Russia’s war against Ukraine is now well into its second year. The contested area in East Ukraine is still marked by regular exchanges of fire and equally regular losses of life. At the end of June, the United Nations reported that 6,500 people had perished in the past year of the conflict, along with 16,000 wounded and that 5 million were in need of aid. There have been regular warnings of new Russian offensives, but these have yet to materialize, and for all the effort put in by both sides, the basic contours of the conflict have barely changed since last September. It is not evident that either side has a strategy for bringing the conflict to a conclusion. The situation can be described as one in which they are both seeking the exhaustion of the other. Exhaustion here does not so much describe a physical state of being unable to continue with the struggle, but more of a mental state – a sense of weariness and futility that leads to a readiness to accept a political compromise that would previously have been rejected. Exhaustion can be the result not only of frustration with a military position, but also of economic pressure and political discontent.
It is not unusual for conflicts to settle down to probes and pushes after an initial period marked by bigger movements and exchanges of territory, reaching a point where both sides are tired without either being ready to concede. In such situations, there may well be temptations to attempt occasional offensives intended to achieve breakthroughs or at least cause attrition. There may also be, as in this case, attempts by third parties to mediate cease-fires and peace treaties. A conflict that has reached the state of a “mutually hurting stalemate” is often seen to be one ripe for a negotiated settlement. Yet this does not mean that such efforts will succeed: they can instead provide breathing space, a chance to regain energy, and so in the end prolong the struggle.
Such situations have tended to be of slight interest to students of strategy. Here, there is a far greater interest in surprise attacks and knockout blows, or in deterrence and preventive measures. Yet military history is full of instances of states needing to cope with the aftermath of military initiatives that have not yielded as much as hoped or with defensive efforts that have stemmed losses without recovering what was already taken. The Russian-Ukraine War fits in with this pattern and so provides an opportunity to examine this less glamorous and more dispiriting aspect of modern conflict. In this essay, I am in particular interested in whether there can be a strategy of exhaustion in such circumstances, in the sense of deliberate measures to change the opponent’s mental state and extract compromises that might not otherwise have been available in any negotiated outcome. The idea of a strategy of exhaustion has a respectable pedigree in the literature, but it tends towards making the best of a bad job rather than an optimum route to victory. This is for a good reason: It is hard to pin down the effects that will have the necessary impact on another’s political will.
This essay also provides the third installment in the account of the Russian-Ukrainian War that I began with an essay in March 2014 that considered the war’s origins and development after the sudden departure of former President Yanukovich from Kiev in February 2014. In a second essay, published in October 2014, I took the story up to the signing of that September’s Minsk agreement and NATO’s Cardiff summit. I adapted both into longer essays for Survival. This installment describes events since then, including a further Minsk agreement as poorly observed as the first.
In these previous essays, I also sought to explain the current stage in the conflict by reference to a familiar strategic concept, considering crisis management and limited war respectively. These concepts could both be traced back to the 18th century, when war was an accepted and contained means of regulating relations between states. Sustaining limitations then became more difficult as a result of the range and lethality of weaponry and the democratization of war. This allowed for mass mobilization and objectives informed by strong popular sentiments. The idea of limited war was recaptured and refined during the early stages of the Cold War in the light of the risks of a nuclear catastrophe. The challenge then was to combine tentativeness about resorting to major war with a desire to avoid abandoning vital interests. As a result, crisis and war came to be seen as forms of deadly bargaining, geared to maximizing gains while minimizing risks. The art in this approach depended on being able to employ limited force, construct credible threats, and retain lines of diplomatic communication in order generate a lasting political advantage. Military moves must be synchronized with negotiations, bringing the emotional heat of war and the cool calculations necessary to strike a deal into the same space, where they cannot easily coexist.
These challenges were evident during the first six months of the Ukrainian crisis. Significant levels of fighting and the associated economic costs were sufficient to create a desire for a cease-fire, but not the conditions necessary for a long-term settlement that could satisfy the key players. Without a settlement, a cease-fire became hard to sustain, so it became preferable to live with the conflict rather than make irrevocable compromises. The deadlock continues. Ukraine, supported by Western countries, demands the return of occupied territory. Russia demands that Ukraine come to terms with the new reality by accepting the annexation of Crimea and negotiating directly with separatist groups on a new constitutional settlement. Neither side has fully mobilized. Both have substantial resources in reserve. With an apparent impasse, attention has switched to non-military forms of pressure, and in particular economic sanctions.
