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

Two years after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the lack of troops and ammunition and the depth of Russian field fortifications are forcing Kiev to adopt a more defensive strategy. While it waits for more Western support, the Ukrainian military awaits better days.

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

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

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It is difficult to imagine another option for the Ukrainian army. For months, the country has had to contend with an imposing Russian defense line of trenches, concrete cones and minefields stretching 15 to 20 km deep, preventing any armored vehicle from penetrating it.

“After recapturing some of the territories captured by the Russians, the summer of 2023 marked a turning point in the conflict. The deep Russian defense lines are exhausting the Ukrainian counter-offensive. The Russians still have gaps and command problems, but they are learning quickly and their adaptability should never be underestimated,” said Guillaume Lasconjarias, military historian and lecturer at France’s Sorbonne University.

On the Ukrainian battlefield, the massive use of drones also has serious consequences for offensive operations. . With these ‘eyes’ placed on both sides along the entire front line, the battlefield has now become ‘transparent’, making the element of surprise so dear to military strategists obsolete.

“It is becoming less and less possible to concentrate efforts on one point. Instead, we now see strategies based on multiple ‘stabbing movements’. But ultimately this leads to exhaustion,” says Lasconjarias.

Ammunition crisis

As a result, the front line is gridlocked and neither side seems able to bend their opponent. “Just like in the First World War, we have reached a technological level that we are at a dead end,” Zaluzhnyi admitted in November 2023 in an interview published in the British weekly The Economist.

“We must also take into account the recent change of leadership within the Ukrainian Armed Forces. A change in leadership requires the armed forces to take some time to reorganize and reorient their structure and actions so that they can be aligned with the plans of the new armed forces. Chief of Staff. Returning to a more defensive strategy in the short term can help achieve this reorganization,” said Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in Russian military issues at the University of Bologna.

The alarming shortage of ammunition is also forcing Kiev to take 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 delivery delays promised by Europe are severely limiting Ukraine’s capabilities.

According to military experts, the ‘fire ratio’ – which measures the difference in artillery fire rate between enemies – currently stands at one in ten in Russia’s favor.

“Even though things seemed to be leveling out last summer, the amount of fire has always been in favor 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 accurate guns, 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 only shoot back when they know they are going to hit the target. because of their lack of ammunition,” explains Guillaume Lasconjarias.

“Ukraine’s resources are becoming increasingly limited,” says Fasola. “It must also be emphasized that most of the advanced equipment supplied to Kiev has not been used effectively. It is an illusion to think that the Ukrainian armed forces, which could not be trained in a deep manner, could use these resources as efficiently as a Western army.”

Preservation of Ukrainian national unity

The recent withdrawal from the eastern city of Avdiivka illustrates Kiev’s new defensive posture. After months of heavy fighting, the Ukrainian General Staff made the difficult choice of a tactical withdrawal. Although it provided a symbolic victory for the Kremlin, the decision also saved the lives of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. This decision is in stark contrast to the all-out tactics used during the bloody battle of Bakhmut, a city in the Donbas region that fell to Russian hands in May 2023.

In addition to dwindling ammunition supplies, dwindling manpower is another major problem facing the Ukrainian military. According to a declassified document sent to the US Congress, Kiev has suffered losses estimated at 70,000 dead and 120,000 wounded in two years. Russian losses are estimated at 315,000 dead and wounded.

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

“The real challenge for 2024 is for Ukraine to regain some of the flexibility of its deployed brigades, which are now depleted. It will also be necessary to mobilize, train, equip and bring newcomers to the front. This raises the question of whether the public still accepts the conflict,” says Lasconjarias.

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A bill aims to solve this problem. The controversial bill, which should facilitate mobilization, received the thumbs up from the Ukrainian parliament during its first reading in early February. But the text has also sparked a lively public debate at a time when the stalemate in the war, the stagnation of the front and the uncertainty surrounding Western support have obviously affected the morale of both the troops and the population. Zelensky will have to work his way out of this downward phase to preserve the national unity so often praised by his Western partners.

“From a military point of view, it seems impossible to avoid some form of extension of conscription, but the political costs will be high,” says Fasola. “It also raises the problem of force management, because when people are recruited by force or against their will, there are two options: either you treat your troops the way Russia does, that is, without taking into account their dignity and freedom wants, 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 surely in Russia’s favor’

While waiting to rebuild its offensive potential, the Ukrainian army will try to inflict as many losses as possible on its Russian enemy in the coming months, while conserving its troops and ammunition. In addition to maintaining a defensive posture, Ukraine will likely continue its in-depth attacks on logistics infrastructure, especially in Russia’s border regions of Bryansk and Belgorod and on the annexed Crimean Peninsula, in the hope of weakening the Russian military system.

Kiev’s official goal remains unchanged: to recapture the territories annexed or occupied by Russia since 2014, which represent 18 percent of Ukraine’s territory.

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Analysts say only more Western support could allow General Syrsky’s forces to move forward again. Such a scenario is far from certain, especially in the US: Democrats and Republicans are tearing each other apart in Congress over the issue, and former President Donald Trump, hostile to continued US aid, is leading the polls ahead of the US presidential election in November. .

Moscow and Kiev are in a race to rebuild their offensive capabilities. If no further Western funds are released, if Russia somehow gains the upper hand, Moscow will have the opportunity to make further progress, says Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a researcher. at the Washington-based Center for New American Security, told AFP. “The dynamics have changed,” says the analyst, emphasizing that “2024 is a crucial year from Putin’s point of view.”

According to experts interviewed by FRANCE 24, Russia should be able to continue supplying the front lines with troops and equipment all year round, but without gain or advantage, at least not in the short term. “It is not likely that the front line will change radically. In the coming months, Russia will continue to gradually erode Ukrainian control over the front line, which will nevertheless be very costly for Moscow,” Fasola predicts. “I expect the war to continue in the same way as it is now, as a war of attrition unfolding somewhat, slowly but steadily, in Russia’s favor.”

This story is adapted from his original in French.

© Graphic studio Frances Médias Monde

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