North and South
The Status of Ukraine’s Multi-Domain Campaigns
One of the ways we might view contemporary operations in the Ukraine War is through a lens of North versus South. In the south, Ukraine is conducting a campaign which is designed to contribute to it winning the war. In the north, Russia is conducting a campaign that is designed to prolong the war. This framing can be useful because it provides insights into the overall strategies of Ukraine and Russia.
Ukraine wants to win the war and do so quickly in order to minimise the losses of its people (soldiers and civilians), re-establish its sovereignty and continue the process of buidling a prosperous democracy in Eastern Europe. There is a humanitarian imperative driving Ukrainian government decision making. As such, it has adapted its tactics on the ground to better achieve this, although ultimately more foreign aid will also be needed.
Russia on the other hand has a different theory of victory. At its core is the drawing out of the conflict and betting big on a Trump victory in the US presidential elections in 2024. But even if this plays out, Putin is assuming that western patience and its commitment to providing aid to Ukraine will decline over time, as it did in other western operations over the past three decades (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc). As Sir Lawrence Freedman recently wrote:
Most assessments of Vladimir Putin’s strategy suggest that he believes that he can keep the war going indefinitely and intends to do so until the Ukrainians tire of the fight, or at least their Western supporters decide to call it a day. In particular he looks ahead to January 2025 when he hopes for Donald Trump’s return to the Presidency.
This is one of the reasons why the Russian offensive in the northeast of Ukraine is not making major progress. The past 18 months has destroyed many of Russia’s best units, and much of the Russian army is now in southern Ukraine. But importantly, the Russians are not after large territorial gains in this phase of their invasion. They just need to sustain a viable army in the field, and ‘not lose’ over the next couple of years for Putin’s long game to play out.
In other matters, the strategic commentary on the war in Ukraine, at least that in the West, has turned more positive in the last couple of weeks. This comes in the wake of a few weeks of leaks in Washington DC, with ‘experts and officials’ criticising Ukraine’s conduct of the war. This optimism is only slightly dented by the rather limp G20 joint declaration on Ukraine, which unlike last year’s message, has avoided criticising Russia’s abhorrent behaviour in Ukraine.
This week also saw the revelations about Elon Musk’s deliberate interventions in Ukrainian military operations, as part of the marketing campaign in the lead up to the release of a new book. I am sure there will be much more written on his actions in the coming weeks. Finally, we continue to see the ongoing execution of Ukraine’s strategic strike campaign, which has recently included seizing drilling rigs in the Black Sea. And Russia placing tyres on its aircraft at Russian airfields as part of its adaptation to the Ukrainian long range strike threat.
What does this all mean for the overall Ukrainian war effort, and what is the status of its various campaigns?
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