The lack of movement at the heart of the conflict has been combined with speculation about substantial geopolitical shifts as the belligerents seek to sustain their position for a prolonged struggle. These include a Russian pivot toward China while neutral Europeans, such as Sweden and Finland, consider joining NATO. This might be expected to put greater urgency behind efforts to resolve the conflict or at least contain its wider impact. For the moment, however, neither belligerent shows signs of chronic fatigue, while major powers are either distracted by other large and complicated international issues or just bereft of new ideas. The obvious basis for a settlement would lie in the Minsk agreements, but their inherent design flaws require that one side must abandon its core position for a deal to be made and then hold.
The question of how well both sides will cope with a conflict that has no obvious terminus brings us back to the concept of exhaustion. I consider this largely through the history of the more notorious but also subordinate concept of attrition. I then apply it to the situation in Ukraine. On balance, I conclude that a strategy of exhaustion is working better for Ukraine than for Russia.
Strategies of exhaustion tend to be default strategies, taken up when stuck in a defensive stance or caught out by a disappointing offensive.
The German military historian Hans Delbrück distinguished between two basic forms of military strategy. Niederwerfungsstrategie referred to a strategy that would knock down the enemy’s army, eliminating it as a fighting force through decisive battle, leaving the enemy state with no choice but capitulation. This is normally described as a strategy of annihilation. The alternative was a strategy of exhaustion, Ermattungsstrategie. In this strategy, the ends of war might be achieved by a variety of means including battle, but also forms of economic pressure such as blockade. This was not a means of avoiding battle but acknowledgement that battles might not be conclusive on their own. Instead they would have a cumulative effect as part of an effort to wear the enemy down. Writing in the late 19th century, Delbrück was taking on the German military establishment, which was wholly committed to the idea of a decisive battle. Delbrück warned that whatever the General Staff’s preferences, the conditions might not fit the plans and war might take a quite different form to the one intended.
Ermattungsstrategie was also translated as a strategy of attrition, and it was attrition that became the more prominent concept. However, its meaning shifted during the course of the 20th Century. In the light of the experience of the First World War, when attrition was explicitly adopted as a strategy by both sides on the western front, it was taken to represent a harsh and remorseless approach to campaign casualties. It reflected the failure of short-cuts to victory, leaving little choice but to inflict unsustainable losses on the enemy, even though that meant accepting heavy losses of one’s own. Victory would go to the side with the most manageable “rate of wastage.” There was also a narrower use of attrition, referring to attempts to weaken enemy forces prior to a coming battle, for example by pounding forward positions with artillery barrages so that they might then be overwhelmed by an advancing army. This was the idea behind the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916 and required careful coordination of shelling and the forward movement of ground forces. Unfortunately this plan left no opportunity to assess the effects of the artillery before the advance began, a flaw that was painfully exposed at the Somme on July 1, 1916.
In either its broader or narrower sense, the idea of attrition never quite escaped association with a wanton tolerance of carnage, a desire to inflict maximum casualties on the enemy for want of an alternative. The strategic theorists of the interwar years, such as Basil Liddell Hart, sought ways to win wars without mass slaughter by outsmarting the opponent. Advantage should be gained through maneuver so that the enemy was caught by surprise and left disoriented. It was imperative to avoid frontal assaults against a well-prepared enemy. In wars that promised to be long hauls due to the resources of the belligerents, it was best to conserve manpower and not waste it in futile set-piece encounters. This experience, along with that of the Second World War, which was more of a war of movement, demonstrated that attrition was inescapably linked with battle rather than an alternative to battle.
In this way, the distinction between maneuver and attrition developed into one about different ways of fighting. Attrition’s reputation as a callous and unimaginative approach to warfare took hold, reinforced in the Korean War after an impasse was reached in 1951, and then again in Vietnam as the United States cast around for a way of defeating a persistent opponent. The instinctive approach in Vietnam appeared to be to kill off as many of the enemy forces as possible with superior firepower in the hope that at some point they would be left militarily ineffective and Hanoi would decide that supporting the southern insurgency was no longer worth it. This attitude, symbolised by the focus on “body counts” earned the scorn of military reformers in the United States during the 1970s. The reformers urged that the United States rediscover operational art and damned attrition as an inferior form of strategy, offering maneuver as a far more attractive alternative. This caricatured version of attrition presented it as a warped mindset, marked by a lazy reliance on firepower and the systematic destruction of known targets, sufficiently predictable to be readily countered by a more talented opponent. All this reflected the offensive bias prevalent in classical strategic thought, with its preference for dramatic maneuvers, rapid advances, and knockout blows.
