A Ukrainian Turnaround?
There is accumulating evidence that the momentum in the Ukraine war has shifted quite dramatically to the Ukrainian side, and that we can expect big changes on the battlefield in the coming weeks.
I’m continuing to be optimistic about Ukraine’s prospects, despite hand-wringing about the apparent stalemate on the battlefield since the Russians shifted focus to Donbas in mid-April. I realize that motivated reasoning may be coming into play: because I desperately want Ukraine to emerge victorious, it is easy to pick out facts that support this view, while downplaying those that contradict it. Nonetheless, things have been changing rapidly in the past two weeks:___STEADY_PAYWALL___
· Of course, as many observers have noted, delivery of the U.S. HIMARS long-range rocket systems has been used very effectively by Ukraine to destroy what the United States now describes as over 100 Russian high-value targets, including ammo dumps, command posts, and logistics infrastructure. This has then sharply reduced the intensity of Russian artillery bombardments, and has led to hundreds of Russian casualties a day, including large numbers of officers. To date the United States has supplied 8 of these systems, and on July 20 promised another 4. Ukraine has been asking for much bigger number of HIMARS systems—50, 70, and answering this request is a priority. But the real constraint would seem to be not in the number of launchers but the resupply system needed to continue feeding them with rockets. We should keep in mind that the original 4 systems did an incredible amount of damage to Russian logistics.
· The Ukrainian command continues to make strategically wise decisions. They are focusing at this point on liberating Kherson and oblasts to the south that would allow them to restore their access to the Black Sea, rather than trying to push Russia back in Luhansk. The Russians have occupied Kherson since nearly the beginning of the war and have had plenty of time to dig in. But the city sits on the west bank of the Dnipro River and can be reached only by two bridges, which have this week come under Ukrainian artillery attack. Liberating Kherson would then open up further targets like the bridge across the Kerch Straits that is critical for resupplying Russian forces in Crimea.
· There is accumulating evidence that Russian manpower, equipment, and morale are deteriorating rapidly. Nadin Brzezinski has pointed to multiple logistics failures, like the fact that Russian artillery barrels are wearing out and cannot be easily replaced because they depend on high-quality steel not produced in Russia. They are running out of trucks, which now need to move supplies much longer distances to stay out of HIMARS range. The often-derided Western economic sanctions have cut into the Russian industrial base, which continues to depend on Western technology to operate. Putin himself has referred to “colossal” hi-tech problems caused by sanctions.
· The Russians recruited heavily in ethnic minority regions, and there is evidence now of mass desertions among the Buryats, Dagestanis, and other such groups who have borne the bulk of casualties. Contract soldiers, who make up the bulk of Russian forces, are simply walking away or refusing to renew their contracts.
· Russian military bloggers have offered an important window into elite thinking on the invasion, and they have been increasingly vocal and critical of the strategy executed by the Russian command to date. They’ve argued that Ukraine cannot be defeated without a general mobilization, which Putin continues to resist.
On the other side of the ledger is a simple problem of industrial base. The Russian economy was always larger than the Ukrainian one; under sanctions it may decline 15% this year, against a 40% decline in Ukrainian output. Russian rocket attacks continue to hit Ukrainian facilities and terrorize Ukrainian citizens, including in areas like Kharkiv liberated from Russian occupation. Western-supplied equipment is far superior to Russian equivalents, but the Russians have a huge industrial base that continues to churn out products like 152mm ammunition free from Ukrainian retaliation. German equipment during World War II was also superior to its American and Russian counterparts, but the U.S. industrial base ultimately overpowered the qualitative advantage. As Giselle Donnelly has argued in this journal, the United States and other NATO countries have drawn down existing stocks of equipment and ammunition, and will not be able to replenish them anytime soon due to a long-term failure to make adequate military investments. This is why, as noted earlier, Western sanctions are very critical.
All of these considerations put a great premium on timing. Everyone is rightly expecting a very difficult winter, when Russian gas cutoffs will leave Europe cold and deepen the recession that’s widely expected. European support for Ukraine and sanctions has remained remarkably solid despite Russia’s recent throttling of Nordstream I, but getting through the winter without increasing calls to pressure Ukraine into a ceasefire negotiation will be difficult.
The only way that strong support for Ukraine can be maintained politically is if the Ukrainian military begins making some visible strategic advances in the near term, meaning by the end of the summer. The artillery war that took place between mid-April and early July has conditioned people to think that advances by either side will be like the Russian advance on Severodonetsk, slow and bloody. But the Ukrainians have other options to weaken Russian logistics and command structure, and we may see the entire Russian position in the south collapsing suddenly. This is the only way to undercut the conventional wisdom that Ukraine and Russia are locked in a stalemated long-term conflict. Europe may get through one winter of privation successfully, but it will not hold the line if voters see no hope for change. Ukraine’s intelligence chief Gen. Budanov thinks the breakthrough will come about by the second half of August. Let’s hope he’s right.
Photo: M142 High Mobility Artillery System (HIMARS) launcher. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brandon Salas)
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