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Keep the New Russian Offensive in Perspective

The patience of Ukraine’s Western allies may be a decisive factor in the outcome of the war.
February 16, 2023
Keep the New Russian Offensive in Perspective
Detail of a rocket missile on the agricultural field near Kyiv area, Ukraine, 06 April 2022 (Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As the long-awaited Russian offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas oblasts unfolds amid grisly fighting, it’s looking like a case of déjà vu all over again in at least two respects. First, whatever Vladimir Putin and his senior generals may have learned in the past year, their ability to transform the army they went to war with has proved quite limited. Second, and relatedly, those in the West who foresaw an inevitable Russian victory have learned nothing and forgotten nothing; facts have yet to derail theory.

In the late fall, and in the wake of successful counteroffensives east of Kharkiv and against Kherson in the south, Ukrainian forces reached the limit of their capacity—they “culminated,” in military-technical terms. The Russians had been overstretched since the late spring. The fighting passed from blitzkrieg to sitzkrieg while both sides licked their wounds and looked ahead to this year.

In preparing for the new fighting season, the Russians fell back on their traditional methods of striking power—in the forms of massive artillery fire (exhausting immense amounts of ammunition and then themselves falling within range of Ukraine’s Western-supplied and more accurate systems) and also cruise and ballistic missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. At the same time, they mobilized their regular forces and the notorious Wagner mercenary army and its “recruits” from Russian prisons. It also appear that the Russians have scraped together a mélange of tanks and infantry vehicles.

The offensive now underway is the result of these efforts, but there is little sign of tactical innovation to be found; the slugfests around Bakhmut and Vuhledar are but smaller-scale replays of Passchendaele or Vimy Ridge in World War I. In addition to the human-wave attacks of Wagner criminals and poorly trained mobiks, the Russians have also committed reconstituted elite units, including several Marine infantry brigades, which were likewise eviscerated in short order as they struck at Ukrainian defenses. While the Russians have probed at multiple spots along the front line, there has been no sign of a major breakthrough. Bakhmut is hanging by a thread and while the town has some operational importance and its loss would complicate Ukrainian lines of communication, the cost in Russian blood exceeds its immediate military value.

Much less reported but perhaps more important as the new year wears on are the defenses—trenches, obstacles, and fortifications—the Russians are constructing to keep the Ukrainians from ranging Crimea or breaking through toward Melitopol. These are no mere speedbumps; it is to be expected that the Russians will fight to defend these fortifications.

In sum, while the Russians haven’t given up on making new gains, it may well be that their principal concern is to try to keep what they have while exhausting Western patience for supporting Ukraine.

Kyiv has used the off-season very differently. To be sure, it is suffering substantial losses in the Donbas and cannot afford—not just militarily but also politically and morally—to be as cavalier as Moscow about its soldiers. The stalemate along the eastern front is likely to work in the Ukrainians’ favor as they incorporate new and more capable Western armaments, such as main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, longer-range strike systems, and—considering the training of pilots now underway—modern Western multirole aircraft.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has all but announced such plans. He describes Bakhmut as a “living fortress” exhausting Russia’s limited strength while Ukraine prepares its counterattack. Despite many desperate moments over the last year, the Ukrainians have shown remarkable operational patience and managed, since last summer, to retain the strategic initiative. The current Russian offensive looks more like an attempt at a spoiling maneuver, as they expect Kyiv to deliver harder blows through the year.

Would that President Joe Biden and his anonymous “senior administration officials” showed similar patience. There’s been a high-level parade from Washington to Kyiv over the last month of second-tier poohbahs—Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl—warning the Ukrainians that, despite the president’s vow to back Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” they better get a move on. “‘As long as it takes’ pertains to the amount of conflict,” one administration official told the Washington Post. “It doesn’t pertain to the amount of assistance.” The administration giveth, the administration threatens to taketh away.

In this light, perhaps the stalwarts predicting Russian victory have an unintentional point: The United States and many of its Western European allies remain tentative in their commitment to Ukraine and self-deterred by exaggerated fears of escalation. Phillips O’Brien, military historian at St. Andrews University in Scotland, catalogued the recent resurgence of neuralgia in his most recent newsletter, including the return of campaign maps featuring multiple Russian red arrows of invasion and the reimagining of the kind of giant encirclements forecast before the war. These ghosts have yet to appear and—200,000 casualties and thousands of destroyed and captured combat systems later—they are less likely to now. As O’Brien observed: “No one bothered to analyze just how such a massive force of machines would be supplied. Once again, logistics lost out to scary hordes of Russian tanks streaking forward in the popular imagination.”

Meanwhile, it seems that to some observers, the hordes were almost more welcome than scary. In the run-up to the new Russian offensive, the cranky British conservatives at UnHerd, usually to be found in the front ranks of Putin fanboys, turned to Edward Luttwak, a once-respected strategist who is now a purveyor of offbeat theories for resolving the conflict. Last year he relentlessly promoted the idea of a ceasefire followed by a plebiscite in the Donbas to determine whether Russia should incorporate the region or return it to Ukraine. His new idea for getting to the bargaining table is for Russia to switch the focus of its efforts from the Donbas and rerun last year’s failed drive from Belarus into central Ukraine. If it were to do so, Luttwak writes, “the Russians would cut off all the highways and railway lines that bring weapons, ammunition, and civilian supplies from Warsaw, Berlin, Prague and the West beyond them to Kyiv, Odesa and the entire south and east of the country.” This is the triumph of fantasy over experience.

And what of the notion that this new Russian offensive will be different—that the Russian military has learned and instituted the lessons of the past year? Even if one imagines that the Putin regime can tell itself unpleasant truths, there is zero chance that his army—that any army—could transform itself so rapidly, on the necessary scale, and with such a dearth of resources. Russia has dug itself a very deep hole from which it cannot easily escape. Its system of command and culture is corrupt to the core. Its basic military formations are ill suited for this war; the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Russian soldiers (excepting the thugs of Wagner) are proving poor material in almost all ways. Few soldiers get proper training. Few are properly equipped. Their one virtue is that their commander-in-chief can spend their lives so freely and, apparently, with such little consequence. Thus the Russians bleed themselves out in daily penny packets, little lifeless raisins on the sugary snow, viewed from a quadcopter drone above.

If the prospects for the Russian offensive were nearly certain failure, those of the Ukrainians are brighter but still uncertain. They have hit upon a winning formula: isolate Russian forward positions, strike command nodes and logistics support, and husband attack elements with caution. Their greatest vulnerability “pertains to the amount of assistance” from Washington.

In Iraq, U.S. commanders had to balance two timepieces: the “Washington clock” and the “Baghdad clock,” which ticked at different rates. Washington required quick results, Baghdad required patience. May the year ahead run on Kyiv time.

Giselle Donnelly

Giselle Frances Donnelly is a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a co-host of AEI’s ‘Eastern Front’ podcast, and the author of Empire Imagined: The Personality of American Power. Twitter: @DonnellyGiselle.