Does a protracted war favor Russia or Ukraine?

The typical war is short.

08 July 2022 Friday 03:55
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Does a protracted war favor Russia or Ukraine?

The typical war is short. Since 1815, wars between states have lasted on average just over three months, according to estimates by Paul Poast of the University of Chicago. In 2003, the United States overthrew the government of Iraq in just 20 days. In 2020, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh ended in 44 days. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered its fifth month and its end shows no sign of being near. "I'm afraid we have to prepare for a long war," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in mid-June. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, echoed that warning: "We have to prepare for the fact that it could last for years."

In the early days of the invasion, the West feared that the Ukrainian forces would quickly be overwhelmed by superior Russian firepower and that any resistance would collapse. Now the fears are different: that Ukraine has not adjusted its strategy enough to wage a war of attrition; that she runs out of soldiers and ammunition; that the months of intense bombardment cause the collapse of her economy; that the will to fight diminishes as the situation becomes more difficult. Russia, too, is under many of these pressures as the conflict is killing off its youth, weakening the economy and accelerating the descent into dictatorship. A protracted conflict will also test the resolve of Ukraine's Western allies, as food and energy prices skyrocket, inflation irritates voters and Ukraine's demands for weapons and cash increase. Ultimately, a long war will test both sides in new ways. Whether it ends up favoring Russia or Ukraine will largely depend on how the West responds.

Let's start on the battlefield. However slowly, the Russian army advances. Ukrainian forces have been ordered to withdraw from the city of Severodonetsk, with which Russia is about to control the entire province of Luhansk, one of the two that make up the Donbass region. Sloviansk, northeast of Donetsk, Donbass's other province, is also under attack.

Outgunned and until recently outgunned, the Ukrainian forces have suffered great losses. The government claims they have up to 200 casualties a day. On June 15, a Ukrainian general declared that the army had lost 1,300 armored vehicles, 400 tanks, and 700 artillery systems, far more than previously thought. A large number of Ukraine's most experienced and well-trained units have been destroyed, forcing the use of less-trained reservists. On June 19, British defense intelligence mentioned the existence of defections among Ukrainian troops.

Now, that does not mean that Russia is going to rampage in Donbass. Their progress has been slow, laborious and costly, and has been achieved only through massive and indiscriminate bombing. New recruits receive just a few days of training before being thrown into battle, according to the BBC's Russian service. Morale is low: British intelligence notes "armed clashes between officers and men". It has taken more than two months to capture Severodonetsk; Sloviansk and the neighboring city of Kramatorsk are better reinforced.

Russia still has vast amounts of ammunition and equipment, says Richard Connolly, an expert on the Russian economy and defense industry. And Russian armament factories are said to work double and triple shifts, he adds. Russia also has a large stockpile of old tanks that it can draw on. Over time, the scarcity will make itself felt; but, Connolly believes, the more likely result will be a deployment of antiquated or poorly maintained weapons rather than a complete lack of weapons.

Soldiers are a bigger problem. Russian President Vladimir Putin has resisted a massive conscript and reservist conscription. Instead of a general mobilization, says Michael Kofman of the CNA think tank, his army is creating new reserve battalions by hiring new soldiers. However, it is difficult to find them in sufficient numbers: the government has had to offer generous pay that is almost triple the average salary. He has also promised lavish compensation to the injured and their families. Recently, the Duma raised the maximum age for joining the army from 40 to 65 years. Authorities are trying to persuade newly discharged soldiers to reenlist and return to duty.

In an effort to build combat-ready forces much faster than usual, new enlistees are being mixed with active-duty officers who have not yet been deployed and residual equipment from existing brigades, Kofman says. However, generating new units in this way is equivalent to "selling the family jewels", says a Western official. Officers and equipment so assigned would normally be used to train new soldiers or to relieve exhausted troops. In practice, Russia is cannibalizing its own forces, says Kofman, and this will reduce "the overall sustainability of the war effort."

Russia's dearth of well-trained troops is one reason why its advance into the Donbass has been so slow. Ukraine, despite having a smaller population, has a larger supply of motivated recruits. His training remains a bottleneck, but it could be overcome with a little help: On June 17, Johnson proposed a plan for Britain to train up to 10,000 soldiers every 120 days.

Ukraine is also receiving increasingly sophisticated Western weaponry. At first, it was mainly looking for short-range man-portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to defend against advancing armored columns and marauding helicopters. More recently, however, the United States, Britain and other countries have supplied modern artillery and rockets, which will be much more useful in counterattacks. On June 23, the Ukrainian Defense Minister announced the first arrivals of US HIMARS rocket launchers, which fire GPS-guided ammunition.

