, then advancing to occupy what had been abandoned. It’s slow and resource-intensive, but Russia has enough ammo to sustain its current rate of fire for several years.
For Ukraine, the overwhelming advantage of Russian artillery means that its armed forces find it difficult to concentrate in formations above the company group, and making progress with such a small force requires that they hire some of the best troops in the country.
Casualties among these highly capable units have a disproportionate impact on Ukrainian military effectiveness because most of the time these veterans are spread across the force to support less experienced troops. Ukraine therefore intermittently conducts small raids when the opportunity arises, while seeking to inflict a high enough number of casualties to collapse Russian morale, allowing the territory to be reoccupied.
If the Russian casualty rate can be increased, collapse is possible. The Kremlin avoided an overt mobilization, secretly preferring to bring people with military experience back into the ranks. Indeed, many Russians are actively discussing how they can avoid the project.
The very necessity of such measures is discussed in Russia as a sign of government incompetence, and the perception of incompetence undermines enthusiasm for war even among ardent Russian nationalists. If its troops become demoralized in Ukraine due to massive and prolonged casualties, the Kremlin could struggle to find replacements.
For Ukrainians, the existential stakes of the fighting mean morale is high, despite the fact that they have suffered up to 100 casualties a day for the past two weeks. Ukraine does not lack military volunteers, but it lacks equipment for them. Ukraine’s greatest immediate vulnerability lies in its ammunition stockpiles.
It has nearly exhausted its Soviet-era ammunition for key systems and now depends on a limited number of NATO artillery pieces. Here too, however, there are only a finite number of rounds in NATO’s stockpiles, which have been chronically depleted since the end of the Cold War.
Russia hopes that as the Ukrainians burn the available ammunition, their ability to resist will dwindle.
Another challenge for Ukraine is the geometry of its current defenses in the Donbass. Russian attacks to the north and south created a horseshoe of territory still held by the Ukrainian military. After the massacres of civilians by the Russian army in Bucha and elsewhere, the withdrawal became a political challenge for the Ukrainian government.
But, surrounded by Russian firing positions, it is extremely difficult for Ukraine to build a competitive “firing capability” in the region, even if it had the guns to deploy. Russia appears to be using Sievierodonetsk like Germany used Verdun in World War I: a point where Russia has superiority in firepower but from which Ukraine cannot retreat, ensuring high Ukrainian casualties and supported.
There are several ways to end these unfavorable conditions. If Donbass falls into Russian hands, the return to a linear front can significantly reduce the advantage of Russian artillery, and if Russia then enters Ukrainian territory, the geometry of the battlefield can be reversed, like this happened north of Kyiv at the start of the war.
Another change from the current attrition dynamic can be caused by the supply of large numbers of long-range Western artillery pieces. These, coupled with strong “kill chains,” could allow the Ukrainians to begin destroying Russian artillery with impunity. Then Ukraine could concentrate its units and begin to pressure Russia’s inferior infantry.
The other method of changing current logic is to allow the Ukrainians to build new combat brigades with protected mobility – armored vehicles for the transport of infantry – to allow its units to carry out concentrated attacks from Kharkiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, expanding the front that Russia has to defend. The problem with this is that, to be logistically viable, a large number of vehicles of a consistent type would have to be provided.
Yet NATO countries – other than the United States – not only have small fleets, but have also left many of their armored fleets to wear out and poorly maintained. Refurbishment of these fleets takes time and money, and it is not yet clear how much Ukraine’s international allies are willing to bear.
The last process of attrition for Ukraine is economic, and in this area there is no doubt that it is short of money, while Russia can resist Western sanctions. Soon it will be essential for economic aid to support the government of Kyiv. Along with the military considerations outlined above, ending the attrition struggle in Ukraine is therefore ultimately a question of how much NATO members are willing to invest in defeating Russia.
If President Vladimir Putin feels that Western engagement may fade in the shadow of a European recession, the risk is that he will be emboldened to persevere.
Jack Watling is Senior Land Warfare Researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi)