The War in Ukraine

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The War in Ukraine
Ukraine’s Strategies and Endgame

  Sreeja JS

About the Author

Sreeja JS is part of NIAS Europe Studies at NIAS. She is currently a post-graduate scholar at Madras Christian College, Chennai. The comment is published as an outcome of the War in Ukraine workshop held on 05 August in collaboration with University of Madras and India-Office KAS Office, New Delhi. 

Introduction
On 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine resulting in a full-scale invasion of the country. On 08 july 2023, 500 days have passed and the end appears distant as the war has escalated in the past few months.

Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine’s forces and citizens have shown exceptional courage and will to defend their homeland and fight for their freedom and identity. As far as the negotiations extend, Ukraine’s primary demand remains the same, complete withdrawal of Russia’s forces from its territory and the restoration of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Currently, around 20 per cent of Ukraine’s territory is under Russia’s occupation and the intensity of war has significantly increased resulting in more casualties and damage to the civilian infrastructure on both sides.
 
Starting from the early stages of war, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s President was able to garner support from countries across the globe. This resulted in the isolation and enforcement of sanctions on Russia and the continuous flow of military, financial and humanitarian aid to Kyiv. Moreover, Ukraine was able to launch successful counteroffensive operations in both Kharkiv and Kherson in September-October 2022 and the long-awaited spring counteroffensive launched in June 2023 is currently underway with significant progress yet to be seen. For Ukraine, victory in this war is crucial as it cannot lose either its territory or its identity. To win this war, Kyiv requires prudent tactical approaches on the military front, successful diplomatic approaches, continuous military, financial and humanitarian aid from the allies, stable economic recovery and tackling of challenges within its government such as high levels of corruption. Therefore, this paper aims to address Ukraine’s strategies and its endgame in the war by analyzing recent developments and a few key issues and challenges it is currently facing.  

Issues
First, slow progress in the counter-offensive. In June 2023, Ukraine launched its long-awaited counteroffensive. So far, it made relatively significant gains. In June, Ukraine’s forces made small advances in southern and northern Bakhmut while liberating a cluster of four villages in Donetsk. According to the International Study of War report, Ukraine launched another major phase of the counteroffensive on 26 July to penetrate the fortified Russia’s defence lines in Zaporizhzhia. Altogether, they advanced only a few miles so far, and the progress remains slow against Russia’s forces. One of the major reasons for the slow progress is the challenge posed by the heavily mined and multi-layered Russia’s defence lines in Zaporizhzhia and elsewhere. Another is Ukraine’s change to a cautious tactical approach to minimize casualties and maximize gains for a long-term offensive operation. It involves calculated and concerted attempts to disrupt Russia’s supply lines and damage its logistic hubs and command centres.
 
Second, the role of NATO and the delayed membership of Ukraine. The purported reason behind Russia’s invasion was Putin’s allegation of NATO expansion. Ukraine has been aspiring for membership in the alliance since the Bucharest Summit in 2008. This year in Vilnius, Zelenskyy was clear, and he was looking for strong assurances that membership would be offered once the war was over. However, in the communique released, NATO could only affirm that the Membership Action Plan would be removed, and Kyiv would be offered membership only “when allies agree, and the conditions are met.” NATO countries refrained from providing either a timeframe or an invitation. Kyiv was further offered security guarantees under the G7 declaration to add momentum to the economic and military support the G7 and NATO countries were already offering Ukraine.

