The Second Winter of the Ukraine War: Wither Peace or Success?

Ultimately how much Ukrainian President Zelensky can rally not just the West but his own people and military will determine the fate of the War in 2024.

4 mins read
Protesters fighting government forces at barricades on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) on Feb. 19, 2014 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

As the World enters the second winter of the War in Ukraine which Russia continues to call as a Special Military Operation, what are the chances of peace or of success to either side.

Or will it be a stalemate?

As the situation on the ground foretells it is apparently a stalemate with hopes of a Ukrainian counter offensive 2022 that was expected to regain much lost ground having petered out.

That is not to downplay 74,661 kms of Russian occupied territory liberated by Ukraine since February 24, last year.

State of War Going into Winter

Russia after an inordinately expensive defensive campaign has now launched local offensives in sizeable strength in Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna, Bakhmut  and Avdiivka with the objective of extensive control over Luhansk and Donbas.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced a defensive posture going ahead in the winter and possibly into the spring summer 2024.

This is understandable given three factors – insufficient combat power for a breakthrough evident in the offensives in the current year, this is turn was due undermatching operational strategy and tactics with frontal attacks on well prepared Russian defence failing to achieve a breakthrough and the possible fall in the material support by the United States and the West going ahead due to several reasons including the outbreak of War in the Middle East.

Russia on the other hand has been able to build up considerable stocks of munitions, missiles, drones, tanks and artillery systems through a combination of inflow from external sources including North Korea and Iran and increasing military industrial production.

While the quality of some of the weapons and munitions acquired may be dubious yet Russia is likely to bank on mass to overcome accuracy and lethality.

This will of course lead to heavy expenditure but Moscow is hopeful of having rejuvenated the production at home while has gained a cushion from abroad.

On the other hand, much of the US and Western support was banking on success of a counter offensive which in fact was counter intuitive and indicates a failure of hard military calculations based on ground realities.

Frontal assaults on well prepared defences hardly guarantee success unless there is an overwhelming “materielschlacht.” A classic example is that of British General later Field  Marshal B L Montgomery’s famous breakthrough at Alamein on the Egyptian front during the Second World War.

Lacking such an overwhelming combat superiority, Ukrainian forces and their U.S. and British advisors need to have advised innovative tactics but continued with hardwired tanks and infantry assaults against layered Russian defences the depth and thickness of which was evident right from the beginning.

Possibly it was felt that the resistance would crumble in the face of determined assaults however by this time Russian armed forces had regained their military composure and the chaotic situation with incessant fragging by the Wagner group was limited to a degree.

Recognising this inevitability at the end of the campaigning period Ukraine is preparing for a harsh winter with Russian offensive in select sectors, while also possibly looking at an opportunity or two for own counter attacks.

In general there is a stalemate.

Winter Preparations

Meanwhile Ukraine is also preparing for Russian targeting of the infrastructure in the winter both military as well as sustainability of the power utilities.

Preliminary indications are of a harsh winter in Europe, thus advance preparations will come in handy.

On the morale and motivation front, Ukraine will have to sustain the national quest for sovereignty amidst signs of some wearying.

Directions from the top leadership assumes importance even if there are differences within the higher command evident in Kyiv.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Rustem Umerov has clearly indicated that Western security assistance has enabled Ukraine liberate half of the territory that Russia occupied since February 24, 2022. Yet 108, 121 square kms continue to remain under occupation as on December 06 as per the Institute for the Study of War.

Continued wearing out of Russian military and key civilian resources through surreptitious drone and missile attacks may appear to be merely harassment but will contribute to the overall information campaign.

More over, the momentum of innovation and novelty in conduct of the secondary domains of war needs to be sustained and supplemented by similar freshness in operations and tactics.

Russia’s War Framework

Russia may be going into the winter in a more confident frame of mind.

Regrouping of forces and resources provides Moscow an advantage which may be leveraged during the winter as well as the ensuing spring summer.

For Russia manpower and morale do not seem relevant so far but the anger is seen slowly building up event though news from the front line is filtered and more questions are being asked about the protracted conflict and body bags even though many are from the peripheral republics rather than central Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was banking on the West wearying of the war in Ukraine and there are some signs of the same with murmurs in the US led alliance to which the war in Gaza has another layer.

Alliance and Internal Factors in 2024

Wars are won by alliances and if the Western grouping support to Ukraine falters due to several factors including a perception of lack of winning on the cheap, war weariness and economic consequences the battle may have been won by Moscow without firing a shot in 2024.

On the other hand, in case 2024 turns out to be like 2022 with a Russian offensive and Ukraine holding out the outcome may not be any different as last winter.

How external factors such as the war in the Middle East pan out is relevant but will have limited effect.

The principal one is of sustainment of Ukraine’s military potential by the US and Europe and willingness of the resolve of the people and leadership in Kyiv.

The more things change the more they remain the same for these are the factors which Clausewitz had determined for success almost two centuries ago.

Ultimately how much Ukrainian President Zelensky can rally not just the West but his own people and military will determine the fate of the War in 2024.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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