Attrition was left as the orphan of strategy, derided for its tolerance of casualty, its lack of dash and ambition, and its indistinct route to victory. No prominent theorist acted as a champion of attrition and while practitioners often embraced it, they would only claim to do so grudgingly. On the rare occasions when it was adopted from the start as a deliberate strategy, the results were unimpressive. An explicit “war of attrition” was launched by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in March 1969. He believed that the Israelis could not cope if their forces arrayed on one side of the Suez Canal suffered regular casualties as a result of regular shelling. He hoped that as a result they would be persuaded to move away from the Canal area. The Israeli response was to use deep air raids in the hope that this might topple Nasser. This war ended in August 1970 with a cease-fire that saw Israel still in position and Nasser still in power (although he died the next month). The next war launched by Egypt, in October 1973, was much bolder.
Carter Malkasian, a rare student of attrition, has argued that the strategy can involve far more than mindless exchanges of firepower, but also “in-depth withdrawals, limited ground offensive, frontal assaults, patrolling, careful defensive, scorched-earth tactics, guerrilla warfare, air strikes, artillery firepower, or raids.” Successful attritional campaigns work because they wear down the enemy through a process that is likely to be protracted, gradual, and piecemeal. It might end with a battle, when the enemy can no longer cope, but it could also end with a negotiation. Such strategies work best, he noted, with limited aims. His case studies, however, involved campaigns within wider wars – for example, Britain’s Burma campaign against the Japanese from 1942-44 and the later stages of the Korean War.
One way forward is to distinguish between attrition as a strategy based on affecting the opponent’s physical state, while exhaustion as affecting the opponent’s mental state. J. Boone Bartholomees Jr. suggests something along these lines. He construes attrition narrowly as inflicting casualties until an enemy is unable to defend itself, while exhaustion is about eroding the will of the enemy to continue the fight by denying it resources and undermining economic capacity, by such means as a blockade. We can describe attrition as the progressive erosion of enemy capacity, which means it can be a consequence of any sustained military engagement. This can weaken an enemy so it loses battles, but as a second-order consequence it might also undermine political will. By contrast, we can describe exhaustion as a strategic effect, marked by a progressive loss of capacity, energy, commitment, and eventually political will. This effect might be caused by attrition, but also by other measures designed to stifle economic activity and reduce access to supplies.
Bartholomees notes that whether one considers attrition or exhaustion, the stronger is likely to prevail either because of superior firepower or superior resources. One can see why this might be the case with attrition, in the sense of depleting capacity, because the side with greater capacity should come out on top. Exhaustion is different, which is why it is a strategy favoured by an underdog. With inferior resources, the underdog has no interest in a regular battle. The interest instead lies in playing for time. For the weaker party – for example, an irregular force resisting invasion or fighting oppression – the challenge is to stay in the game, which may require coping with and absorbing pain. This superior staying power will depend on having a greater stake in the fight, which is why such campaigns rarely prosper against a stronger side with an even more substantial stake, for example because it feels that terrorist outrages are threatening its heartland.
In more peripheral areas, irregular forces can develop strategies that exploit familiarity with local conditions and popular feeling to harass the enemy, leaving it susceptible to fatigue, disenchantment, and a growing sense of futility. Success depends on the battle being one of endurance and wills rather than one between armies. The problem with such a strategy lies in how to take advantage of an apparent decline in the enemy’s political will to continue with the fight. With attrition there is an implication of a notional breaking point when the enemy can cope no longer because it has run out of troops or money. Exhaustion accepts that opponents can adjust to pain and hardship so that any turning point may not be sudden or even easy to identify.