Third, the impact of Kyiv’s diplomatic offensive. Ukraine’s diplomatic offensive was in full swing during May - June as Zelenskyy was touring capitals and summits to keep the war on top of the international agenda and beef up military, financial and political support for its war against Russia. On 19 May, he visited Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and spoke at the Arab League Summit. On 20 May, he was in Hiroshima, meeting the G7 leaders and the representatives of Global South. He also met with the leaders of the UK, US, Germany, and France and could secure military and financial aid. Recently, on 04 and 05 August, in a renewed attempt to ramp up support mostly from the ‘Global South’ countries, Ukraine convened peace talks in Jeddah hosted by Saudi Arabia. Russia was uninvited to the talks. It is highly unlikely that the countries would change their stance, but the talks could garner much support compared to the talks held in Copenhagen in June 2023. Moreover, it was a prelude to the Global Peace summit Zelenskyy is planning to conduct soon where a more fruitful response is expected. The diplomatic offensive has been an important strategy of Kyiv to muster political, financial, and military support to add to the war efforts. Also, it played a major role in steering public opinion towards Ukraine.
 
Fourth, problems in converting the pledges of military and financial aid into reality. The US pledged the most financial support to Ukraine, estimated at EUR 71 billion in military, financial and humanitarian aid since the invasion in 2022. EU institutions are the second largest donors (EUR 35 billion) followed by the UK and Germany (EUR 11 billion each) and Japan (USD 7 billion). In terms of GDP, the statistics show that Estonia has contributed about 1.3 per cent followed by Latvia (1.1 per cent), and Lithuania (one per cent). However, the problem lies in converting promises into action. The latest counter-offensive was delayed and only made small advances due to the lack of advanced weaponry in the beginning. Later, with the training and delivery of weapons such as cluster munitions and other weapons, Ukraine is slowly picking up momentum. As the war is likely to prolong for quite some time, the aid cannot stop and training for Ukraine’s troops to help them “fight the way it fights best” is necessary as Russia is not an adversary who can be taken lightly.

Fourth, Ukraine’s urban warfare, the role of technology and the war of attrition. The war has certainly redefined the principles of modern-day warfare. The war showed that big war-fighting equipment like tanks, warships, and fighter aircraft could become more vulnerable to low-cost defensive systems such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that can severely damage high-rise buildings and other infrastructure. As the new reports on the counteroffensive operations of Ukraine suggest, despite having Western mechanized weapons, the offensive was stalled by multiple layers of deeply trenched Russia’s defence lines filled with landmines, “dragon’s teeth'' concrete barriers, anti tank ditches, and lines of barbed wire. Therefore, as Edward Luttwak, a US author and strategist said: “This is a war that must be fought by sheer, grinding, attrition, just like the First World War on the Western Front.” The recent thrust in the counter-offensive aimed at seeking out gaps and weaknesses in Russia’s defences and thus reducing the ability of Russia’s forces to quickly respond to Ukraine’s attacks. These attempts are supplemented by drone strikes on Moscow and Russia’s patrol vessels in the Black Sea, significantly impacting their morale.

Conclusion
First, prolonged conflict, high chances of further escalation and the chances of a successful counteroffensive are yet to be seen. The question arises whether it is time to discuss the endgame of this war. It has been more than 500 days, and the recent developments indicate that the war did escalate. Nevertheless, the counteroffensive is progressing slowly. Likely, Ukraine might have deployed its strongest fighting forces bolstered through Western equipment and training. Ukraine’s forces could make gains but breaking through Russia’s well-trenched defences could be challenging. Unless there is a significant breakthrough, the war will be prolonged, and a ceasefire now is less agreeable if Russia does not agree to withdraw its forces from nearly 20 per cent of the occupied territory in Ukraine. Economically as the war prolongs, sustaining it is problematic, which points out that Western economic and military aid is essential for Ukraine.

Second, the question of the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine. The task would be burdensome and excruciating for a country hammered by missiles and artillery that devastated much of its civilian infrastructure, lives, and livelihood of its citizens. The government of Ukraine, the World Bank, the European Commission, and the UN estimated the cost of reconstruction and recovery at USD 411 billion as of 24 February 2023. The reconstruction and rebuilding exercise would require massive international support and changes within Ukraine’s government. Enormous international support for financial aid, investments, global, national and local innovative solutions, and mechanisms to tackle huge levels of corruption at the government level is essential for the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine.

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