Indeed, some Ukrainian officials (and with them President Volodymyr Zelensky) argue that, if Western aid arrives on a sufficient scale, Ukraine could win the war before the onset of winter. According to a military intelligence official, Ukraine's best chance for a counteroffensive would come in late October, when Western weapons stockpiles should be at their peak. "We need the enemy to feel the full force of the weaponry," he says. There is talk of pushing Russia back to its positions early in the war and then negotiating a peace deal from a position of strength.

However, this optimism overlooks several pitfalls. For one thing, the Ukrainian forces have already used up most of their ammunition and, without domestic manufacturing capacity, are now entirely dependent on foreign benefactors. Recent fighting has focused on intense and prolonged artillery barrages, consuming huge amounts of ammunition. Russia, with huge stockpiles, is believed to be firing so indiscriminately that America's entire annual output would fuel its guns for just two weeks, notes Alex Vershinin, a retired US Army officer. Ukraine has tried to ration its consumption, but NATO countries may struggle to adequately supply it with shells.

In addition, Ukraine's supporters have already handed over a large part of their stockpiles of certain weapons. It is believed, for example, that the 7,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles provided by the United States are equivalent to a third of its total stockpile. Western armies don't want to cut themselves short of supplies; in fact, many hope to increase them in the wake of Russian aggression.

While the United States and Europe, with economies much larger than Russia's, may eventually produce what Ukraine needs, projectile and missile production will not double overnight. The United States only produces 2,100 Javelins a year. Vershinin notes that the number of US small arms factories has been reduced from five during the Vietnam War to one today.

On the other hand, maintaining NATO's sophisticated equipment is not easy either. The United States and Germany taught Ukrainian soldiers how to use their howitzers in a couple of weeks, but learning how to repair them is another matter. The use given to artillery pieces is so intense that many have already broken down and have been sent to Poland for repair. That problem will increase with the advent of complex weapons like HIMARS and with Ukraine abandoning Soviet materiel and adopting NATO-provided weapons.

Perhaps most important is how Ukraine deploys its new arsenal. Many of the weapons it now receives were designed in the Cold War to deal with the adversary it now faces in the Donbass: a Soviet-style army using heavy firepower. The concern in some Western countries is that Ukraine is trying to match Russia gun for gun, thereby wasting ammunition at a breakneck pace. "If they want to use HIMARS as an area weapon," British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace warned on June 29, "they will run out of ammunition in 12 hours."

The goal is to encourage Ukraine to use rocket launchers and other long-range systems in accordance with their original purpose of fighting a "deep battle": hitting important Russian targets (such as command posts and railway hubs) many miles from the lines. from the front There is evidence that Ukraine is making a concerted effort to strike deep into the Donbass. According to Wallace, five ammunition depots have recently been blown up, as well as several Russian headquarters.

All of this provides a path, if not to outright victory, then at least to a stalemate that would impose serious costs on Russia. Western officials doubt Ukraine will be able to regain all the ground it has lost since the start of the invasion. After all, the war has shown that it is much easier to defend than to attack, and the Russian forces are well entrenched. However, should Ukraine manage to keep itself supplied with arms and ammunition and use its new firepower judiciously, it could recapture pockets of territory, sow chaos in the Russian rear and inflict unsustainable losses in terms of men and materiel on Russia. a Russian army that is spread out in a thin line along a huge front.

Now, Ukraine not only needs weapons to carry out this strategy; the government is also desperately short of money. The war has wrecked the economy: the central bank and the IMF estimate that output could fall by more than a third this year, a blow similar to that of the US Great Depression of the 1930s. The most optimistic analyzes maintain that the occupied regions are the most affected and that activity in the rest of the country has recovered somewhat after the fall suffered in March, so that the year-on-year contraction could be 15%.

In any case, Ukraine's public finances have been completely turned upside down. The government has had to spend heavily not only on the armed forces, but also on humanitarian assistance to the wounded, the unemployed, and the displaced; and this despite the fact that he has reduced taxes to help the ailing economy. The result is a monthly deficit of about $5 billion.

In such circumstances, it is natural for investors to be reluctant to lend to Ukraine. Given the atrophy of the economy, a tax increase would be counterproductive. The government is trying to cut some spending: recently, for example, it cut unemployment benefits. The West has promised a lot of help, but it is not coming fast enough to balance the books. So the government has been forced to print money. The central bank has been buying government bonds since the beginning of the invasion, and is doing so at an accelerating pace (see chart). At the same time, it is burning down its foreign exchange reserves in an effort to stabilize the hryvnia. Inflation, which is already 18%, continues to grow. If the West allows government finances to spiral out of control or the economy to fail, military prospects will also inevitably be clouded.

