War in Ukraine, how the nature of power is changing- Editorial
At its core, war is about power – who has it, who doesn’t, and who can use it effectively. The war in Ukraine is no exception. But the results of the first months of the war have surprised many observers, challenging some traditional assessments of military and economic power. Most unexpectedly, Russia’s military advantages did not allow it to achieve its original objectives. Instead, Ukrainian forces have resisted and even pushed the Russian army back in some areas.
Interdependence is more extensive today than at any time in the past, connecting more countries and intertwining military, economic, political and ideological spheres.
The current conflict in Ukraine provides several examples of how deeper and more interdependent relationships have served as both sources and constraints on power to shape outcomes. The United States and NATO allies have relied on their strong political, economic, and military relationships to impose far-reaching sanctions and mobilize massive military aid. The ideological ties between NATO allies and Ukraine are another example of relational strength that has given Ukraine access to military and economic assistance, intelligence and infrastructure support, and international status, all of which have been key to its success to date. At the same time, these relationships create commitments that can harden over time and limit the space for all sides to make decisions – something now highlighted in the debates over the trajectory of the war.
Russia’s economic and political ties simultaneously empower and constrain its leaders. Although Russia tried to protect its economy from sanctions before the invasion, its connection to international financial markets made it vulnerable to punitive Western financial sanctions. However, its central position in the oil and gas trade provided an economic lifeline while limiting Western influence. Russia has also exploited the relational strength derived from its long-standing ideological and institutional ties with India and African countries, and has benefited from strengthening its ties with China. At this point in the conflict, it is unclear whether Ukraine or Russia is relatively gaining more from relational power, but relationships and interdependence play complex direct and indirect roles.
. After the Russians seized more than 20% of Ukraine, Russian forces met with determined Ukrainian resistance that ended with an embarrassing withdrawal from Kiev. Since then, the war has become a contest of attrition between Russia, on the one hand, and Ukraine, fighting backed by the Western coalition, on the other. In the autumn, Ukrainian offensives recaptured the province of Kharkov and the city of Kherson, reducing Russian control to about 50% of the territory it had conquered since 24 February, according to one estimate. The opposing sides have adopted two opposing strategies: the Russians are fighting a traditional war of attrition, focused on firepower; Ukraine is fighting a manoeuvre war focused on terrain. These opposing strategies are both a product of the availability of national resources and a deliberate choice. As the frozen ground opens the winter campaign season, both sides will pursue their strategies in limited offensives.
So far, both strategies seem to be working. Ukraine has recaptured large swaths of territory, but has exhausted itself during the fall offensive. It suffered heavy losses and depleted key stocks of equipment and ammunition. There is still the capacity to replace losses and create new battle formations, but that can be quickly exhausted.
The Ukrainians’ field-centric manoeuvre warfare is constrained by two factors: limited production of ammunition and artillery equipment and coalition considerations.
This constraint has forced Ukraine to adopt mass infantry formations focused on retaking territory at any cost.
Ukraine’s second constraint is the nature of the coalition in which the war is being fought. Since depleting its own stocks, Ukraine has become increasingly dependent on Western weaponry. Maintaining the Western coalition is crucial to the Ukrainian war effort. Without a steady string of victories, domestic economic worries could prompt coalition members to defect. In a sense, Ukraine has no choice but to launch attacks, regardless of the human and material costs.
Ukraine has built an infantry-centric army, made up of highly motivated conscripted troops with limited or no training. They support the basic fighting force of the pre-war professional army and about 14 new brigades equipped with weapons and vehicles donated by the West. On the battlefield, the strike groups act quickly, penetrating deep, then handing over captured areas to recruits to defend. This tactic has worked well in areas where Russian population shortages have prevented the formation of a solid front, such as in the Kharkov region. In the Kherson region, where Russia had sufficient force density, this tactic led to high casualties and little progress until logistical problems caused Russia to withdraw.
The vulnerability of this strategy is population. Ukraine began the war with 43 million citizens and 5 million men of military age, but, according to the UN, 14.3 million Ukrainians have fled the war and another 9 million are in Crimea or other Russian-occupied territories. This leaves Ukraine with about 20-27 million people. In this report, it has less than 3 million men who can be conscripted. One million have already been conscripted, and many of the others are either physically unfit to serve or occupy a vital position in the nation’s economy.
Russian forces are limited in manpower, but strengthened by massive artillery and equipment stocks enabled by a robust military industrial complex. Although there have been numerous reports in the Western media that the Russian military has run out of artillery ammunition, so far there has been no visible slowdown in Russian artillery fire on any front. Based on these factors, the Russian side has relied on a traditional war of attrition centred on firepower. Territory is not important; losing it is acceptable in order to retain combat power. At Kiev, Kharkov and Kherson, the Russian army refused to fight in unfavourable conditions and withdrew, accepting the political cost to preserve its forces.
For the Russian leadership, the question is: when and where to attack? The timing depends on Russian artillery ammunition stocks. If these are high, Russia could attack in winter; if not, it could stockpile and attack in spring, after the mud season. Timing is also determined by the training requirements for mobilized reservists. Longer training increases the effectiveness of reservists and reduces casualties, thereby lowering the political risk to the Kremlin. Ultimately, the pressures that the Russian leadership considers most important will decide the outcome. Will domestic political pressures prevail for a quick victory, or will military considerations favor delaying until the end of the spring mud season in March/April? So far, the Kremlin has gone on military considerations before political ones, suggesting that Russia will launch only a limited offensive this winter.
Wars of attrition are won by carefully managing one’s own resources while destroying those of the enemy. Russia entered the war with vast material superiority and a larger industrial base to sustain and replace its losses. They carefully conserved their resources, retreating whenever the tactical situation turned against them. Ukraine started the war with a smaller pool of resources and relied on the Western coalition to sustain its war effort. This reliance pressed Ukraine into a series of tactically successful offensives that consumed strategic resources that Ukraine will strive to replace in their entirety.The real question is not whether Ukraine can regain all of its territory, but whether it can inflict enough casualties on Russia’s mobilized reserves to undermine Russia’s internal unity, forcing it to the negotiating table on Ukrainian terms, or whether the “Russian” strategy of attrition will work to annex an even larger portion of Ukraine.
Russia is not impossible to defeat, nor are the Russian people incapable of change. But free liberal nations must remain committed to the long-term game of helping Ukraine win. Certainly, the West is not abandoning Ukraine. However, it has not sent a clear message that it seeks to permanently change Putin’s strategic calculus. And while the war has apparently caused liberal nation leaders to reassess their basic assumptions about Russia, it is unclear whether they have internalized the costs of Russia’s years of unresolved conflict with Ukraine and the full implications for the post-World War II global order.