01.12.23 Analytics

Counter War of Attrition: The West must develop a long-term strategy to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine

The failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive has caused dismay among Ukraine's allies in the West, exacerbated by the upcoming elections in the United States and internal challenges faced by Europe. The West needs to develop a long-term strategy to assist Kyiv, assuming that the return of occupied territories remains Ukraine's unequivocal goal. However, achieving this goal will require several stages of preparation. The strategy should include long-term budgetary planning for Western assistance to Ukraine and a plan to develop the Ukrainian military industry with Western support. This will demonstrate the gravity of the West's intentions. Without such a strategy, any negotiations with Russia, for which certain experts and politicians are calling, will simply turn into capitulation. Ukraine should switch to active defence, rebuilding the economy and infrastructure in the territories under its control, and the West should give Ukraine access to the latest military developments. In other words, Ukraine and the West should have a reciprocal and realistic plan for a war of attrition, the existence of which would have a sobering effect on the Kremlin and overturn its calculations for a quick 'handover' of Ukraine by its Western partners.

Stalemate at the front and stalemate at headquarters

The Ukrainian counteroffensive failed to achieve even a fraction of the goals it set out to, but rather depleted the strength of the Ukrainian army. At the same time, Russia has managed to put its economy and military-industrial complex into a state of partial mobilisation and to establish new routes for energy exports and technological imports. At the same time, the US and the EU have demonstrated confusion and a decreased willingness to provide Kyiv with military and economic support in previous volumes. In addition, there is evidence that Russia, without declaring mobilisation, is successfully building up a reserve of manpower that it can use to break through or increase the intensity of hostilities. In Ukraine, on the other hand, the outflow of the population has continued and the combat-ready reserve is nearly depleted.

Both Ukraine and its Western allies need to develop a new realistic strategy, abandoning, on the one hand, overly optimistic expectations and plans for 2023, and, on the other hand, illusory and fanciful scenarios. For example, the idea that coercing Zelensky to the negotiation table alone is sufficient to freeze the conflict. This is the common theme of a significant amount of commentary and analysis dedicated to the current situation.

Indeed, during the first stage of the war, the Ukrainian armed forces thwarted Putin's blitzkrieg by offering up unexpectedly stubborn resistance to the Russian army, which, as it turned out, was completely unprepared. In the second stage, the West began to arm the Ukrainian army, while the Russian side began to establish its military supplies and prepare for the defence of the occupied territories. In spring, the West staked on the concept of a decisive counterstrike, which would have led to serious changes on the front and the liberation of a large part of the territory. But the Western coalition did not bother to formulate a 'plan B'. As a result, when the Ukrainian counteroffensive stalled, it was apparent that the West was psychologically unprepared for a war of attrition, while the Kremlin was evidently ready for this. However, as in the case of a blitzkrieg, in reality the Kremlin is probably not so much ready for such a war as it is seeking to undermine the West's resolve to support Ukraine by demonstrating its readiness for it.

In general, experts agree that the West needs a new long-term strategy to help Ukraine, assuming that the return of the occupied territories will be possible over a certain, and likely prolonged time, will require several stages of preparation, but will remain a strategic goal for both Ukraine and the West.

Negotiations without a long-term strategy will be capitulation

British MP Bob Seely has warned against false hopes that Moscow will agree to a ceasefire and give up attempts to undermine Ukraine's sovereignty if a truce is agreed. The Kremlin's main strategy right now is to assume that a stalemate on the front will lead to a decline in Western support. It needs to be persuaded otherwise. US and European production lines should consistently supply weapons to Ukraine, and the US and European militaries should engage in modernising the Ukrainian army. This would expose the Kremlin to the prospect of the long-term costs of reproducing its military capabilities in competition with those of the EU and the US, and would possibly influence its perceptions of the conflict’s prospects.

Calls to end the war as quickly as possible primarily draw from three historical precedents, notes expert Vladimir Sokor of the Jamestown Foundation. These are 'freezing' the conflict without formal agreements (the post-Soviet model), formally drawing a demarcation line between the parties (the Korean model), and providing security guarantees in an 'as is' situation, with the recognition of the right to return occupied territories in the future (the West German model). However, according to Sokor, none of these scenarios is applicable at this stage, as it will not change the Kremlin's intention to achieve more, viewing the 'freeze' as a respite.

Peace talks should only be launched when the time is favourable to Ukraine — that is, after Russia has suffered a string of defeats on the battlefield, notes Sabine Fischer of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Thus, the path to peace talks lies in the West's determination to continue and intensify military support for Kyiv at this time. Fischer highlights another problem that could complicate the negotiation process — the (justified) distrust of Ukrainian society towards any agreements with Moscow. Therefore, Kyiv must receive clear and reliable security guarantees from the West when it embarks on a settlement. However, so far no one has dared to formulate such guarantees in any explicit form.

