Notes on the war
Despite Zelensky’s much vaunted offensive making ‘noticeable progress’, Jack Conrad argues that, especially with the mud season fast approaching, we should not expect any big changes on the battlefield
Ukraine’s propaganda machine and its western media outlets have been full of triumphant news of a breakthrough, with the capture of Robotyne - a small village in the southern Zaporizhzhia oblast. The claim is - and this is probably true - that after three months Ukrainian forces have finally breached the first line of Russian defences. In and of itself no mean achievement militarily.
After all, as a UK defence intelligence report recently concluded, “Russia has constructed some of the most extensive systems of military defensive works seen anywhere in the world for many decades.”1 And, because of its perceived vulnerability to a determined Ukrainian southern push, which could conceivably split Russian-held territory into two separate theatres, the area that has been most extensively fortified is the Zaporizhzhia oblast.2
Russia’s system of fortifications are some 2,000 kilometres long, stretching in a great arc from the border with Belarus in the north to the Dnipro Delta in the south. Along the front line itself, Russia’s defensive systems are organised autonomously, roughly corresponding to one of the four oblasts annexed in September 2022.
The first line of defence, as mapped from satellite images, can easily be several kilometres deep and usually consists of a series of layers: anti-tank ditches, followed by earth berms, three rows of dragon’s teeth and razor wire. Besides the network of trenches and bunkers sheltering Russian troops, there are tightly packed anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. Attackers also face deadly fire raining in from well-protected artillery and howitzer positions placed in the rear. Russians defending Robotyne doubtless attempted to funnel Ukrainian forces down routes which are “pretargeted”.3 In other words, killing zones.
Note, however, defences are not just near the current front lines, but have also been “dug deep inside areas Russia currently controls”.4 There are normally three lines of defence, each forming a subsystem in its own right. Behind the first line there is a matching second line, the third line being a disconnected constellation of fortifications, protecting towns, logistical hubs and other such important sites.
In the case of the Zaporizhzhia oblast, the second defence line spans some 130km from the town of Orlyanske to just north of Bilmak and, according to the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, “could serve Russia well, were it to establish a new front line following a successful Ukrainian offensive”.5
So in the Zaporizhzhia oblast we now have a “successful Ukrainian offensive” breaking through the first line after three months of hard-slog demining sapper operations. Ukrainian troops face not only the second line of defences and near-constant artillery bombardments. There is the danger of counterattack from multiple directions. Russian commanders will seek to isolate Ukraine’s combat units from the logistical support they require if their Robotyne salient is to be held, let alone extended.
Russian military doctrine emphasises both positional and mobile defences.6 If the second line is breached, Russia will doubtless seek to engage Ukrainian fighting vehicles using a combination of missiles, UAVs, conventional aircraft and their own tanks. Meantime, the loss of Robotyne has triggered the deployment of Russian elite units, while, presumably, the first subsystem undergoes preparations for a pincer movement.
The chances are that Ukraine’s offensive will end as it began: with a whimper. After all, later this month the rainy season is due to begin. Rains mean mud. The rasputitsa makes land warfare more or less impossible. Ground, including unpaved roads and tracks, dissolves. Infantry slips, slides and quickly becomes exhausted. Wheels uselessly spin and lorries sink to their axles in the sticky mire. Nor can tanks easily move. It almost goes without saying: rasputitsa seasons are well known to confer a great defensive advantage in wartime. Common nicknames are General Mud or Marshal Mud. Only with the winter freeze does offensive fighting become feasible again.
As reported in The New York Times, US officials are “growing frustrated” with how Ukraine is conducting the war.7 Instead of dividing their forces equally between the eastern and the southern fronts, they should, we are told, be concentrating more on the drive to push through the Zaporizhzhia oblast all the way down to the Azov Sea. However, not least in my opinion, to expect a significant Ukrainian breakthrough is as misplaced as expecting a significant Russian breakthrough.
Last November, Mark Milley, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, infuriated Kyiv - as well as some more bellicose elements in the Biden administration - by comparing Ukraine to World War I and suggesting that a stalemate had been reached. In fact this sober-minded assessment was already found in the Pentagon papers leaked back in April, which likewise spoke of “stalemate”.8
Maybe the promise of a game-changing spring offensive helped persuade the US and its allies into stumping up extra high end arms deliveries: Leopard 2 battle tanks, long range Storm Shadow missiles and F-16s. Without a ‘big push’ there existed a real risk of public opinion in the west becoming disenchanted. Why do we suffer from falling real wages, increased taxes, deteriorating public services and job losses for what appears to be an unwinnable proxy war against Russia? Indeed there are already signs that wide swathes of the population are arriving at such conclusions - and not only in Germany, the country which has taken the biggest economic hit, with Russian oil and gas being sanctioned.
