Russia-Ukraine War Has Entered A Period Of Attrition – Analysis


By Nandan Unnikrishnan

The downing of a US drone by Russian military aircraft over the Black Sea on March 14 is the kind of incident that immediately sparks fears of the conflict in Ukraine escalating into a shooting war between NATO and Russia.

While the potential for such a scenario exists, it is likely that at this stage all sides will try to calm matters down. Neither the US-led West nor Russia is currently prepared for or have the desire for a direct confrontation with each other.

Nevertheless, the incident does raise some critical questions about the war in Ukraine, and its trajectory.

Currently, it looks like Russia has regained the initiative despite heavy losses in battles to advance its positions in Eastern Ukraine. Last year, Ukrainian forces had retaken some lost territories in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, but their advance appears to have stalled for the past five months.

The regained initiatives, however, have so far not led to any significant Russian advances either. Some military observers opine that the war has entered a stage of a stalemate, while others believe that this will change if the Russians launch a spring offensive for which they appear to be preparing. Either way, it appears that the war has entered a period of attrition with Russia slowly grinding away Ukrainian defences.

While the military situation in Ukraine may be slow to change, public perceptions in the West about the war are also slowly changing. Some see a war of attrition as one that only extends the misery of the Ukrainian people and, therefore, believe that efforts should be made to bring the belligerents to the negotiating table. The hawkish elements, however, are pushing for more robust support for Ukraine with tanks, aircraft, and other advanced platforms, to break the stalemate.

If the latter view, which has considerable sympathy and support, prevails, then the dangers of the Ukraine conflict escalating into a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia increase manifold.

The dangers here are not just about the kind and quantity of equipment that will be supplied, but more in the operational detail. It appears that if the West is to equip Ukraine with modern tanks and aircraft, this process will take at least a year to be effective. This is the minimum period that would be required to train Ukrainian personnel to operate this equipment.

But the military situation on the ground demands a much faster intervention — for peace or war — from Ukraine’s backers. Hence, some Eastern European countries are suggesting expediting deliveries hoping to stem the tide of potential Russian advances.

From a Russian perspective, a few dozen tanks or aircraft are not likely to change what they consider a favourable trend in the war, although it will make it more difficult. But the rub will be in how this equipment will be operated, if introduced soon.

For example, there are still a few old Soviet fighter jets in the inventory of former Warsaw Pact members, and these could be transferred to Ukraine expeditiously and Ukrainian pilots having earlier trained/worked on same or similar platforms wouldn’t have problems using them, and may be even servicing these aircraft.

But for these aircraft to effectively operate, the airfields from which they would fly would require adequate missile defence systems. While Ukraine still has an operational missile defence based on old Soviet technology, it is not enough, both quantitatively or qualitatively, to stop a determined Russian effort to degrade Ukrainian airfields.

There are solutions to this problem — introduction of sophisticated Western missile defence systems, or the use of airfields in neighbouring countries to operate from. Both options are fraught with consequences.

The ‘quick’ introduction of Western missile systems will require that they be operated by non-Ukrainians. Even if these people are ‘sheep-dipped’ — military personnel who are formally discharged for the duration of an unsanctioned tour of duty — the Russians are unlikely to view them as neutral mercenaries.

The second option of Ukrainian Air Force using airfields in neighbouring countries will result in Russia legitimately bombing those bases. This prospect is unlikely to be welcomed by the governments or the people of these countries.

Thus, the US-led backers of Ukraine are facing a dilemma — arm Ukraine quickly and risk a direct war with Russia, or take time to train Ukrainian forces to use Western military equipment and risk a degraded Ukrainian army unable to prevent significant advances.

Common sense would suggest that this is the time to push for an end to this conflict through negotiations, but so far this war has defied whatever is considered conventional wisdom.

This commentary originally appeared in Deccan Herald.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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