A limited war, in which neither side is fighting at full capacity, aggravates this difficulty. A purely attritional strategy cannot be expected to work because neither side will run out of military capacity. The risks of escalation into a more substantial, damaging, and costly war hold back both sides and so they must seek to prevail within the accepted constraints. This logic points to a bargain to end the conflict, but if a bargain cannot be found and escalation is still eschewed, then non-military factors are likely to become increasingly important. These will include the functioning of the economy and the ability to maintain domestic political support. Strategic advice in such circumstances points to a combination of conserving and building up capacity to stay in the game, while probing for the weak spots in the enemy’s position and working out how to exploit them. Satisfaction will come in the form of small gains and an enemy whose losses and pain exceed your own, but it will also be important to pay attention to attitudes and conditions at home as much as to those on the enemy side.
All this helps explain why strategies of exhaustion tend to be default strategies, taken up when stuck in a defensive stance or caught out by a disappointing offensive. They are not going to be advocated by proponents of war, who are much more likely to promise a quick victory and dismiss the possibility of a protracted and miserable hard grind of a conflict. When the first hopes are dashed, strategies of exhaustion are adopted for want of anything better in the spirit of Churchill’s maxim during the Second World War – “keep buggering on.” So this is the sort of strategy belligerents stumble into, requiring improvisation, lacking any clear theory of cause and effect, and without an obvious route to victory. Yet the circumstances in which such strategies come to be adopted are quite common, and the difficulties they face in implementation help alert us to some of the messy realities of modern conflict.
Observers and officials keep making predictions of an imminent Russian offensive, but one has yet to occur. Why might this be the case?
Both Russia and Ukraine are currently following strategies of exhaustion. Neither can see a route to a military victory. Neither is wholly committed to the implementation of the Minsk plan. The continuing conflict hurts both sides, but not yet to the point at which either feels any immediate pressure to offer more concessions. At some point, they will need to conclude the matter, but if this is to be done under more favorable circumstances then they need to find ways of increasing the wear and tear on their adversary. Although Russia is much stronger than Ukraine, it also has a more difficult position to uphold. It is seeking to retain annexed territory in addition to an enclave in Eastern Ukraine against the wishes of the bulk of the international community and in the face of economic sanctions. Its main problem lies in the Donbas enclave. Under the Minsk plan, it is to remain part of Ukraine, albeit one with a different constitutional configuration. For the moment, it is not self-sufficient economically and militarily. While it is hard to see Russia returning Crimea to Ukraine, it is possible to imagine it abandoning the Donbas enclave. That possibility gives its opponents hope.
Assessing Russian strategy is not, however, straightforward. One challenge is the total lack of candor with which Russia discusses its intervention in Ukraine. By constantly denying its role, Russia has introduced a huge complication into the conduct of the war, the associated diplomacy, and attempts at analysis. This has been presented as a deliberate, and according to some, clever strategy, referred to as “hybrid warfare.” Perhaps Russia believes that collective foreign minds can be turned by propaganda, or at least some left uncertain as to where truth lies. Yet if the intention was to spread an invisibility cloak over military preparations and operations, this effort has failed. The Kremlin’s fiction might have initially facilitated the Russian intervention, but it has also become a restriction. Its wider consequences include a growing distrust of all Russian government pronouncements, at least outside of Russia. The natural corollary has been the increased authoritarianism in Russia and a clampdown on domestic news outlets and independent organizations that might challenge the official line.
The Russian lack of candor about what they are up to in Ukraine means that the nature and purpose of Russian military strategy must be inferred from actual activity. Initially, Russian strategy was politically defensive and militarily offensive. Faced with an abrupt loss of influence in Kiev and the prospect of Ukraine turning to the West, it used local militants and Russian Spetsnaz to push Ukrainian authorities out of Crimea and out of key towns and cities in Eastern Ukraine. One interpretation of this effort was that Moscow hoped to foster a broad-based anti-Kiev movement. At a minimum, this could put irresistible pressure of the post-Maidan Ukrainian government to back away from its pro-Western course and at a maximum help reconstruct the old territory of Novorossiya, which might then attach itself in some way to Russia. Whatever the original aspiration, by the spring of 2014 Russian efforts were concentrated in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. At first, considerable territory was taken, but then over the summer significant amounts were lost to a Ukrainian “Anti-Terrorist Operation.” That prompted a more overt Russian intervention using regular forces, which pushed back until the separatist enclave had more defensible borders. A cease-fire was agreed in the first Minsk agreement in September 2014.