Russia, by contrast, appears to be in better economic shape. After a brief downturn caused by fierce Western sanctions, the ruble has recovered. Fears of a bank run have disappeared. Despite the fact that Western companies have withdrawn what they can from the approximately 300,000 million dollars invested in local establishments and factories and that many educated Russians have fled the country, most analysts foresee a relatively manageable contraction this year. , thanks in part to strong public spending. Putin frequently insists that sanctions hurt the West more than Russia.

In reality, the sanctions are taking their toll largely because they deprive the economy of crucial imports. Car production has been reduced by more than 80% from the pre-invasion level; In part, this is a reflection of the difficulty for manufacturers to obtain parts abroad, but also of the decline in consumer demand. In May, Russian dealers only sold 26 Porsches, 95% less than the previous year. Elevator production has halved, pointing to a drop in large construction projects.

And also the shortage of critical components worries the Russian generals. "We have reports from the Ukrainians that when they find Russian military equipment on the ground, it is full of semiconductors from dishwashers and refrigerators," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told the US Congress in May. Some Russian companies make computer chips and are trying to increase production, but their products are more expensive and less sophisticated than imported ones.

Still, as Connolly points out, relatively few munitions factories appear to be affected so far; perhaps because Russian defense companies tend to hoard big pieces, in what is a holdover from Soviet central planning. Furthermore, Western sanctions are not airtight; and, thanks to its oil revenues, Russia has plenty of money to neutralize them. The government has been looking for alternative supply chains for some time. A new document from the British think tank RUSI points to "a multitude of companies based around the world, including countries such as the Czech Republic, Serbia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, India and China, which will take considerable risks to meet the needs supply from Russia. China has stated its willingness to supply spare parts to Russian aircraft companies.

In fact, Putin appears to be banking on time and money on his side. Although the Russian forces do not advance quickly, they have succeeded in blockading Ukraine's ports and thereby contributing to the strangulation of its economy. And while neither the Russian public nor the elite show great enthusiasm for the war, Putin's ruthless security forces and his active propagandists have succeeded in keeping dissent to a minimum. Contributing to this is the fact that most of the new army recruits (and casualties) seem to come from small towns in the poorest provinces, meaning that Russia's big cities have been shielded from the worst effects of the war. .

However, the efforts made to avoid a general mobilization indicate that Putin does not trust that the Russians are willing to endure a long and bloody war. Similarly, the economic optimism currently displayed by businessmen and the general population could evaporate as the long-term costs of war, Western sanctions and emigration take their toll.

Many in Ukraine fear that Russia may resort to more ruthless tactics if the war drags on too long for Putin's comfort. The electricity grid and heating installations, for example, could be attacked in the approach of winter, which would entail an enormous humanitarian cost for the general population. However, the Ukrainians seem to be prepared for such hardships. Data from the Rating polling agency shows that more than half believe the war will last at least six months, compared with 10% in a sample taken in early March. However, 93% of those surveyed say, with varying degrees of confidence, that Ukraine will eventually win. "Ukraine has begun to believe in itself," says Alexei Antipovich, head of Rating.

The Ukrainians remain firmly opposed to the idea of ​​negotiating with Russia, and this anti-compromise stance was decisively accentuated after the denunciation of the Russian atrocities in the second half of March. They fear a repetition of the Minsk agreements, peace agreements reached with French and German mediation that drew new lines in the Ukrainian arena that never satisfied Russian appetites. Ukraine does not believe that the Kremlin will stop at anything short of complete surrender. "Either we win or we lose," says Oleh Zhdanov, a former operations officer with Ukraine's General Staff.

Ukraine's allies may not have such a black and white view of things. In fact, Putin may find it easier to discourage them than the Ukrainians. With his recent reduction of exports through the main gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, he has hinted that he is willing to take the European economy hostage to advance his war aims. Rising gas prices and economic scarcity over the winter will almost certainly prompt some European governments to pressure Ukraine to agree to an imperfect truce.

Several European countries, notably Germany, have been painfully slow to start providing Ukraine with heavy weapons. Many remain reluctant to say that their goal in sending arms is to help Ukraine "win" the war. There is no doubt that there is no unanimity within NATO on how to define victory. The longer the war lasts, and the higher the cost in terms of prohibitive energy prices and slowing economies, the more reluctant Ukraine's allies will be to supply unlimited weapons and money. Putin, for his part, appears to be counting on the West's steadfastness crumbling.

© 2022 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

Translation: Juan Gabriel López Guix



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