26.12.23 Analytics

'Strategic patience' for the West and Ukraine: Is Kyiv's defeat a foregone conclusion?

By the end of the year, the balance of power in the Russia-Ukraine war had shifted definitively in Russia's favour. This was facilitated by Putin's success in military construction, on the one hand, and the indecisiveness of the West, which has sharply reduced aid to Ukraine, on the other. In addition to Ukraine's defeat, which looks very likely in the event of a further reduction in aid, experts are considering several scenarios for the development of events in 2024: an inert continuation of the confrontation, an attempt to freeze the conflict, and a 'strategic patience' scenario, which involves continued Western aid, further deployment of military production in Europe, concentration of forces and a tactic of active defence, combining the retention of Ukrainian borders and strikes on Russian rear areas. Russia's resources for military buildup are far from limitless, and if the West demonstrates resolve in preparing for a prolonged war, it will signal to the Kremlin and Russian elites that Putin's goals are unattainable. Systematic delivery of Western weapons and strengthening of the Ukrainian army will lead to a new shift in the balance of power in favor of Ukraine on the horizon of 2025.

How the balance of power has changed during 20 months of conflict

By the end of 2023, a shift in the balance of power in the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia became evident. Over the course of almost two years of war, the balance of power has changed several times. The following periods can be distinguished in the history of the conflict:

End of February to early May 2022: The failure of the Russian blitzkrieg, chaotic battles on multiple fronts, the seizure of the "Crimean corridor" by Russia, and the inadequacy of Russian military superiority to implement its initial plans;

May to July 2022: Russia's attempt to focus on the southeast of Ukraine and achieve the complete occupation of Donbas, the advance of Russian forces, and gradual depletion of forces;

August to October 2022: The counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the interception of the strategic initiative, a crisis of command and manpower in the Russian military, and the announcement of 'partial' mobilisation in Russia;

November 2022 to May 2023: The battle for Bakhmut, an influx of prisoners into Russian forces, ongoing command crisis in Russia, problems with ammunition, equipment and weapons, and the expansion of Western arms supplies to Ukraine;

May to September 2023: Attempts at a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces with no significant results, and the stabilisation of the Russian military command;

October to December 2023: Well-established replenishment of manpower and ammunition for the Russian army, attempts to transition to an offensive amid problems with the replenishment of manpower in the Ukrainian army and a sharp reduction in Western aid to Ukraine.

In December, Vladimir Putin once again spoke of 'achieving all the set goals' of the 'military operation'. Obviously, the Russian army will now be preparing for an offensive in the spring.

US officials began to search actively for a new strategy to assist Ukraine in 2024 in autumn, when the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive became evident. According to The New York Times, citing its sources, US officials are convinced that without a new plan and additional funding, Ukraine may lose the war. As Re:Russia has previously written, the crisis in providing military aid to Ukraine, the lack of a strategy, and insufficient manpower could, according to many military experts, lead to this outcome as early as 2024.

In general, Western politicians and military leaders, considering possible developments for 2024, are focusing on three scenarios: the continuation of hostilities in an inert form, freezing the conflict even if this is on Putin's terms, and a scenario of 'strategic patience'.

Military stalemate, balance of power and innovation

General Valeriy Zaluzhny's statements in November about the stalemate on the battlefield sparked an active discussion in Western expert circles about the reasons for the failure of the counteroffensive and the future plans of the allies. In reality, stalemate in war is not something unique and has often been observed in a wide variety of armed conflicts, writes Philip Wasielewski, Director of the Centre for the Study of Intelligence and Unconventional Warfare, in his analysis 'Stalemate is not Checkmate in Ukraine'. He reminds us that during the American Civil War, for example, rival armies were in trenches facing each other for nearly ten months; German and Soviet forces were at a stalemate for more than two years during the Battle of Leningrad; and the World War I stalemate lasted from the winter of 1914/15 until the spring of 1918.

Three main factors define the military stalemate on the battlefield in Ukraine. The first is technological: the modern battlefield has become an extremely dangerous place for the movement of adversaries due to the widespread use of cheap and easy-to-operate drones, as well as precision-guided munitions. Drones integrated with night vision devices, counter-battery radar, satellite data, and other instruments provide a level of awareness of events on the battlefield that participants in past conflicts could only dream of.

The integrated system of reconnaissance and precision firepower has proven particularly effective in southern Ukraine due to another factor — the topographical features of the terrain. The front line runs mostly across open fields that are separated by narrow strips of trees and small villages — it is virtually impossible to concentrate troops there unnoticed, hide supply depots or deploy artillery batteries.

The final reason for the stalemate on the front is that for both Ukraine and the Kremlin, this war is existential. For the Ukrainians, it is a question of national survival and preservation of sovereignty. For the Kremlin, winning the war and holding on to annexed Crimea are necessary to preserve the Putin regime, which is now bogged down in the war and has suffered too many human, economic and political casualties.

Nevertheless, stalemates at the front often stimulate innovations in military affairs, experts note. During World War I, for example, the sides began to use machine guns and rapid-fire cannons more actively for the first time. Germany attempted to undermine the British economy through submarine attacks, and in response, London invented tanks and integrated them with artillery and infantry forces. It was during World War I that the tactic of deep echeloned defence was first used to allow Germany to stop French attacks.

Innovative solutions that shift the balance of power in favor of the initially weaker side have also occurred in this war. In the absence of its own navy, through innovative use of drones and missiles, Ukraine has effectively neutralised Russian superiority in the Black Sea. A major change in the nature of land warfare can be expected if Western allies help Ukraine achieve parity or even air superiority with F-16 fighter jets, as well as with reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and counter-battery capabilities previously, as requested by Zaluzhny.

Local advantages: strikes and diversions

Ukraine needs new ideas for strategic planning, but Kyiv and its Western allies are far from consensus and are spending time in tense discussions, primarily related to differences in their assessments of the situation. According to sources among US officials cited by The New York Times, many Ukrainian leaders do not realise how problematic further US funding for the war is. Kyiv also has highly inflated expectations about Washington's capabilities, particularly in the matter of supplying artillery shells from stockpiles that do not actually exist.

The disagreements are also linked to differing views on the unsuccessful counteroffensive. In Washington, the failure of this operation is attributed not only to the underestimation of the strength of Russian fortifications but also to Kyiv's incorrect use of the assistance provided. Washington suggested concentrating its efforts on a breakthrough to the Sea of Azov in order to cut the 'land bridge' with Crimea. But the Ukrainian armed forces refused to focus on breaking through heavily fortified defences in Zaporizhzhia and kept their forces divided between the eastern and southern directions. Kyiv, on the contrary, believes that the allies' expectations of a counteroffensive were initially overstated and unrealistic in the face of what they perceive as insufficient military aid, particularly due to the absence of aviation for the Ukrainian armed forces to protect ground units.

One of the possible strategies discussed by Ukrainian and American military leaders is the continuation of combat operations in 2024 with an emphasis on special operations. This is based on some successes of the Ukrainian armed forces of this kind throughout 2023. According to The New York Times' Ukrainian sources, senior politicians, as well as Ukrainian and American military officials in Kyiv are developing plans for the coming year, taking into account the successful strikes on Crimea last autumn. At that time, the Ukrainian armed forces inflicted significant damage on targets in Crimea, including the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, using Storm Shadow missiles. A few days later, Russia transferred part of its fleet from Crimea to Novorossiysk.

Several US officials have called these and similar 'deadly for Russia' strikes a bright spot amid an otherwise disappointing counteroffensive. They did not rule out the possibility that the Ukrainian armed forces could build on this success next year, even if most of the Ukrainian army's efforts are spent rebuilding its capabilities. 

Another proven way to break the military stalemate is to strike in an unexpected direction. To make this possible, the West should provide the Ukrainian armed forces with military equipment to bypass the Russian defence line and move towards Crimea. This includes landing ships, vehicles for river crossings and beach operations, as well as pontoon bridges and small boats for movement in the shallow waters of the Sivash lagoon the same tactics used by the Red Army in 1920). Kyiv has previously requested assistance from the US Marine Corps for training in amphibious operations. A military source in Ukraine cited by the New York Times confirmed that Kyiv is preparing a 'very bold' plan for operations in Crimea and deep behind Russian lines, which will soon be presented to its allies.

Freeze scenarios and their unfounded assumptions

US officials are convinced that Congress will eventually allocate funds to Ukraine, but there is a high likelihood that further assistance from the US will be more limited. Washington will not allocate money in the same amounts as it did in the previous period. In this regard, experts and analysts are increasingly talking about pessimistic scenarios for freezing the conflict. 

Analyst and columnist for The Financial Times Gideon Rachman writes that the main problem of the West and Kyiv at the moment is the lack of a convincing concept of victory and achievable goals, and this affects the willingness to provide assistance. 2024 is highly likely to be the year of a Russian offensive, which by summer could pose serious problems for Ukrainian forces on the battlefield.

To prevent this, Rachman proposes that Kyiv agree to a de facto freezing of the conflict, take up defensive positions and contain further Russian advances. The fighting would not stop, of course, but would gradually wane. Then, as an intermediate stage between the frozen conflict and a formal peace treaty, a ceasefire would be declared. The model here could be the end of the Korean War with the partition into North and South Korea.

According to The Financial Times, Ukraine may well see the South Korean model as a new concept for its partial victory. Since the end of the Korean War, South Korea has focused on rebuilding its economy and has made significant progress in doing so. Kyiv has good reason to hope that it too can succeed: Ukraine still has access to the Black Sea and controls the port of Odessa, Brussels has announced the start of negotiations on Ukraine's accession to the EU, which is promising financial and technical assistance to help it rebuild its economy. Meanwhile, Russia, which suffered a humiliating defeat in the battle for Kyiv, has virtually no allies on the European continent for the first time in centuries. Ukraine, of course, paid a terrible price in this war, but now its status as an independent nation will never be questioned again.

The New York Times, quoting US officials, also discusses a scenario in which Ukraine abandons the return of all of its lost territory. Pentagon sources believe that Kyiv has already achieved several strategic and symbolic victories and, in 2024, may transition to a ‘hold and build’ mode, focusing on retaining existing territory and enhancing its ability to produce weapons. The US believes that this strategy would increase Ukraine's self-sufficiency.

However, the scenarios for freezing the conflict are based on not very realistic notions of Moscow's passivity, which would allow Ukraine to focus on economic, political and military development. The Kremlin, on the contrary, believes that amid problems with Western aid, the Russian side is gaining an advantage that will only increase over the next year, and therefore there is no reason to abandon plans to continue the campaign to undermine Ukraine's strength.

Experts from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) also believe that any discussion of a ceasefire at this stage is 'detached from reality'. Instead, in terms of military production, training Ukrainian soldiers and strengthening the Ukrainian state, the West should start preparing for a longer war. Preparing for it also means further integrating Ukraine into the EU and providing it with NATO security guarantees in the medium term. When the Kremlin sees that the West is ready for a longer war, it will be forced to rethink its current approach to the conflict and start looking for ways to end it.

Strategic patience: from 2024 to 2025

Unlike the US military and political leaders who, at least in part, seek to blame the Ukrainian leadership for the failure of the counteroffensive, experts from the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in their article 'Strategic Patience Can Secure Victory in Ukraine' argue that the problems faced by Kyiv are the result of exaggerated expectations from Western allies and their unwillingness to recognise in a timely manner that such a large-scale conflict with Russia cannot be concluded quickly. In their opinion, these expectations were dictated more by domestic political considerations than by a realistic assessment of the situation. Meanwhile, examples from various wars, from the American Civil War to World War II, show that months and even years of endless military setbacks or a deadlock on the front eventually come to an end. At that point, those who showed more persistence and patience on the battlefield receive a well-deserved reward in the form of victory.

The West's lack of 'strategic patience' is, in fact, Putin's main gamble on victory over Ukraine. The West needs to realise that any agreement for peace without the return of the occupied territories will bring Vladimir Putin an undeserved victory in the war and set the stage for further Russian attacks on NATO countries in the coming years, write the authors of the report.

The GMF analysts argue that in the 'strategic patience' scenario, the balance of power will change and the prospects for ending the conflict on terms more favourable to Ukraine and the West will improve. Russia, according to Western intelligence, has already lost more than 300,000 people killed and wounded in the war, and has lost at least two-thirds of all its tanks. Moscow is increasingly shifting its economy to a war footing, which is hitting consumer interests and creating tension within the country. At the same time, Ukraine has not only withstood the onslaught of Putin's war machine, but has regained more than half of the territory Russia seized in 2022 and has also pushed back Russia's navy in the Black Sea. Ukraine's economy is growing at 5% this year. NATO has grown stronger and more cohesive as a result of the war in Ukraine, incorporating Finland and inviting Sweden to join the alliance.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Russia's advantage is a temporary factor that will be exhausted by 2025. It is Putin, not the West, who should worry about prolonging the war. Weapons production build-up programmes in NATO countries are gradually gaining momentum and will soon outstrip the Kremlin's resources. At the same time, an increase in NATO's military expenditures by just 1% of GDP is equivalent to a 24% increase in Russia's military spending. In such a situation, the publication notes, 'it would be utterly idiotic to allow Mr Putin to feel, even for a moment, hope that the West can let victory slip from its jaws because of the few billions that Ukraine is short of next year.'

Philip Wasielewski, an expert at the Centre for the Study of Intelligence and Unconventional Warfare, shares this optimism. He recalls how, until a few years ago, Western experts were worried about NATO's ability to repel a Russian attack on the Baltic states. But now, because of its losses in Ukraine, the Russian army has become much less of a threat. Moreover, destroying about 50% of the Russian army was achieved by spending only 3% of the US defence budget. Now, the funds that the U.S. had planned to allocate to deter further Russian aggression in the event of Ukraine's fall can be used to counter other threats, including in the Asia-Pacific region.

In addition, with the right weapons, Ukraine could break the stalemate on the front as early as 2024, Wasilewski believes. In order to do so, the Ukrainian armed forces would have to deal a powerful blow to Russian airfields, supply lines, intelligence, command and control and communications systems. This could not only disrupt the operation of the Russian intelligence-strike complex but also undermine the morale of the Russian army.

Ultimately, however, the success of this plan will depend on Ukraine's ability to solve its own internal problems, especially those related to the shortage of soldiers at the front. Wasielewski notes that Ukraine's current population is comparable in size to that of the United States during the Civil War, but the Union and Confederate armies were able to mobilise hundreds of thousands of young men. Kyiv, too, needs to find a way to solve the personnel problems on the front lines, including rooting out corruption in the conscription system, which limits its ability to fight and hinders its European integration. 

In other words, the 'strategic patience' scenario assumes that Moscow's advantage at this stage of the war is temporary. If the West is determined to continue supporting Ukraine in 2024, given the systematic build-up of military production in Europe in order to improve its own security and help Ukraine (which should be seen as a single task, as argued by some other expert centres), as well as the depletion of further resources for the build-up of defence production in Russia over the next year, the balance of power may again shift in Ukraine's favour. The readiness of the West for a protracted war will have an impact on how Russian elites perceive the prospects of the war and its conclusion. And, military innovation will allow Kyiv to seize the initiative and demonstrate the vulnerability of Russian forces and Moscow's strategic failure to 'achieve the goals of the military operation’.