Ukraine needs to stop fighting the war Russia wants (2024)

Ukraine is caught in a strategic trap. It barely has the strength to keep Russia from making major advances, yet it is not strong enough to eject Russian forces from the territory it held prior to the 2022 invasion. The result is a war of attrition that Ukraine can't win.

The solution? Build up Ukrainian military power and compel Russia to agree to peace, argues a Ukrainian security expert. But that can't happen unless Ukraine devises a grand strategy that extends beyond mere survival that's characterized much of the war in 2024 as Russia exploited the long delay of US arms support.

"The lack of a strategy for victory will turn this war into a war of attrition for Ukraine, which completely coincides with Russian interests," Oleksandr Danylyuk told Business Insider.

Danylyuk dismisses the notion that even with Western aid, Ukraine can match Russia in the sheer numbers of military power like tanks, artillery and troops. "Trying to win a war with Russia at the expense of only a symmetrical mass increase is a flawed strategy, given that Russia has a larger number of [military-age] human reserves (about 30 million people in Russia, compared to about 8 million people in Ukraine), significant stockpiles of weapons and military equipment inherited from the USSR or built by 2022, as well as a developed defense-industrial complex and a powerful mining industry that satisfies its needs for a significant amount of strategic materials," he wrote in an essay for the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

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That leaves improving the quality of Ukraine's military. But this involves more than better weapons and tactics. Danylyuk argues that political mobilization is just as important, a view that seems reminiscent of the 19th Century German military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, who envisioned a nation's war effort as a trinity comprised of the people, government and military.

"The political effectiveness of a military organization consists of its ability to receive financial support, the provision of weapons and military equipment, and the replenishment of human forces in the volume and quality necessary to eliminate existing threats," Danylyuk wrote. However, "the political effectiveness of the [Armed Forces of Ukraine] remains insufficient, as Ukraine's defense needs are currently only partially met."

Danylyuk blames Western restrictions on the types of weapons being supplied, and how they can be used. The US and Europe have long imposed restraints on using long-range weapons, such as ATACMS long-range guided rockets, to hit targets deep inside Russia. Only recently has the Biden administration begun to relax that policy. Easy victories with Western weapons have failed to materialize as the war has dug in. It's also clear that even with robust EU and US support, Ukraine is still at a disadvantage against the Russian war machine in a years-long fight.

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Danylyuk also worries that political divergences between Ukraine and its allies are undermining Ukrainian military effectiveness. Ukraine's current government wants to liberate all occupied territory, which is "undeniably fair and rational, but it ignores the fact that the liberation of territory does not necessarily mean the end of the war," he wrote. On the other hand, US and European desires for a negotiated settlement "will be viewed by Russia as a tactical respite which can be used to restore and build capabilities and plan a new phase of aggression."

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In other words, Russia could exploit a peace deal to rebuild its battered forces before launching another invasion of Ukrainian lands.

Ukraine needs to stop fighting the war Russia wants (1)

The result is that the Ukrainian military isn't sure what kind of war to prepare for. "The AFU are in an extremely difficult situation, as the political leaderships of both Ukraine and its partner countries see these goals in different ways, which negatively affects the ability of the AFU to develop and implement a military strategy aimed at achieving them," wrote Danylyuk.

Without a grand strategy for victory, the most that Ukraine can do is hold its own, Danylyuk told Business Insider. "The planning of individual operations, the assessment and provision of the needs of the AFU, the development of training programs and preparation, and the introduction of new tactical techniques can at best support Ukraine's ability to conduct the war, but not to win it."

There are too many competing visions of Ukrainian victory, he argues. These include retaking all lost Ukrainian territory, threatening Russia's hold on Crimea to force it into negotiations, punishing Russian industry and exports to try to force Russians to reconsider the war's costs, or exacting such a heavy toll that Russian leaders are compelled to withdraw similar to the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan.

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Danylyuk does fault Ukraine for some military mistakes, such as failure to adequately prepare and train for the failed counteroffensive against well-entrenched Russian forces in summer 2023. But he considers tactical improvements to be at the bottom of Ukraine's to-do list.

The West can boost Ukrainian military power by focusing on weapons that have already proven devastating against Russian vulnerabilities, according to Danylyuk. This includes cheap naval drones that have sunk numerous Russian warships and driven Russia's Black Sea Fleet from the Ukrainian coast, as well as giving Ukraine more Western aircraft and air-to-air missiles to contest Russian airpower.

Interestingly, Danylyuk blames the West for failing to adapt its equipment to the lessons of the Ukraine war. "This concerns, first of all, their ability to quickly improve military equipment not only because Ukraine needs it, but also because the security of the partners themselves depends on its improvement. The current pace of this improvement is completely unsatisfactory, and the approaches to identifying and eliminating the shortcomings of such systems require a complete revision."

Danylyuk's analysis does leave some questions unanswered. For example, as the Germans discovered on the Eastern Front in World War II, quality doesn't always triumph over quantity. And as Ukraine's failed 2023 counteroffensive demonstrated, achieving decisive battlefield success is no easy matter. With Russian society mobilized for total war, and with Moscow able to procure resources from allies such as China, North Korea and Iran, Russia's ability to wage a long war is considerable.

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Also, choosing a grand strategy is easier said than done. For example, the Ukrainian government vows to liberate all occupied territory, including the Crimean peninsula and eastern Ukraine which Russia has annexed. Some critics say this is unrealistic, and Ukraine will have to accept some loss of territory.

Whatever strategy Kyiv chooses, Danylyuk argues, it can't be the status quo.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Ukraine needs to stop fighting the war Russia wants (2024)

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