Fighting continued, though not at the same levels as before, as efforts were made to expand the enclave. These were largely undertaken by separatist irregulars. They had limited success for the energy expended. Ukrainian units held out in the Donetsk airport for a number of months. No sustained attempt was mounted to take the presumed next major target, the coastal city of Mariupol. In January 2015, the airport fell and, weeks later, the town of Debaltseve was abandoned by Ukrainian forces after they were surrounded. This was the point at which the second Minsk agreement was reached. As a cease-fire, this was no more effective than that agreed to the previous September. It was at most a “less-fire.”
Russian-backed separatists took a number of towns and villages, but there were no major breakthroughs. This confirmed the basic pattern of the fighting: Ukrainian forces could cope with the separatist irregulars, but not well against Russian regulars. The biggest threat to the Ukrainian position therefore was assumed to be a far greater engagement of Russian forces. Through April and May, there were regular reports of a major build-up and movements of Russian men and equipment within the separatist-held areas. General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, warned at the end of April that Russia was taking advantage of the nominal cease-fire to reposition its troops and equipment and to train and supply the separatists who were preparing for a new offensive. There were also suggestions that Russia had sought to get the separatist command and control in better working order. In May, Ukrainian President Poroshenko claimed :
[T]he total number of the enemy force in Donbas taking into account members of illegal armed groups is more than 40,000 people, while the Russian military grouping near the state border totals over 50,000 servicemen, almost 1.5 times more than in July 2014.
A consensus was reported to be building “among NATO officials and military analysts of the situation in Eastern Ukraine that Russia will renew its invasion of the region in the next two months.”
At the start of June, a rebel offensive was launched against the town of Maryinka, some 18 miles away from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk. The assault was beaten back by Ukrainian forces, with the separatists taking the heavier casualties. But it led Kiev to move men and equipment to what now seemed to be a vulnerable point: an area well on the Ukrainian side of the ceasefire line. The next day, Poroshenko warned of the prospect of the possibility of a “full-scale” Russian invasion. This was followed by more shelling and smaller operations around Donetsk. Nonetheless, the failed attack on Maryinka was a set-back for the rebels.
Although observers and officials keep making predictions of an imminent Russian offensive, one has yet to occur. Why might this be the case? One explanation is that the Russians expect tough resistance from the Ukrainians, whose armed forces are assumed to be steadily improving as they learn from experience and benefit from Western-supported efforts at reform and improved training. The greater the improvement, the greater the mainstream military commitment required from Russia to gain ground in an invasion. Here, the Russian pretense not to be directly engaged in fighting in Ukraine causes a problem. While their charade may have been exposed regularly, it is a fiction that the Russian authorities have been desperate to maintain. Once a big lie has been established, there may be no obvious point at which incredibility becomes an issue, but an offensive that goes far beyond anything the separatists could manage by themselves could be one such point. There has been particular sensitivity in Russia over the question of casualties. Documenting losses was the most newsworthy aspect of the report completed after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. It referred to the deaths of 220 soldiers, although it suggested that the actual number was higher. This issue has become so sensitive that disclosure of combat deaths as a result of “special operations” in peacetime is now prohibited. There have also been reports of desertion.
Even if an invasion prospered, there would still be the problem of administering large areas of Ukraine without popular support and with a militarily damaged infrastructure. The experience of the Donbas enclave in this respect was not encouraging. It was left depopulated with a collapsed economy, chaotically governed, and dependent on Russian subsidies. In addition, an overt and large-scale invasion could well lead to more sanctions, most drastically an effort to kick Russia out of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system – through which organizations and countries access the international financial system. If such an escalation had taken place, it would also undermine the argument that it was best not to supply the Ukrainians with weapons, as opposed to non-lethal equipment, lest they lead to escalation.
Another explanation for the Russian build-up and artillery attacks on Ukrainian positions was that it was part of a strategy of exhaustion. Such a force had an obvious defensive role – to deter Ukrainian forces from mounting an attack against separatist positions. It also tied down Ukrainian forces that were moved to the region in response. Ukrainians could not be sure about the targets of separatist attacks, and exposed units could be caught out. Those in fixed positions were vulnerable to shelling. There were regular casualties. The possibility of a more substantial operation, even if short of a full invasion, might embarrass Ukrainian forces, as they had been by the failure in Debaltseve, and weaken Ukrainian resolve. To this was added a developing campaign of terrorism and subversion within Ukraine in order to further unsettle the country.