According to a recent CNN poll, 55% of Americans do not favour additional funding of Ukraine, as against the 45% who do. Some 51% say that the US has already done enough.9 A similar poll conducted in the early days of the Russian invasion in late February 2022 found 62% felt the US should be doing more. So the shift in public opinion is palpable … and this will matter in 2024, with a Donald Trump versus Joe Biden presidential contest seemingly on the cards.
So there is a growing war scepticism - not least in America, where hard-right Republicans, not the DSA’s squad, oppose Biden’s pledge to “stand with Ukraine as long as it needs, as long as it requires”. Trumpists care little about “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing” (Iran and China are, strangely, another matter).
There is too the risk of a loss of morale amongst Ukraine’s armed forces and the wider Ukrainian Ukrainian population. The ‘big push’ has happened, but advances are slow, insubstantial and obviously reversible. A village here, a village there ... and what The Economist calls the loss of an “uncomfortable number of men and equipment”.10 In point of fact, some Ukrainian units have suffered casualty rates of 90%. Initial high hopes put in Leopards and Bradleys turned to bitter disappointment at the point of first contact with the enemy. They were quickly put out of action by UAVs, mines and artillery. According to what seem like reliable reports, most of the fighting to take Robotyne was done on foot and at night.11 Suggestions that F-16s would have made all the difference are risible. Nowadays such hugely expensive kit is more than vulnerable to cheap, shoulder-launched missiles carried by the average infantry grunt.
The initial war enthusiasm, the in many ways justified Ukrainian yearning for revenge on the Russian invaders, could conceivably give way to a popular rejection of the war and a desire for some sort of negotiated settlement. Supplies of the willing - those who joined the Ukrainian armed forces out of nationalist fervour - have long been used up. Huge numbers either lie dead or are horribly maimed. Hence the turn to the unwilling. There are widespread reports of draft-dodging, police dragnets and fat bribes being paid out. Many have stolen out the country, crossing over rivers and mountain passes - often at considerable personal risk.12
Art of the deal
No wonder Volodymyr Zelensky has sacked his defence chief, Oleksii Reznikov. He needed a scapegoat. Besides facing accusations of corruption, Reznikov has been under immense pressure to produce results via the spring/summer offensive, which he previously admitted, in a candid interview with The Washington Post, might not live up to “western expectations”.13 How right he was … and tens of thousands have paid the ultimate price for what were always unrealistic “western expectations”. Either way, the Kyiv regime felt obliged to do something - if it was going to please its US paymasters.
Ukraine’s offensive was never likely to succeed. Leave aside Russia’s awesome defence systems, Ukraine lacked the element of surprise, the necessary hardware and the overwhelming 3:1 manpower advantage, recommended by military theorists, when it comes to a war of the offensive, as opposed to a war of the defensive.14 The actual ratio on the frontline is more like 1:1.
Not that wars are decided by abstract 3:1 formulas. Personnel numbers, food, fuel and ammunition supplies and the quantity and quality of equipment count, but so too do intangibles, such as imagination, chance and morale. A point emphasised again and again by the Prussian military philosopher, Carl von Clausewitz, in his classic 1832 study, Vom Kriege: “… in combat the loss of moral force is the chief cause of the decision.”15
Boosting morale, despite the risks of retaliation, surely explains why Zelensky has given the nod to militarily irrelevant drone strikes on Moscow and other Russian cities, assassination attempts on Putin’s far-right allies and attacks on Belgorod oblast launched by the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps. Ben Wallace, former UK defence minister, seemed keen on such provocations - incumbent US defence sectary Lloyd Austin less so.
Either way - and this is the crucial point - everything shows that the war in Ukraine remains in an impasse. That is what Ukraine’s predictable determination to resist Russia’s invasion, plus all the west’s kit and equipment has achieved - that despite widespread initial expectations of a swift Russian victory, mostly because of the sheer size of its armed forces. As repeatedly argued here, a war of attrition looks to be on the cards - three, four, many more years. That surely explains why there has been a renewed outbreak of calls for negotiations.
