Nothing like a coherent strategy emerged from 20 years of Nato’s war in Afghanistan; at best there were long lists of aspirations with no clear objectives or assessments of the resources needed to achieve them. But, two months after the Russian invasion, it looks very much as if the US and Nato are beginning to develop a coherent plan for Ukraine. Military strategy has been described as a synthesis of ends, ways and means. Last week, senior US and UK officials clarified the objectives – the ends.
For some time the US and Nato spoke of defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. On April 25, in a speech pledging to defend the “rules-based international order”, Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, announced that the US wanted Russia “weakened to the point that it can’t do things like invade Ukraine”. There should be no ambiguity about this. It is now US (and therefore Nato) policy to damage the Russian armed forces to a degree from which it will take a very long time to recover.
There are dangers in this strategic approach. For example, it is by no means clear that all Nato countries are entirely bought into Ukrainian (and US and UK) aims of completely restoring Ukrainian territorial integrity, let alone removing the Russian armed forces as a going concern. This provides the opportunity for Russia to open and widen rifts as the war drags on and a diplomatic settlement continues to appear remote. This was Serbia’s strategy during the far shorter and less intense Kosovo war. Then there is always the danger of Russian nuclear strikes in the event of “catastrophic” Ukrainian success – a small but increasing danger.
So much for the ends as stated. What of the means? The somewhat ramshackle Russian armed forces over the course of its misbegotten campaign have sustained many reverses. The worst by far was the passing by the US Congress of the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022-2023, mandating US$33 billion (£26 billion) for various forms of assistance. Most of that help will take the form of weaponry and training to enable the Ukrainian army to destroy Russia’s military equipment and kill its soldiers.
To place this in context, the entire Russian defence budget for the current year is US$65.9 billion. Some believe that the Lend-Lease Act is an open-ended commitment by “the arsenal of democracy” to Ukraine which might encourage Russia to the negotiating table.
Finally, how will the west and Ukraine achieve their objectives? The first imperative on the battlefield, of course, is to secure success in the current main effort in the Donbas region. Russia is making local gains there, but is unlikely to achieve the breakthrough necessary to destroy Ukrainian forces.
UK-based military strategist Mike Martin argues that the current push is likely to “culminate” – or run out of momentum – in the next two to three weeks. After that, it seems likely that the Russian army will be in no state to resume the offensive any time soon. This will remain so, even if Vladimir Putin announces a mass mobilisation, as some – including the British defence secretary, Ben Wallace – believe he will.
Russia will find it very difficult to replace the troops and equipment it has lost in the short and medium terms. Indeed, British defence intelligence estimates that some of Russia’s more effective units will “take years to reconstitute”. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army’s reserve system has allowed it to draw on human replacements far faster than Russia.
Bolstering Ukraine’s defences
Further, a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force.
We have already seen the effect of superior Nato weapons systems on Russia’s tanks and aircraft. The die will really be cast for the Russians when they lose their traditional dominance in artillery. Recent transfers from Nato states, such as the Netherlands and France, in addition to US guns and artillery detection radar have been designed to accomplish exactly this. Similar processes are likely to take place with anti-aircraft weapons.
In the air itself, it is questionable whether introducing western fighter aircraft will take place in the short term, given the lead times for supply and lengthy training requirements of at least six weeks. It is clear though that such transfers are no longer ruled out.
In addition to guaranteeing a usually far higher quality of weaponry, commonality between Nato and Ukrainian equipment will ensure a broader set of suppliers and a far more efficient logistics system. It will also enable something rarely spoken about, a systematic training regime. Extensive systems for training Ukrainian troops are being set up in Poland and many other Nato states.
Prepare a counter-attack
All of this is likely to produce a situation, perhaps as early as June or July, when the Ukrainian army can counterattack to regain some of the ground it has lost. Some analysts, including this author, believe that a reequipped Ukrainian army may be in a position to do this very successfully indeed.
But it is important never to forget the former US secretary of defence, Marine General James Mattis who said: “We may want a war over. We may even declare it over … But the enemy gets a vote.”
Nonetheless, as matters stand with the west having clarified its objectives and ostensibly provided the means to achieve them, the initiative is now with Ukraine’s defenders.