The strategically vital city of Kherson is back in the hands of Ukrainians, albeit under threat of Russian shelling and attacks on its electricity supply.
However, as combatants on both sides of an increasingly static firing line prepare for a winter war, there are effectively two separate conflicts emerging — one on the land, the other in the air. What can the West do to help Ukraine meet the immediate tactical challenges, and ultimately seize the longer-term advantage?
On land, the arrival of a wet, rainy fall and a harsh winter should lead to a decrease in operations. Both Russia and Ukraine need to rest and reinforce their troops, as well as repair equipment. A return to full-blown combat operations is not likely until late winter when the ground freezes, presenting a better opportunity for the heaviest equipment.
Russia faces a struggle to fill the holes in its forward combat operations, thanks to low motivation and a failing draft. As up to 300,000 young men — under threat of conscription — have departed Russia for sanctuary in bordering nations, Russian President Vladimir Putin has resorted to conscripting criminals, the homeless and drunks rounded up in bars.
Ukraine faces challenges too, but not of motivation. Its citizens, fighting an existential war, are mighty motivated. The Ukrainian challenge stems from having a far smaller population — only about a third of Russia’s.
Ukraine could have a major advantage in supplies. The West is likely to continue providing not only the high-tech weapons that receive most of the publicity but also the bread and butter of infantry operations: guns, mortars, ammunition, fuel, trucks, night-vision devices, cold weather gear, portable stoves and point-to-point communications equipment. In contrast, Russian conscripts have been told to find their own sleeping bags and improvise bandages from tampons.
However, the challenge in the land war will be a classic military fact of the battlefield: Advantage in a ground war accrues to the defensive side. Military theory says you need a 3-to-1 advantage on offense to conquer a well-established defense. Ironically, as the Ukrainians succeed in taking back big chunks of previously conquered territory, the Russian defensive positions compress and become harder to overrun.
Given Ukrainian advantages in materiel and motivation, I would rather have their hand of cards. So the land war advantage goes to the Ukrainians, although the fighting is likely to be hard.
What about the other war, the one in the sky?
In the air war over Ukraine, the advantage accrues to the Russians. First and foremost, they have a vastly larger air force, one that has seen significant combat experience in Syria. Russian air forces routinely pounded Syrian cities into dust, dropping indiscriminate “dumb bombs” by the thousands, seeking to simply destroy any support for the rebels fighting Putin’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sadly, this carpet bombing proved very effective, and Putin seems inclined to copy it in Ukraine. The new general appointed to oversee the Ukraine war is the leader of Russia’s air force, a man known for his Syrian atrocities. The strategy is simple: Grind down the Ukrainian electric grid and water distribution system to break public morale by literally freezing them out of their increasingly uninhabitable homes.
While Putin’s stocks of precision-guided missiles are rapidly depleting (witness his turning to Iran for high-tech weapons), he still has plenty of dumb bombs, stockpiled for decades going back to the Cold War. Because he does not care about collateral damage or civilian deaths, he might try to kill as many as he can from the skies.
As the reality of his approach sinks in, the West must increase its support to Ukrainian air-defense efforts. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of course, desires a NATO no-fly zone above all else. He often implores the West to “close the skies” of his nation.
More likely, he will receive increased numbers of high-end air-to-surface missile systems such as the superb Iron Dome (developed jointly by the US and Israel), NATO Patriot batteries (that are also going along the Polish border) and possibly tactical fighters.
Leaders in NATO capitals are also revisiting an idea that was discarded in the early days of the war: providing either MiG-29 Soviet-era fighters (the Poles have offered to transfer them to the Ukrainians) or even surplus US F-16s, a simple-to-learn multi-role fighter. Without such measures, the air war would continue to go in Putin’s favor.
With a land war favoring Ukraine and a brutal air war favoring Russia, the West’s best option is to significantly increase its assistance to Ukraine on the air war side of the conflict. Giving the Ukrainians more tools to close their own skies could be the key to forcing the Russians to ultimately negotiate, perhaps as soon as early spring, given the success Zelenskiy and his military have achieved on the ground.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired US Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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