The choice facing Putin is whether to escalate or retreat, whether to raise the stakes or effectively abandon the separatist project.
In economic terms, the conflict has been a blow to both sides. Ukraine was already struggling, and the costs and distractions of the war have added to its troubles. Ukraine’s gross domestic product (GDP) is forecast to contract by some 16 percent over 2014 and 2015. The economist Anders Aslund attributes seven percent to lost production in occupied territory (including Crimea), six percent to lost trade with Russia, and three percent to lost foreign direct investment. At the same time, Ukraine must cope with a humanitarian crisis resulting from the war, including 1.3 million people internally displaced. International support has not been generous, although progress has been made with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and on debt relief. The Ukrainian parliament, prodded by the IMF, has adopted a number of reforms, including measures to reduce Ukraine’s dependence of Russian gas and institute anti-corruption laws.
Despite the economic challenges, Ukraine seems to have become more united rather than less. Positive feelings among Ukrainians towards Russia have declined from 88 percent in September 2013 , to just 30 percent by May 2015, according to the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. Even those in Eastern Ukraine, supposedly more sympathetic to Russia, have come to view their neighbor less positively – down from 83 percent to 51 percent. Another poll showed a majority of Ukrainians outside the areas controlled by separatists supporting membership of the European Union, but only 13 percent wanting to join Russia’s customs union. The most serious challenges to political order in Ukraine have not come from supporters of Russia so much as the more nationalist members of the Right Sector. Nonetheless the cumulative effects of a troubled economy, controversial reform measures, and military pressures would put a strain on any political system. One consequence is susceptibility to pressure from western supporters who might see political concessions in the context of the Minsk agreements a price worth paying to bring the conflict to some sort of resolution.
The Russian economy has also contracted, although not as much as Ukraine’s. While Ukraine has suffered from punitive Russian measures, Russia was subjected to economic sanctions, said to have so far cost some $100 billion, and other irritants such as The Hague ruling that a $50 billion fine must be paid to former investors in Yukos, which was dismantled by the Russian state over ten years ago. In addition, the Russian economy has been hit by falls in the price of oil and the ruble. Its GDP is forecast to contract 3.5 percent in 2015. Capital flight continues, put at $150 billion in 2014 and forecast for $100 billion in 2015. More seriously for consumers, inflation is running well ahead of growth in wages. Unlike Ukraine, little has been done to increase Russian competiveness and tackle corruption. In the face of this pressure, Putin’s strategy has been described as being largely one of “hunkering down and playing for time,” waiting for petroleum prices and the ruble to recover so that he can continue to support his geopolitical priorities. In a speech directed to the West in St. Petersburg in June, he reminded his audience of warnings that there would be a “deep crisis.” Instead, he observed, Russia had “stabilized the situation … mainly because the Russian economy piled up a sufficient supply of inner strength.”
Despite Russian efforts to encourage defections from the European Union, the sanctions imposed as a result of Crimea were re-enacted in June, displaying European consensus. New sanctions are being prepared by the European Union and the United States in case of further aggression. If oil prices do not perk up, Russia will continue to struggle. It has few other obvious means of improving its financial position. China may be content for Russia to seek to get closer to offset its deteriorating relations with the West. Bejing is not, however, going to do Moscow any economic favors. It is certainly not discriminating against Ukraine in its economic relations. For example, Ukraine has become the largest corn exporter to China. The most important prize China can offer to Russia is a strong economic performance to help boost oil prices, but the most recent evidence suggests a trend in the opposite direction.
The current Russian official narrative portrays a country under attack from the West, with every blow traced back to an American initiative. The spirit of the Second World War is constantly invoked, encouraging a militarization of Russian culture. If Putin’s poll ratings are anything to go by, this has worked, in that a recent report has been of a stratospheric 89 percent approval rating, higher than the 64 percent who say that they approve of the country’s direction. This can be explained by Putin’s assuming the role of Tsar, above politics, a supreme authority to whom the masses can appeal in troubled times, but also to a conviction that with the Sochi Olympics and the annexation of Crimea, he has restored Russia’s international standing. It has been suggested that this support is not whole-hearted, for example, not necessarily translating into voting intentions and weaker among educated middle classes and urbanites. One of the risks in this situation is that any weakening of public support, for example in response to harsher economic conditions, could lead to efforts to heighten rather than calm international tension in a bid to rally the people behind Putin. The overall impression remains less of a great power ascendant and more of one struggling to cope with a set of reverses.
