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Two years after Russia’s invasion, Ukraine reorients its strategy to focus on defence

In Europe, World
February 23, 2024

Two years after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the lack of troops and ammunition and the depth of Russia’s field fortifications are forcing Kyiv to adopt a more defensive strategy. As it waits for more Western support, the Ukrainian army is holding out for better days.

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Is “defend now, attack better later” Ukraine’s best shot? Two years after Russian forces invaded its territory, Ukraine has officially adopted a new strategy focused on defence. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky admitted that the situation on the front lines was “extremely difficult” in his daily address on February 19.

Since the failure of Kyiv’s summer counteroffensive, which cost Valerii Zaluzhnyi his position as commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, it is no longer time for major manoeuvres aimed at finding a breech in the Russian strategy, according to high-ranking Ukrainian sources. “We changed from an offensive to a defensive operation,” admitted the country’s new army chief, General Oleksandr Syrsky, in an interview with German channel ZDF broadcast on February 13.

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It is hard to imagine any other option for the Ukrainian army. For months it has been up against an imposing Russian defensive line of trenches, concrete cones and minefields stretching 15 to 20km deep, preventing any armoured vehicle from piercing through.

“After regaining some of the territories that had been captured by the Russians, the summer of 2023 marked a turning point in the conflict. The deep Russian defensive lines exhausted the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Russians still have gaps and command problems, but they learn quickly and their ability to adapt should never be underestimated,” says Guillaume Lasconjarias, a military historian and lecturer at France’s Sorbonne University.

In the Ukrainian battlefield, the massive use of drones is also having a serious impact on offensive operations. . With these “eyes” positioned all along the front line by both sides, the battlefield has now become “transparent”, rendering obsolete the element of surprise so dear to military strategists.

“To concentrate efforts in one point is less and less possible. Instead, we are now seeing strategies based on multiple ‘stabbing’ motions. But in the end, this leads to exhaustion,” says Lasconjarias.

Ammo crisis

As a result, the front line is deadlocked and neither side seems able to bend their opponent. “As in World War I, we have reached such a technological level that we find ourselves at a dead end,” Zaluzhnyi admitted back in November 2023 in an interview published in British weekly The Economist.

“We must also take into account the recent change of leadership within the Ukrainian armed forces. A change of leadership requires the armed forces to take a moment to reorganise and reorient their structure and actions so they can be in line with the plans of the new chief of staff. Returning to a more defensive strategy in the short term may help to achieve this reorganisation,” says Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in Russian military issues at the University of Bologna.

The alarming shortage of ammunition is also forcing Kyiv to adopt a more cautious stance. In this static warfare, hundreds of thousands of shells are fired by each army every month. However, the blocking of aid by the US Congress and the delays in deliveries promised by Europe are severely handicapping Ukraine’s capacities.

According to military experts, the “fire ratio” – which measures the difference in the rate of artillery fire between enemies – is currently one to ten in favour of Russia.

“Even if it seemed to even out last summer, the volume of fire has always been in favour of the Russians. In the Russian-Soviet military tradition, artillery is an extremely important factor in shaping the battlefield. Faced with this large and diversified artillery, the Ukrainians have more precise cannons, such as the French Caesar or the American M777. But they have two problems: they have to move more often to avoid destruction, and they can fire back only when they know they are going to hit the target because of their lack of ammunition,” explains Guillaume Lasconjarias.

“Ukraine’s resources are becoming more limited,” adds Fasola. “It should also be stressed that most of the sophisticated equipment supplied to Kyiv has not been used effectively. It is illusory to think that the Ukrainian armed forces, which could not be trained in an in-depth way, could use these resources as efficiently as a Western army.”

Preserving Ukrainian national unity

The recent withdrawal from the eastern town of Avdiivka illustrates Kyiv’s new defensive posture. After months of fierce fighting, the Ukrainian General Staff made the difficult choice of a tactical withdrawal. If it offered a symbolic victory to the Kremlin, this decision also preserved the lives of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. This decision is in stark contrast to the all-out tactics seen during the bloody battle of Bakhmut, a town in the Donbas region that fell into Russian hands in May 2023.

Along with flagging stocks of ammunition, dwindling manpower is another of the Ukrainian army’s major problems. According to a declassified document sent to the US Congress, Kyiv has suffered losses estimated at 70,000 dead and 120,000 wounded in two years. Russian losses are estimated at 315,000 dead or wounded.

In addition to the losses, the exhaustion of Ukrainian soldiers, some of whom have been deployed since the start of hostilities, means that rotations will also be necessary over the coming months.

“The real challenge for 2024 is for Ukraine to be able to regain some of the flexibility of its deployed brigades, which are now exhausted. It will also be necessary in order to mobilise newcomers, train them, equip them and take them to the front. This raises the question of the public’s ongoing acceptance of the conflict,” says Lasconjarias.

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A draft law wants to solve this problem. The controversial bill aimed at facilitating mobilisation was given the thumbs-up by the Ukrainian parliament on its first reading in early February. But the text has also triggered a lively public debate at a time when the stalemate in the war, the stagnation of the front and the uncertainty hanging over Western support have naturally affected the morale of both the troops and the population. Zelensky will have to work his way out of this down phase to preserve the national unity, which has so often been praised by his Western partners.

“From a military point of view, it seems impossible to avoid some form of conscription extension, but its political cost will be high,” says Fasola. “It also raises the problem of troop management, because if people are recruited by force or against their will, there are two possibilities: either you treat your troops as Russia does, meaning with no regard for their dignity and free will, or you end up with people who don’t want to fight or follow orders, which is very problematic for military strategy and effectiveness.”

‘War of attrition slowly but steadily in Russia’s favour’

While waiting to rebuild its offensive potential, the Ukrainian army will be trying over the coming months to inflict as many losses as possible on its Russian enemy while conserving its troops and ammunition. Beyond just holding out in a defensive posture, Ukraine is likely to continue its in-depth attacks against logistical infrastructures, particularly in the Russian border regions of Bryansk and Belgorod and in the annexed Crimean Peninsula in the hope of weakening Russia’s military system.

Kyiv’s official objective remains unchanged: to reconquer the territories annexed or occupied by Russia since 2014, which represents 18 percent of Ukraine’s territory.

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According to analysts, only increased Western support could enable General Syrsky’s troops to move forward again. Such a scenario is far from certain, especially from the US: Democrats and Republicans are tearing each other apart in Congress over the question, and former president Donald Trump, who is hostile to continued US aid, is leading polls ahead of November’s US presidential election.

Moscow and Kyiv are “racing to rebuild their offensive capacities. If further Western funds are not released, if Russia gains the upper hand in one way or another, Moscow will have the opportunity to make further progress,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a researcher at the Washington-based Center for New American Security, told AFP. “The dynamic has changed,” says the analyst, stressing that “from Putin’s point of view, 2024 is a crucial year”.

According to the experts interviewed by FRANCE 24, Russia should be able to continue supplying the front line with troops and equipment throughout the year, but to no gain or advantage, at least in the short term. “The front line is not likely to change radically. Over the next few months, Russia will continue to gradually erode Ukrainian control of the front line, which will nevertheless be very costly for Moscow,” predicts Fasola. “I expect the war to continue in the same way as it is today, as a war of attrition that is unfolding slightly, slowly, but steadily in Russia’s favour.”

This story has been adapted from its original in French.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

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