Two years on, the Ukraine puzzle gets murkier

Western countries were initially liberal in sending resources to war-hit Ukraine. But they failed to anticipate the need to continue doing so over a long period
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only. (Express Illustration | Sourav Roy)

‘Long wars’ is a typically American term because the US has too often been embroiled in them; Vietnam, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq all come to mind. However, in all these wars, the US was directly involved with its troops fighting on the ground. It had control over various factors that shaped the conflicts and could make decisions in real-time. In Ukraine, the story is different. The US is fighting the war by proxy, leading NATO, which essentially means it is extending moral and material support to Ukraine without putting its troops on the ground.

Uncertainty is among the factors that characterise long wars since control over events and the impacts of decisions over a long period remain in the grey. Second and third-order effects of a decision take longer to manifest and get influenced by many other unpredictable factors. That is exactly what is happening in Russia’s war in Ukraine, where, at first, most military-oriented observers predicted a swift victory for the Russian Army, which, from memory, was perceived as proficient, disciplined, well-trained and adequately equipped.

Perceptions immediately went wrong in two spheres. First, the Russian Army did not perform as expected. Second, the US and EU sanctions had a negligible effect on the Russian economy. Russia could thus take stock of its military strategy and performance while garnering war resources from Iran, North Korea, and to an extent, China; although the latter has quite vehemently denied sending such resources to Russia. From an economic angle, China, India and many others continued to buy oil from Russia on fresh terms. Thus, the isolation of the Russian financial system from the international monetary system did not adversely affect Russia, beyond a limit.

Uncertainty multiplied because although they were initially liberal in providing the material resources for Ukraine to fight the war thrust upon it, they failed to appreciate the necessity to continue doing so over the long term. No one expected the war to drag on for so long. None considered Vladimir Putin’s ability to hold out. They expected a coup d’état in Russia or a return to pre-war positions through negotiations.

As a result, the factories producing ammunition, missiles, tanks and infantry combat vehicles did not go into wartime mode to back up their initial supplies with reinforcements. Ukraine had to fall back on Pakistan to supply $364 million worth of ammunition, missiles, artillery shells and some small arms through the US. Russia, after its initial failures, has been liberal in employing artillery and precision missiles against built-up areas without much resort to manoeuvre. Iran and North Korea have helped Russia replenish its arsenal. The two countries stand to improve their economies and gain long-term political capital from these sales to Russia.

It’s the nature of the war which has made it even more unpredictable and uncertain. The strategy employed by Russia has been to create a sufficiently wide space to allow its thus far lumbering and almost immobile mechanised forces to execute a deep manoeuvre, which could have an unnerving effect on Ukrainian forces. It has tried to widen the gaps for a breakthrough by fighting pitched positional battles in some cities. Fighting in built-up areas is one of the most difficult operational options here. It entails huge destruction before any capitulation.

The chief weapons here are artillery and precision missile fire; armour is employed with hesitation due to its vulnerability at short ranges and lack of space for manoeuvre. The new entrant in this field is the armed drone which can have variations of configuration and is deadly if employed in swarms with top attack munitions against armour and even artillery and infantry positions; the accuracy being precision-like. There have been offensives and counter-offensives which have failed to make the necessary penetrations to upset defensive postures. Air power has been comparatively low-key with ground-based missile systems being effective; air superiority has not been established by either side except for some specific battles.

Although reports from the battlefront are not fully reliable, being doctored from an influence and information warfare angle, it does seem apparent that the momentum is in favour of Russia with its army having captured the town of Avdiivka, 15 km northwest of Donetsk which is one of the biggest cities in the Donbas region which Russia controls. It is currently attempting to overcome resistance in the adjoining villages. The Russian aim no longer looks to capture the capital Kyiv and the second-largest city of Kharkiv. Putin is now looking for military victory in the largely Russian-speaking east. Achieving his goals in the east is the minimum he needs before he could end the operation and claim it a success.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on the other hand, does not intend to give up. The last man, the last round now seems to be only for Donbas. Although NATO members have promised varying degrees of financial support for Ukraine that will no doubt be handy in sustaining the society. It will be effective for the battlefield only if the promise for weapons and ammunition is made good in quick time. That seems unlikely because there has been no energisation of the weapons and ammunition factories in the West to the wartime levels. Even if a decision is taken now, the lead time will be excessive. The answer lies in once again looking for support from around the world. Israel, it is learnt, has agreed to supply some of this ammunition; that is plausible as it is getting large doles from the US for its own war in Gaza. The demand could once again fall on Pakistan which may then ratchet up its production. The financial mess it is in and a potential desire of the new government to remain close to the US could end in Pakistan accepting this and emptying some of its strategic war reserves, on security guarantees from the US.

Ukraine is at a cusp at this stage, at least militarily. If Donbas falls, NATO may have to just accept a new border with Russia, that is, if Putin does not get heady to continue beyond. There seems to be only one surety. The US decision, if Donald Trump wins the presidential election in November, will in all probabilities be to abandon Ukraine and leave the war to NATO allies. That will cause the ‘mother of all unpredictability’.

(Views are personal)


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