Donald Trump boasts that he can finish the war in 24 hours and relegate Ukraine to a mere territorial dispute on the outer fringes of Europe. Former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, argues that the interests of the EU and US are “not aligned” and that a compromise with Russia should be sought.16 Emmanuel Macron was saying as much back in May, when he pledged to do “everything possible to make a negotiated peace happen”.17 Nato general secretary’s chief of staff Stian Jenssen has likewise suggested that a solution could be for “Ukraine to give up territory and get Nato membership in return”.18 True, he was forced to retract. However, this was the sort of interim settlement “tentatively agreed” by Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in 2022 - without Nato membership, but with security guarantees.19 Apparently Boris Johnson, then UK prime minister, ensured that any such deal was scuppered. Massive arms deliveries were promised (and maybe threats of an Azov battalion rebellion made).
Of course, the US-UK axis does not want a generalised nuclear exchange and Mutually Assured Destruction. Doubtless that is why everything is carefully calibrated. Ukraine is supplied with enough military hardware to resist Russia, not enough to actually win. A proxy war that lasts for years to come suits the strategic purposes of Washington and London perfectly.
Ukraine can do the fighting and the dying to keep Russia bogged down in a quagmire, an unwinnable war, which will create the conditions for regime change in Moscow. A rollback strategy proclaimed by Jimmy Carter in January 1980 that worked like a dream in Afghanistan (the Soviet Union scuttled in February 1989 and collapsed in December 1991).
Not only has Nato and the EU been steadily extended eastwards all the way to the borders of the Russian Federation itself, but Vladimir Putin and his generals were lured into a bear trap: launching an ill-advised, ill-prepared, full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The ‘special military operation’ proved, predictably, to be a disaster. No wonder there has been excited talk of ending Putin’s siloviki regime and Balkanising the Russian Federation.
The Russian state includes over 190 distinct ethnic groups and has 21 republics. So December 1991 and the break-up of the Soviet Union can be repeated, argue ‘Russia must go’ advocates on both sides of the Atlantic.
Such plans were considered at a Brussels meeting convened by the European Conservatives and Reform grouping in the European parliament, on January 31 2023. In this bloc of the right and far-right former fascists, the consensus seems to have been carving-up the Russian Federation into 34 separate states. Meeting on February 14 2023 in Washington DC, the Hudson Institute and Jamestown Foundation discussed Luke Coffey’s paper, ‘Preparing for the dissolution of the Russian Federation’.20 Before that the Free Peoples of Russia Forum convened in Sweden in December 2022 - the aim being the “decolonisation, de-occupation, decentralisation and dePutinisation of Russia”.21 Such plans, naturally, find a ready chorus of approval in Ukraine.
The A-Z case for breaking up Russia is made by Janusz Bugajski in his book Failed state: a guide to Russia’s rupture (2022). In brief: the Russian Federation is not a nation-state and attempts to export liberal democracy have proved futile and will continue to prove futile. Russia is by nature both autocratic and inherently imperialistic. It should therefore be caged in a St Petersburg-Moscow-Nizhny Novgorod triangle and the rest of the country set up as independent cantons.
Last year the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe hosted a conference in Washington DC titled ‘Decolonising Russia: a moral and strategic imperative’. The final resolution calls for:
… all citizens of indigenous peoples and colonial regions to immediately begin active actions for the peaceful decolonisation, liberation, declaration/restoration of sovereignty and independence of their countries [and on] the peoples and governments of the UN member-states to support and assist us … in our efforts to streamline the uncontrolled process of disintegration of a nuclear state.
That assistance must include official recognition of the independence and sovereignty of the following states of indigenous peoples and colonial areas: Tatarstan, Ingria (a historical region in the north-west of Russia, including the current St Petersburg region), Bashkortostan, Karelia, Buryatia, Kalmykia, the Baltic Republic (Königsberg, East Prussia), Komi, Cherkessia, Siberia, the Urals, the Republics of Don, Tyva, Kuban, Dagestan, the Pacific Federation (Primorsky Territory and the Amur Region), the Moscow Republic, Erzya Mastor ([in] the territory of Mordovia), Sakha, Pomorie, Chuvashia, Chernozyom region, Mordovia, Volga region, Khakassia, Udmurtia, Tyumen Yugra, Mari El, Altai, Ingushetia, etc.