Long-term financing as a sign of serious intentions

Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage in an article in Foreign Affairs analyse two scenarios for weakening Western support for Ukraine. The first assumes that fatigue will primarily accumulate within the European Union, while the United States will stick to its current line and will not abandon its current level of support for Kyiv. This would allow the Kremlin to drive a wedge between certain European governments and Washington, as well as between Western and Eastern Europe. The second scenario, which would be far more catastrophic for Ukraine, assumes that it is the US that will withdraw support from Kyiv. Europe will not be able to fully compensate for this loss and, if the new US administration tries to impose a negotiated settlement on Ukraine, the Europeans will likely have to comply. Such a hasty settlement would jeopardise the security not only of Ukraine but also of Europe as a whole. To reduce this uncertainty, a common long-term strategy should be developed and consolidated and, above all, financial and military assistance to the Ukrainians should be fixed in long-term budget cycles both to make it more difficult to potentially curtail in the future and to demonstrate a serious commitment to the strategic objectives.

The development of a long-term strategy seems to be the focus of a document prepared by the office of Josep Borrell, according to which the EU plans to help Ukraine expand its capabilities in the production of weapons and equipment repair, continue the training of soldiers, and establish a long-term system for financing Kyiv's military needs. The draft suggests that Kyiv will be financed through the extra-budgetary European Peace Facility (EPF), which some EU members (most notably Hungary) are currently resisting, and that the four-year €20 billion aid plan is likely to be transformed into an annual €5 billion plan. According to the authors of the draft, the EU should encourage European companies to work more closely with the Ukrainian defence industry to improve its capabilities, as Ukrainian defence production capacity will contribute to the country’s overall security. Borrell is to present the plan to EU leaders at the Brussels summit on 14-15 December.

A counter war of attrition

The West should develop a new 18-month plan for Ukraine, says Brookings Institution expert Michael O'Hanlon. A concrete aid plan to achieve specific goals within 18 months will be more favourably received by public opinion than abstract statements of support until the end of the war. This approach would allow Kyiv to acquire the necessary types of weaponry that have not yet been decided upon. O'Hanlon notes that in many major wars, the turning point often occurred in their second or third year.

Richard Haas and Charles Kupchan, authors of another Foreign Affairs publication, believe that Ukraine and its partners need to reassess their previous strategy, recognising the mismatch between their objectives and available means. The expulsion of Russian troops from Ukrainian soil and the full restoration of territorial integrity remain legally and politically indisputable, but are strategically out of reach at the moment. Kyiv therefore needs to do what Russia did in the second half of 2023 — go on the defensive. This will reduce personnel losses, allow Kyiv to devote more resources to long-term defence and rebuild the 80% of the country under its control (for which the EU must decide on the transfer of Russian assets to Ukraine).

A defensive strategy does not mean that Ukraine should refrain from attacking Russian positions; on the contrary, experts suggest that Ukraine should conduct operations in the Russian rear, using long-range weapons and naval assets to increase the costs of occupation. In the long run, this will force the Kremlin to recognise that its calculations of simply waiting for the West to withdraw support for Kyiv on its own were wrong. Moreover, if there are signs that Russia's military capabilities or will are weakening, Ukraine could return to a more offensive strategy. O'Hanlon proposes something similar as a 'plan B.' This plan does not involve the liberation of the occupied territories, but aims at the defence and economic recovery of the territory under Ukraine’s control, as well as a further 'tying' of Ukraine to the West in economic and security matters. The occupied territories can be reclaimed later through a long-term diplomatic process and international pressure on Russia.

Ukraine and the West should use the coming winter and next year to reverse the current stalemate, according to former NATO Assistant Secretary General Jamie Shea. NATO's task over the winter months is to work with the Ukrainian military to develop a new, realistic strategy and to identify the means necessary to implement it, including the provision of aircraft, as well as air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and other modern weapons systems. 

The second priority is to help Ukraine build its own modern defence industry, including production and repair lines for the latest weapons. To research and develop new advanced military technologies, NATO has established the DIANA programme, as well as two innovation centres and an Innovation Fund. The EU has the Programme for Permanent Structured Security and Defence Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defence Fund and the European Defence Agency to organise the collective development and procurement of weapons. According to Shea, NATO and the EU should give Kyiv full access to all their military innovations. This should be subject, of course, to the necessary commercial and industrial safeguards and technology transfer rules. The next priority should be to help Ukraine survive another wartime winter. The West also needs to continue its efforts to improve the effectiveness of the sanctions imposed on Russia, as well as develop a new information strategy to convince the public of the need for long-term assistance to Ukraine.

Mere assurances of unwavering Western support for Ukraine and poorly coordinated assistance provided 'as far as possible' will be perceived in the Kremlin and the Global South not so much as a harbinger of Ukraine's imminent defeat as a sign of the Western coalition's inability to stop Putin's invasion and to protect Ukraine and the international order, the defence of which the West has repeatedly declared its existential goal.