Ukraine and Russia are fighting two different kinds of war

Some commentators have recently suggested that Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive is stalling out, because its territorial gains remain smaller than those of Ukraine’s prior efforts around Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson. Some even are questioning whether the Ukrainians will be able to reclaim a significant additional amount of lost territory.

These writers fail to appreciate that, since the beginning of this conflict, Russia and Ukraine have been fighting two fundamentally different kinds of war. The Ukrainians have never sought to emulate Russia’s boastful definition of success. To the contrary, they have been more than happy leveraging Russia’s obsession with headlines to inflict heavy losses and hasten their own victory.

For Russia, this has always been a public relations war. Other than complaints about Ukraine possibly joining NATO many years in the future, and false propaganda that its Jewish president is a “Nazi,” Russia had no substantive grievances with Ukraine that it was seeking to redress. Instead, Putin launched the war to reassert Russian racial superiority over a people he regarded as inferior, and to stoke patriotic spirit in order to distract the Russian people from the hardships that rampant corruption in Russia have created.

Accordingly, Russia has continually pursued bragging rights regardless of the cost. Once Putin became fixated on the small, strategically insignificant city of Bakhmut, his commanders were ordered to seize it at all costs. It took them seven months of bloody urban warfare to do it, with Russia losing five times as many troops as Ukraine. Along the way, Russia threw away the lives of thousands of conscripts in human wave assaults.

Russian losses are ballooning again as commanders are reportedly being ordered to hold this or that insignificant hamlet “at all costs.”

For the Ukrainians, on the other hand, this has always been a war of national survival. Because Russia has repeatedly broken commitments not to attack Ukraine, the Ukrainians understand that security can only come from defeating Russia. If Russia is allowed to keep any of the territory that it recognized as Ukraine’s in 1994, Putin will claim success and invade again after he has patched up his military. Ukrainians therefore are focused on how to reclaim all their territory, not any particular town.  

One key part of the Ukrainian strategy has been to inflict disproportionate losses on Russia. After recognizing Putin’s obsession with Bakhmut, the Ukrainians began a slow fighting retreat, giving ground to save their own lives while inflicting huge casualties on Russia. They have now begun to encircle Bakhmut, knowing that Putin’s pride will force him to devote far more forces to its defense than its strategic value actually merits.

Another key for Ukraine has been strangling Russia’s already inept logistics. After blunting Russia’s initial drives on Kyiv and Kharkiv, the Ukrainians did not forcibly evict the invaders; they just cut off the Russians’ access to food and ammunition, to the point that Russia eventually had to withdraw. They removed Russia from Kherson in a similar way.

Rather than launch costly all-out frontal assaults on entrenched Russian positions, Ukraine’s counter-offensive is again focusing on inflicting disproportionate losses and on destroying Russian logistics. In order to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. spent over a month heavily bombing Iraqi soldiers, ammunition depots, and supply routes before the first soldier crossed the frontier.

Ukrainians cannot do that, because the West has refused to give them advanced military aircraft. Ukraine also has limited supplies of long-range missiles.

Accordingly, the Ukrainians need to lure Russian units, equipment and ammunition storage close enough to the front to be within range of the missiles the Ukrainians do have. They thus have been advancing just enough in the south to force the Russians to move up resources in response — then destroying those resources. And by keeping up pressure across the front, the Ukrainians force Russia to commit all of its reserves. If Russia undertakes another large-scale mobilization, the loss of many of its training officers when they were rushed into battle to meet one of Putin’s artificial deadlines means that these fresh troops will be effective at little more than human wave attacks.

The Ukrainians actually do not seem to care whether they or the Russians go on the offensive. In the north, Russia assembled over 100,000 soldiers for a major offensive. The Ukrainians allowed them to advance a few kilometers, then crushed the salient and inflicted heavy losses when Russia moved up resources to try to preserve its gains.

The Ukrainians are increasingly choking off supplies to Russian-occupied Crimea. The only ways onto the peninsula are a handful of bridges and ships, all of which the Ukrainians have struck recently. They also have cut the only overland railroad into the southwestern occupied territories. Russian soldiers have begun complaining bitterly that they no longer have effective artillery support when the Ukrainians attack.

Putin has kept Russian elites behind him by disproportionately sending ethnic minorities and Muslims to die in Ukraine. That started to change with the Wagner Group’s abortive coup in June, a rebellion triggered by complaints about inadequate logistics. Putin had to replace many of his top generals for complicity with the coup or for publicly complaining about inadequate logistics. Repeated drone strikes on the Russian Ministry of Defense have punctured what remained of his myth of invincibility.

Putin’s only real hope is that the West will tire of the war and cut off aid to Ukraine. If we show patience, and do not ask the Ukrainians to wage a Russian-style public relations war, we can expect to see collapses of Russian logistics, Russian frontline defenses, and the Russian regime, in no particular order. Defeating Putin’s ugly aggression once and for all will be well worth it.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on @DavidASuper1.

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