Ukraine: Prepare for a Longer War and Be Cautious in Pushing for Major Offensives

It is always tempting to push for a quick end to a conflict and to call for decisive action. But the United States may now be calling for far quicker and more decisive action from Ukraine than Ukrainian forces can actually execute. It may also be doing so in ways which ignore the strategic realities of the ways in which war is most likely to evolve. Pushing Ukraine to take the offensive may well do little more than help exhaust it and raise casualties. A war that many in the United States seem to tactically predict will somehow largely end this year, may also go on and on until one side breaks in the face of the strain and attrition or both sides become locked into a near stalemate that neither side knows how to win.

Many in the United States seem to have a degree of optimism that owes more to the past than the present. Earlier in the war, Ukraine was able to take advantage of Russian massive miscalculation in assuming it could repeat its experience in seizing Crimea in 2014 and virtually drive in and take control of the country. Russia was unprepared for serious Ukrainian resistance, failed to understand how limited the success of its effort at modernization of its forces and command and control structure had been, and was not ready at any level to fight a serious war.

Ukraine first successfully held in the face of the original Russian offensive and then sent in effective military forces that could push back Russian forces that were never properly organized for sustained combat, had no recent warfighting experience, and were not prepared to resist. Ukraine scored major gains, and if it had been properly equipped for sustained offensive action during the period in which Russian was being forced to retreat, it might have driven Russia out of far more territory and made some form of a major victory a far more realistic probability.

No one can totally dismiss the possibility that Ukraine can still do this. Putin’s problems with Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group highlight his political challenges. Russia remains largely on the defensive and the lack of any clear Russian path to a shift to the offensive all illustrate Russia’s limits. War is not predictable, and a real, sustainable Ukrainian breakthrough might occur. Russia might be driven into a sustained retreat, and Putin might lose power or must negotiate a peace that Ukraine would willingly accept.

The most probable outcome, however, is a war of attrition that has no clear outcome or time limit. It is a war where both sides fight a long series of relatively static battles with high levels of attrition while they increasingly dig in along the entire front, using drones and missiles to attack each other. Defense in depth will be fought with light precision guided weapons that limit efforts to create and sustain major armored breakthroughs. Missiles will not fully counter trenches, and mines and artillery will halt smaller breakthroughs. It is a war that may come grimly close to a modernized version of World War I or Stalingrad.

This makes the current U.S. effort to push Ukraine into new offensives potentially dangerous. If anything, such offensives may lead to higher Ukrainian casualties and consume both its newly trained troops and more advanced supplies of weapons. Taking the offensive in wars of attrition almost always produces initially high casualties unless decisive damage is done to the defender before the attacker strikes. The United States and its allies avoided such losses in attacking Saddam Hussein in 1991 by launching a massive air campaign to weaken Iraq’s land defenses before the land campaign began. However, but Ukraine has no option of this kind and is already suffering major losses of its more advanced weapons and high casualties.

Seven months into 2023, Ukraine’s territorial gains are largely meaningless. Russia has made limited retreats, but such retreats often increase the advantage of the defender. They reduce the net casualties of the defensive forces and the limited gains of the attacker occur at the cost of higher casualties and losses of equipment. It is also far from clear that such offensives create opportunities for major breakthroughs. Slow, well-organized Russian fighting retreats do not defeat the defense as much as move it while clearly indicating the possible line of Ukrainian advance. The Ukrainian offensives are also doing major damage to the cities and toward where they are being fought, and the lack of serious gains and the casualties involved may well have a major impact on Ukrainian morale.

Counting on longer-range missiles and aircraft like the F-16 to give Ukraine the advantage may well only provoke escalation in kind, and Ukraine does not have the edge on the civil side and in economics that it has gotten from U.S., European, and other military aid. Both sides may find there are too many risks in attempting dramatic offensives with the forces they actually have at any given point in time, and seek to use new weapons and tactics to win without making major breakthroughs. New tactics and limited offensives will still only make comparatively minor gains before the other side adapts, and new weapons and equipment will have only limited impact and lead to ongoing losses on both sides.

Ukraine takes constant civilian casualties and infrastructure losses where Russia does not. It now faces a crisis over Ukrainian grain exports and suffers constant civil damage and casualties. As for Russia, its gains in energy exports and in high technology and covert military imports show the idea that the West could give Ukraine a decisive advantage in applying sanctions is also anything but clear.

This does not mean the United States should give up on supporting Ukraine in its offensives. It does mean being very cautious about applying any outside pressure on Ukraine to attack, and it does mean taking the prospect of a much longer war into full consideration. Unless Russia’s political direction changes or it makes major new military blunders, the war may well go on into 2024 and beyond. Ukraine may currently have the advantage in morale, but both sides are learning from the fighting, and Ukraine will at best take time to absorb what remains a comparatively limited flow of armor, aircraft, and longer-range missiles and drones.

Grim as the prospect may be, the United States needs to work with NATO and its strategic partners to accept the possible need for a long war between Ukraine and Russia, a failure to achieve an end to the war that allows Ukraine to regain the all the territory it has lost in the fighting since 2021, and the need for years more of military and economic aid. It also means taking NATO’s need and plans to fight a new Cold War by rebuilding its longer-term warfighting and deterrent with total seriousness. One should always have hope, but hope is not by itself a winning strategy.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy