The hopes of a decisive breakthrough during the Ukrainian counteroffensive this spring have not materialised, which means that a war of attrition has become the prevailing outlook for the foreseeable future. Among analysts, there is a belief that Russia possesses greater capabilities to wage such a war and emerge as the victor. However, analysts at the Ukrainian Razumkov Center challenge this perspective. The rate of personnel and equipment losses on the Russian side exceeds that of the Ukrainian forces, and their ability to replenish these losses is limited. Ukraine is capable of waging a war of attrition against Russia, but to do so, it must abandon the idea of a decisive breakthrough, which comes with significant casualties, and transition to a strategy of calculated pressure. While this strategy may not promise rapid results, it holds potential in the long run. The information battle surrounding whether Ukraine can successfully wage a war of attrition has gained particular significance and aims to influence public opinion both in Ukraine and in the West, especially in the United States, where the debate over continued support for Ukraine has become part of the pre-election campaign.
Attrition warfare, one of the basic scenarios of a protracted military conflict, occurs when neither side can achieve not only a tactical advantage in a specific area but also a psychological breakthrough in the campaign. The transition of the Russian side to this attrition war scenario became evident in the winter of 2023 when Moscow abandoned plans for further advances into Ukraine and focused on fortifying previously occupied territories, particularly the land corridor to Crimea. Conversely, the concept of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which Kyiv and the West were preparing for during the winter and spring of 2023, was oriented toward a breakthrough scenario aimed at provoking a psychological turning point in the campaign and avoiding such a war of attrition.
While observers and analysts have noted the gradual progress of the Ukrainian offensive, with recent reports of breaches in the so-called 'Dragon's Teeth' line — the first line of the deeply echeloned Russian defence — the scenario of a breakthrough leading to a psychological turning point in the campaign seems possible today but still unlikely. This is not only due to the balance of forces engaged on both sides but, to a greater extent, because the Russian military forces appear to have managed to overcome their key challenges in troop management and logistics, allowing them to withstand Ukrainian attempts at a breakthrough for the past two months.
In such a situation, a war of attrition becomes the baseline scenario, aligning with the Kremlin's overarching strategy. Attrition warfare entails a protracted conflict where the West must continuously replenish Ukraine's losses in equipment and ammunition, even though, according to the prevailing opinion, Ukraine is unlikely to ultimately defeat Russia in a war of attrition. As a result, this scenario could work against President Biden in the upcoming presidential election campaign, potentially prompting his administration to reduce its aid to Ukraine and seek avenues for negotiations (the logic of this process in the context of the campaign has been previously outlined by Re:Russia).
However, is Russia's victory in a war of attrition guaranteed? Experts from the Ukrainian Razumkov Center argue that this notion is an abstract presumption not substantiated by facts. The central part of their report involves an analysis of the actual military capabilities of Moscow and Kyiv, as well as the losses suffered by both sides over the course of the past year and a half of the war. According to conservative estimates, Russian losses (killed and wounded) as of July 2023 exceeded 200,000 personnel. At the beginning of the invasion, the number of Russian forces was about 330,000 personnel, including ground forces (150,000), Navy and Air Force (70,000), FSB and Rosgvardia (18,000), mercenaries (8,000), and mobilisation reserves (approximately 80,000). By winter 2022, an additional 300,000 civilians and 50,000 prisoners had been conscripted. As of the end of 2022, 700,000 people served in the Ukrainian army, and when considering other units and law enforcement agencies, it had over 1 million armed individuals.
When it comes to heavy weaponry, various assessments provided by experts from the Razumkov Center indicate that, since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, Russia has lost 30% of its tanks, 27% of its armoured vehicles, 21% of its artillery, 23% of its aircraft, and 32% of its helicopters (the report primarily relies on data from Oryx). Moreover, the dynamics of Russian losses in armaments and military equipment have been on the rise over the past six months. In contrast, as of April 2023, Ukraine has increased its total amount of military equipment, especially armoured vehicles. Consequently, the balance of power in key types of equipment has levelled out.
The loss of Russia's military equipment in monetary terms, according to the calculations of experts from the Razumkov Center, has exceeded $32 billion (around 2 trillion rubles). Further, the ramping up of the defence industry along with Western sanctions has significantly impacted Russia's financial and military capabilities. As a consequence, Russia is preparing for a protracted war amid ever-accumulating problems with personnel, equipment, the economy, and the political situation. Citing Sergei Shoigu, the authors of the report note that Moscow is primarily building strategic reserves of combat equipment and newly formed army units. The shift to a strategy of protracted warfare is a necessity for Russia and is largely linked to the depletion of its advantage in weaponry and equipment. This conclusion echoes the findings of a spring report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which Re:Russia has previously discussed.
Thus, the authors of this report conclude that, contrary to common perceptions, Ukraine is better prepared for the scenario of a protracted war in terms of manpower and heavy weaponry, while the rate of losses of both personnel and equipment inflicted on the Russian side nullifies its initial advantage. However, Russia still maintains superiority when it comes to artillery and aviation, posing a significant obstacle and threat to the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
'Given the current balance of power, a single, even decisive offensive will almost definitely fail to achieve the desired result — a complete victory over Russia — and will be accompanied by huge Ukrainian losses,' note the authors of the report. Therefore, Kyiv's strategic goals should encompass both offensive and defensive actions and involve: first, active defence and containment of counteroffensive attempts by the Russian forces; second, the judicious use of reserves in specific front-line sectors; third, breakthroughs in the enemy’s deep echeloned defences and consolidation of tactical footholds; and fourth, effective cooperation with the Western coalition. In other words, the concept of a decisive breakthrough which dominated the minds of politicians, analysts, and the wider public in the spring should shift toward a strategy of conserving forces and applying calculated pressure. Such a strategy may not promise quick results but may lead to success in the longer term.
Moreover, the experts from the Razumkov Center point out that Moscow has adopted a tactic of provoking the Ukrainian army to use its reserves and/or relocate units from one front-line sector to another, with the hope of exploiting the resulting gap. According to their calculations, if Ukraine is psychologically and militarily prepared for a protracted war, it will only be of benefit in the short term. Over longer stretches, a protracted war plays into Putin's hands, as he has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, testing the patience of Western politicians and electorates, Ukrainian citizens, and conducting strikes on civilian targets in the hope of an accumulated psychological effect. At the same time, the Russian economy in 2023 has adapted to the shock and, according to IMF forecasts, is even expected to see 1.5% growth, fuelling the Kremlin's messianic complex and restoring its confidence in its own luck.