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On the defensive: Frank Ledwidge on the Ukrainian military’s strategy in 2024

The end of the Ukrainian summer counteroffensive was marked by an interview with its overall commander General Valeri Zaluzhnyi in the UK’s leading news magazine The Economist. It is clear to everyone now that this will not be achieved anytime soon. As the General puts it: “there will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.” As matters stand, Zaluzhnyi assesses that effectively the war is in a situation of stalemate.

Two friends of mine, both of whom have been to the front lines within the last two weeks, spoke of the feeling amongst some troops that the situation was difficult. Perhaps they look around them and see the average age of combatants is rather older than one might expect — 43. Unlike in Russia, there has been no mass mobilization, a fact obvious to anyone visiting Kyiv or Lviv, where notwithstanding the regular missile and drone raids, there is little evidence of a population of fit young men at war.

Compulsory mobilisation is being discussed, quietly. Time will tell whether the Ukrainian government is willing to take that step. It is a mark of Ukraine’s resilience that this has not yet happened. All the major combatant nations in WWII had introduced some form of conscription early in the war. Surely the time has come for this step to be taken, and the political cost to be borne. National survival is at stake.

More than telling the truth to his own people, Zaluzhnyi is of course delivering a message to the West. Victory — whatever that means — is by no means assured and the next phase will be at least as tough as what went before. What then can we expect in 2024?

First, much depends on whether the U.S. Congress can get itself together to do what most believe should be done and approve the next large security aid package to Ukraine. Let’s assume that this will happen. Brinkmanship has long been a characteristic of these disgraceful squabbles.

Overall, a reasonable objective of the Ukrainian armed forces, for the first part of the year at least, is to retain what they have. The counteroffensive failed for several reasons and no one is keen to repeat the experience of an offensive operation that does not go to plan. The Ukrainian army is extremely good at inflicting heavy casualties on attacking Russian forces. No one spends any time talking to Ukrainian infantrymen without the subject of Russian carelessness of the lives of their men coming up. No general has caused more casualties to Russian forces than their commander, General Gerasimov, with tactics more reminiscent of 1915 France than the kind of “hybrid warfare” he is (wrongly) credited with inventing. In some ways, he is Ukraine’s greatest asset. We are seeing this carelessness with Russian lives evident again at Avdiivka.

Ukraine then, operationally will be standing on the defensive, seeking to take advantage of the attritional nature of the war imposed upon them and the profligate leadership of the Russian General Staff.

At sea, Ukraine has gained a great victory this year — something not spoken about often enough, driving the Black Sea Fleet out of Crimea. This success will ensure the security of Ukraine’s essential grain supplies for the foreseeable future. Whilst Ukrainian troops are not likely to step onto Crimea soon, it is certain that Russia will continue to face serious difficulties in defending their military bases on the Peninsula from attack by drones.

In the air, both sides are subject to “mutual air denial,” where neither side can gain supremacy over the front lines. This is likely to remain the case, although there is good evidence that Russia’s air defense is coming under seriously damaging pressure. Ukraine’s new F-16 fighter aircraft will begin to arrive in 2024, but will not become anything like an effective force until well into 2025. They are not a gamechanger; in war such things rarely appear. However, we can expect a similar campaign of drone and missile strikes on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine to that of last year. Like last year, the campaign is highly likely to fail, as western-supplied air defenses become stronger every day. As Ukraine’s drone capabilities increase, a similar campaign — hopefully involving more intelligent targeting — will be conducted against Russia. It is important that Ukraine does not focus on targets that are — or could be interpreted as — civilian.

As for equipment, assuming the U.S. can sustain their commitment, General Zaluzhnyi has emphasized the imperative to keep up with Russia, especially in the closely-connected areas of drones and electronic warfare. Above all, though, is the pressing and perennial requirement for ammunition of all kinds, especially artillery. Recent U.S. transfers have focused on ensuring that Ukraine’s weapon systems have the missiles and shells to ensure that resistance will continue at the same lethal level. However, the supply of artillery ammunition at levels adequate to match Russia’s stocks (which themselves face challenges) remains a real problem, and this is likely to continue until spring 2024 at the earliest.

The supply of artillery ammunition at levels adequate to match Russia’s stocks remains a real problem

This war is likely to continue for at least another two years. 2024, should be a year of consolidation and rebuilding. Yes, the counteroffensive was not a success. It should be obvious — that is the nature of war — that there are successes and failures. At the end of 1916, during the First World War, and at the end of 1942 in the Second, the Allies were in a poor situation. Victory over the enemies of civilization looked far off. Casualties were very high and the Axis were advancing. The following years were difficult, but victorious. So it will be for Ukraine.

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