The resolution likewise encourages the formation of “national transitional governments/administrations” and for regional parliaments to “declare state sovereignty and start inter-parliamentary consultations on a mechanism for seceding from the Russian Federation; and constitutions to be prepared”. Chillingly, an accompanying ‘Northern Eurasia 2023’ map depicts a would-be “post-Russia” utopia, with 41 new states carved out of the Russian Federation.22
True, there are influential voices - eg, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil tycoon, who warn that the ghastly consequences of the break-up of the Russian Federation would be “dangerous for the west”.23 One can easily imagine nuclear-armed warlords, ethnic cleansing on a vast scale, crashing living standards, millions of refugees and descent into utter barbarism.
Responsible professors too issue warnings against what is after all an unlikely outcome. Eg, Peter Rutland points out that only in six of the Russian Federation’s 21 constituent republics does the ethnically designated nationality make up a majority. Breaking up Russia would solve little or nothing, that is for sure, but would, he argues, create one hell of a holy mess.24
Understandably then, Washington and London are doing their best to unite and direct the disparate Russian opposition around a broadly common programme. While they do not want to name a single charismatic individual as leader, the agenda is surely clear: getting their man into the Kremlin - say, the already presidential Alexei Navalny. Their model is Boris Yeltsin - a dupe of US imperialism and a hero for disorientated western leftists, such as Tariq Ali.25
With a pliant satrap safely in place in the Kremlin, a Versailles-type peace treaty would be imposed, with Russia being expected to pay huge reparations, forgo nuclear weapons, give up its high-end arms industry and accept its position as a US-dominated, oil and gas-producing US neocolony. If, instead of a pliant satrap in the Kremlin, the west has to settle for a son-of-Putin securocrat, there is still, though, the “once in a lifetime” opportunity to put Russia “back inside its geopolitical box for a generation”.26
Xi Jinping will not view kindly any US takeover of Russia. Quite the reverse. Xi is already looking for every opportunity to further incorporate Russia into the Chinese economic space. More than that, Xi is acutely aware that Washington’s main strategic target is China itself. The US has already set up Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjian in pursuit of instituting its “new world order”.27
US grand strategy is, firstly, to comprehensively degrade Russia and then, secondly, encircle and strangle the People’s Republic of China. Having done that, the US will be able to “manage” at last the Eurasian world island for the benefit of its plutocrats, corporations and great-power interests - as envisaged by America’s foreign policy prophet and sage, Zbigniew Brzezinski.28
UK Ministry of Defence (@DefenceHQ), ‘Latest Defence Intelligence Update on the Situation in Ukraine - 01 May 2023’: (twitter.com/DefenceHQ/status/1652911854501388290/photo/1).↩︎
UK Ministry of Defence (@DefenceHQ), ‘Latest Defence Intelligence Update on the Situation in Ukraine - 01 May 2023; Twitter post, May 1 2023 (twitter.com/DefenceHQ/status/1652911854501388290/photo/1).↩︎
W Lester and CK Bartles The Russian way of war: force structure, tactics and modernization of the Russian ground forces (Fort Leavenworth KS 2016, p62.↩︎
The New York Times August 22 2023.↩︎
The Times September 5 2023.↩︎
The Washington Post May 6 2023.↩︎
Once again, the name Frederick Lanchester (1868-1946) ought to be mentioned in this context: he produced a whole series of neat mathematical formulas. See PK Davies Aggregation, disaggregation and the 3:1 rule in ground warfare: www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monograph_reports/2007/MR638.pdf.↩︎
C von Clausewitz On war Harmondsworth 1976, p310.↩︎
Le Figaro August 16 2023.↩︎
AP September 1 2022.↩︎
The Guardian August 16 2023.↩︎
Foreign Affairs August 25 2022.↩︎
L Coffey, ‘Preparing for the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Russian Federation’, Hudson Institute, December 2022.↩︎
The EurAsian Times June 1 2023.↩︎
Politico June 5 2023.↩︎
P Rutland, ‘Why pushing for the break-up of Russia is absolute folly’ Responsible Statecraft March 24 2023.↩︎
See T Ali Revolution from above: where is the Soviet Union going? London 1988. The book was dedicated to “comrade Boris Yeltsin”.↩︎
L Coffey, ‘Preparing for the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Russian Federation’, Hudson Institute, December 2022.↩︎
Z Brzezinski The grand chessboard New York 1997, p30.↩︎