Russia’s Tactical Shift in Ukraine Raises Prospect of a Protracted War

From a Wall Street Journal story by Alan Cullison headlined “Russia’s Tactical Shift in Ukraine Raises Prospect of a Protracted War”:

KYIV, Ukraine—Russia’s steady advances in eastern Ukraine, relying on superior firepower and larger numbers of troops, are grinding down Ukraine’s military and setting the stage for a protracted war of attrition in which Kyiv needs more Western weapons and help training new soldiers to turn the tide.

After early missteps, Russia has found tactics that are working. In the invasion’s opening phase, Moscow’s armies tried to make daring thrusts deep into Ukrainian territory. They largely failed and lost elite units in the process. Now, Russian forces are advancing by increments under the cover of artillery.

Russia is massing “a very heavy concentration of artillery and armor in every square kilometer that we are unable to cope with,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Wall Street Journal. “This is giving them the advantage.”

Ukrainian forces are seeking to slow the Russian advance, wearing them down and preparing to counterattack when they can bring more Western weapons to bear.

Ukraine has landed some counter-blows in the past few days with long-range rocket launchers from the U.S. and other Western allies. But Russia’s tactical shift raises questions for Ukraine’s backers, who must now confront the possibility of a long, drawn-out conflict.

Russia seized the city of Lysychansk at the weekend, completing the takeover of the Luhansk region, and is now bombarding Ukraine’s remaining strongholds in neighboring Donetsk.

Despite narrowing its immediate objectives to taking Ukraine’s east, Russia’s strategic goal of controlling Ukraine remains unchanged. The secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said Tuesday that Russia is aiming to demilitarize Ukraine and force it to adopt neutral status, according to Russian state news agency RIA.

Such statements suggest “that the Kremlin is preparing for a protracted war with the intention of taking much larger portions of Ukraine,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in an analysis Tuesday.

Moscow’s success in the east recalls some of Russia’s previous wars. As in Chechnya in the 1990s, Russia is offsetting the shortcomings of its ground forces by using massed firepower.

Ukraine is trying to impose high costs on the advancing Russians with fierce resistance, while also preserving troop strength by slowly falling back to more defensible positions as it awaits flows of heavy weapons from the West. It took Russia two months to take the city of Severodonetsk.

Some Western leaders say they fear Ukraine won’t be able to win, despite its fierce determination, as the conflict further erodes the country’s economy and its military struggles against Russia’s advantage in sheer numbers.

While the West has extended military aid to Ukraine, Kyiv says it needs more and warns that it will take time to train soldiers to use the multiple new weapons systems being delivered by the U.S. and its allies.

In a report this week, the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute think tank said Ukraine needs long-range artillery systems and electronic warfare equipment to counter Russia’s own advanced systems.

The report said that Ukraine’s allies are capable of making up the shortfalls. But, in a nod to the complications of operating too many different weapons systems, the report said success “cannot be achieved through the piecemeal delivery of a large number of different fleets of equipment, each with separate training, maintenance and logistical needs.”

Mr. Danilov said that the Ukraine army has used so many of its Soviet-era armaments and ammunition that it is gradually becoming a force that will have to rely on NATO weaponry.

He said the arrival of U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or Himars, last month has enabled Ukraine to strike precisely at Russian targets beyond the front lines that were previously beyond the reach of Ukrainian guns.

Mr. Danilov said nine mobile Himars and similar rocket-launch systems donated by the U.S. and its allies are now operating inside Ukraine with deadly effect. The Russians “are defenseless against them,” he said. “They are very worried.”

A Himars strike devastated a command post in the east Ukrainian town of Izyum last week, and on Monday a top Ukrainian official confirmed that Himars were used to bombard Snake Island, a small but significant outpost in the Black Sea that Russia abandoned last week.

But Mr. Danilov said Ukraine would need dozens more Himars launchers to shift the fighting in eastern Ukraine. For now, he said, Ukraine must fight a defensive war.

The Royal United Services Institute report noted that Ukraine’s paucity of skilled infantry and armored-vehicle operators limit its abilities to launch serious counteroffensives. Russia’s artillery is also successfully targeting the Ukrainian military so that it is unable to mount attacks, the report said.

Mr. Danilov said Russia’s own arsenal is showing signs of running low four months after launching its invasion, saying that it no longer has the strength to launch attacks on more than one front.

Moscow has also increasingly been sending lower-precision Soviet-era missiles deep into Ukrainian territory, with less regard for whether they hit civilian targets, he said. Last week, one missile landed in a neighborhood in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa, where Ukrainian officials said at least 21 civilians were killed.

Mr. Danilov said the missile campaign was intended to blunt support for the war among the Ukrainian public, an overwhelming share of whom still say it would be unacceptable to reach a peace deal with Moscow by ceding territory lost to Russian forces.

Mr. Danilov said that the high level of support for some kind of Ukrainian counterattack may be a rubbing point with some of Ukraine’s allies, who have pledged to support Ukraine until it wins, without specifying what victory means.

“We want as our victory the return of our territories and security from another attack,” he said. “Whether our victory coincides with the victory of our partners who help us is a big question.”

Alan Cullison has been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Moscow since February 1999. He previously covered the war in Afghanistan for the Journal, for which he shared in a Hal Boyle citation from the Overseas Press Club for the Journal’s series, “America’s War on Terrorism” in 2002.

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