The choice facing Putin is the same as it has been since the counter-Maidan operation launched in the spring of 2014 failed to catch fire: whether to escalate or retreat, whether to raise the stakes or effectively abandon the separatist project. He has prepared for both possibilities, but has been unable to choose. The result is to continue with the status quo and hope that pressure on Ukraine will lead to political concessions in the context of the Minsk agreement that will allow Russian to disengage. This will require cooperation from the separatist leaders who have been wary about a political process that could put their own positions under threat. They are not simply puppets, although they owe their positions to Moscow and could not endure without Russian support. The Russian foreign minister has acknowledged Moscow’s influence with the separatists, but also insisted that it not “as great as 100%.”
In the past, separatist leaders have asserted their wish to be wholly independent of Ukraine and preferably part of Russia. Whatever else might be said of the Minsk agreements, they gave no support for the so-called Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk outside of Ukraine. The idea of recreating the old Novorossiya as a grand project seems to have been abandoned. While militarily the territories can be held, economic and social conditions within are becoming difficult. There have been reports of shortages and discontent. This is a position that will be difficult to sustain over the long-term.
Russia’s negotiating strategy is to demand that Kiev pick up the bill for social spending and economic survival for these territories, in return for allowing them to integrate back into Ukraine – albeit with a special, autonomous status. In a June interview with an Italian newspaper, Putin provided a rare acknowledgment of the Russian role while claiming modest ambition:
All our actions, including those with the use of force, were aimed not at tearing away this territory from Ukraine but at giving the people living there an opportunity to express their opinion on how they want to live their lives.
He described the implementation of the Minsk agreements in terms of ensuring “the autonomous rights of the unrecognized republics,” which would give them the “right to speak their language, to have their own cultural identity and engage in cross border trade.” This would require a law on municipal elections and an amnesty. Instead, he lamented, Kiev was not prepared to have such a conversation, hence the deadlock. Even worse, the Ukrainian government “have simply cut them off from the rest of the country. They discontinued all social payments – pensions, benefits; they cut off the banking system, made regular energy supply impossible, and so on.” However much Putin may complain so long as the separatists remain in control of these areas, they will be responsible for the welfare of the local population.
The proposals put forward by the separatists involve amendments to the Ukraine constitution combined with local elections, and they have announced that they will hold their own elections later this year, although the Minsk agreement stipulated that local elections should be held only on the basis of Ukrainian legislation. The assumption is that this suits Moscow, because this puts off the day when it must pull back its forces (which it denies are present) and Ukraine reasserts sovereignty over its own territory. By keeping the pressure on Ukraine it also might make it harder for Ukraine to get even closer to the European Union or consider joining NATO. For their own reasons, both institutions will take care before they grant Ukraine a formal status, but for the moment both are stepping up informal connections and providing additional support.
There is no evidence that Ukraine is in a hurry to implement Minsk. President Poroshenko has also acknowledged the end of the Novorossiya project, which in principle could have covered nine out of the 24 regions of Ukraine. He has also observed that Donetsk and Luhansk are not viable on their own. They can “exist solely within united, independent and sovereign Ukraine.” The separatists have no democratic legitimacy and were put in position by a foreign power. Ukraine has drafted its own proposals for constitutional amendments, which allows for a degree of decentralization, but also all-Ukraine elections in which the separatists would likely not prosper. This is the area of greatest western pressure on Kiev but the gap between the two sides is large and it has yet to serve as a plausible basis for a settlement.
The United States, France, and Germany have urged Kiev to be more pro-active in implementing Minsk, if only to provide Russia with an excuse to put pressure on separatists to be more compliant. In addition to the pressure for constitutional arrangements that would allow separatists some voice in Ukrainian affairs, Ukrainian troops were withdrawn from the town of Shyrokyne, located just east of Mariupol, and plans announced for further de-militarization for Mariupol itself, with heavy equipment being moved and only infantry and small arms remaining. This would meet the Minsk requirement for a 30-kilometre buffer zone, free of heavy weaponry, along the front line. This followed a separatist withdrawal from Shyrokyne a few weeks earlier, which was described as “an act of good will and the demonstration of peaceful intentions.” Yet shelling has continued, and has recently intensified, so this effort has yet to turn into a political breakthrough. It has, however, indicated how difficult it will be for either side to achieve a military breakthrough.
A strategy of exhaustion in a major war must involve breaking the will of the opponent so that it cannot summon the energy to continue.
On this analysis, Russia might be more vulnerable to exhaustion than Ukraine. Or at least while Ukraine may be suffering more, it has the political will to maintain its position. Ukraine, unlike Russia, has no aspirations to be recognized and treated as a great power and can concentrate on sorting out its domestic affairs with whatever help it can get. The longer the conflict continues along the current path, the more time Ukraine has to reform its military and economy and deal with corruption. Russia, by contrast, needs to sort out an economy that has become over-dependent on commodities and now has a bloated military sector. It has backed away from the West and protected some of its more dubious friends, but has yet to form strong partnerships with countries to its east. Its propaganda campaign has in general backfired, with international opinion of Russia now at a low point. It has serious national security issues other than Ukraine, with other borders areas to worry about such as those in Central Asia. Moreover the measures taken to sustain a sense of menace in Europe, such as questioning the independence of the Baltic States, provocative air patrols, nuclear saber-rattling, and military exercises may have encouraged NATO members to stay cautious, but it has also led them to take security issues more seriously. It has served to reinforce NATO. Putin has even found it necessary to insist that Russia has no designs on the rest of Europe. His most serious difficulty may lie sustaining an enclave in Ukraine that is no longer yielding any substantial political benefits and is suffering from economic degradation and lawlessness.
If this analysis is correct, then Russia’s strong preference would be for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. In February 2015, when Moscow became frustrated with the slow progress on the initial agreement of September 2014, it pushed harder against Ukrainian defenses with some success, and then got the slightly more favourable Minsk II. If it continues to be frustrated with the stalemate then it may try to raise the military pressure in order to extract even more concessions in a “Minsk III.” It is hard to see what can be achieved by more negotiations on measures which do not represent any underlying consensus. If there is a point to further diplomacy, it can only be to prepare for the point at which the most exhausted side can slide away from its previous stance under the cover of implementing an established agreement.
A strategy of exhaustion in a major war must involve breaking the will of the opponent so that it cannot summon the energy to continue. In a limited war, the position is different. The pressures on Kiev and Moscow are insufficient to force regime change. In the absence of dramatic escalation and with a stalemate on the ground, neither side is likely to abruptly abandon established positions. More likely is a progressive reappraisal of the costs and benefits of sustaining these positions, and perhaps some preparations for eventual concessions. This does not mean that the conclusion will be gradual and barely perceptible. A crisis may develop at some point, perhaps because of tensions among the separatists or a desperate attempt to gain or regain territory that will force one side to confront the realities of the situation.
The fact that it is hard to be sure how this will end reflects the inherent problems with strategies of exhaustion. They are not means of exerting control over events so much as seeking to reduce an enemy’s freedom of maneuver while holding on to as much as possible of one’s own. Both Russia and Ukraine have had to prioritize making their own societies more resilient in the face of the stresses and strains of a conflict. In such circumstances, the key strategic virtues may be patience and fortitude. There are many particular features of this conflict that deserve continued study and attention, including the role of information warfare and the large questions raised about the future of European security. But it is also important as a reminder of the limits of strategy, that sometimes it is harder to do much more than cope with a bad situation, try to adjust better than your opponent, and hope that something turns up.
Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982. His most recent book is Strategy: A History (OUP, 2013). He is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.
The images used in this essay are the work of Mstyslav Chernov. His work can be viewed at Wikimedia, where he generously makes his photos available to the world. These images depict the remains of an Eastern Orthodox church after shelling near Donetsk International Airport (May, 18 2015); an armed rebel in Donetsk (June 9, 2015), a PK machine gun at Russia-backed rebel position near the division line with Ukrainian army near Dokuchaevsk (June 5, 2015); a Ukrainian rebel observing fighting positions though firing port in ruins of Donetsk International Airport (June 12, 2015); and a rebel guarding his position near the division line with Ukrainian army near Dokuchaevsk (June 5, 2015).