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    Ukraine’s War on Four Fronts
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Ukraine’s War on Four Fronts

Ukrainian ammunition shortages make it difficult to maintain a defensive position along the 620-mile (1,000km) frontline. The loss of Avdiivka1 and subsequent retreat of Ukrainian forces is indicative of what may happen if Ukrainian President Zelensky cannot address the multifront war he is increasingly facing.

Ukraine’s first front is the land war that began in 2014. As Ukraine struggles to regenerate capable combat forces after losing over 70% of combat experienced personnel2 since the 2022 full-scale invasion, Russian battlefield losses exceed over 400,000,3 a casualty rate on par with American losses4 in World War Two. Despite such losses, Russia continues its 'Meat Wave'5 assaults akin to Soviet General Zhukov’s use of massed human waves.6 These attacks force Ukraine’s military to go on the defensive,7 particularly given the constraints of limited foreign assistance and the demographic realities of Ukraine’s 40 million or so residents versus Russia’s 143 million. The challenge now is to build a resilient force that can withstand these assaults, especially trench defenses that can repel drones in the land and air domain. Surviving 2024 also entails disrupting Russian logistics through espionage, partisan groups, and deeper strikes inside Russia. Disrupting Russian rail lines, supply routes, and energy infrastructure makes it more difficult for Russian forces to employ mass along the frontlines, giving the current defense-in-depth approach ample time to attrit Russian troops.

Ukrainian tanks

Ukrainian tanks in the winter field. Yevhen Silkin, Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. CC-BY-SA-2.0

The second front is the growing morale issue within the Ukrainian army. Not surprisingly, interviews and other interactions with frontline forces find many who say they are “growing exhausted” as they fight in a war that is defined by trenches,8 artillery bombardments,9 and precise suicide drone attacks.10 Zelensky’s removal11 of General Valery Zaluzhnyi to reboot the war effort has added tension within the ranks across the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as Zaluzhnyi 'was like a father to many.'12 His replacement, General Oleksandr Syrsky is known by many as 'the butcher'13 because Syrskyi had14 'pushed for the bloody defense of Bakhmut when it was worth taking people out of there.' Relieving Zaluzhnyi was partly due to Ukraine’s failed 2023 summer counter-offensive.15 These developments all contribute to widespread frustration across Ukraine’s military. Moreover, the continued modernization of the military requires promoting officers that do not rely on Soviet tactics and doctrine – a tendency many identify in Syrskyi’s decisions. Genuine modernization is a necessary condition to allow Ukraine’s military to remain more efficient16 than their Russian counterparts as that military undergoes its own modernization under the pressure of warfare.

The third front is Ukrainian society. Despite daily cruise missile and drone strikes against Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure, President Zelensky wrestles with mobilizing 500,000 new troops17 to continue the fight against occupying Russian forces. However, Ukraine’s Parliament and government leaders are divided18 on the best options for how to generate more manpower for Ukraine’s military. Maintaining domestic cohesion and the will to resist and fight make Zelensky’s job more difficult if he cannot strike the right social contract with Ukrainians writ large.

Ukraine's National Guard "Rubizh" brigade hunting Russia's "Shahed" drones.

Ukraine's National Guard "Rubizh" brigade hunting Russia's "Shahed" drones. National Guard of Ukraine. CC-BY-4.0

The fourth and most difficult front, one that is vital for the future of Ukraine’s survival, is international aid and support. Since Russia’s 2022 invasion, over 50 countries have provided19 about €250 billion in assistance (e.g., military, economic, humanitarian, etc.) to Ukraine. Now 'donor fatigue'20 is setting in as Russia spreads21 propaganda about aid being siphoned off due to corruption.22 Continued American political dysfunction has stalled military aid to Ukraine,23 leading to Ukraine’s loss of Avdiivka.24 To maintain international support and aid, Zelensky must continue strategic communication efforts,25 much like his country did to demonstrate Ukrainian victories early on in 2022, which signaled Ukraine’s willingness to fight and resist Russian forces to an international audience. Moreover, Zelensky must continue public efforts that demonstrate effective anti-corruption, while highlighting internal reforms that elevate democratic ideals and rule of law. Audacious attacks, such as those against Russia’s Black Sea fleet26 also help garner international support for these cheap naval drone attacks, demonstrating that Ukraine can cause substantial destruction via minimal investments from Western donors.

Addressing each front for Zelensky is no easy task. The land war requires ammo, weapons, and troops – not to mention technological advancements en masse like unjammable autonomous drones capable of using AI to attack Russian positions. Furthermore, Zelensky has taken to blaming27 the failed 2023 summer counter-offensive on his suggestion that the plans were leaked to Russia (even though they were widely broadcast in Western media). Ukraine’s military has become more proficient at drafting numerous fake war-plans to make it more difficult for Russia to decipher upcoming 2024 Ukrainian military operations. Perhaps more important is the close on-going relationship28 between American and Ukrainian intelligence agencies that relays critical information about Russian plans.

US President Joe Biden visits Ukraine in February 2023.

US President Joe Biden visits Ukraine in February 2023. The White House. 

Amidst these pressures, there are only two foreseeable potential bailouts for Zelensky. First, the US and EU may decide that it is in their long-term strategic interests to deliver more military aid to Ukraine. The delivery of more artillery and ammunition would make the loss of more territory much less likely while providing Ukraine’s soldiers with more time to build their own defensive positions. This attritional dimension of the war is about finding out which side grows exhausted first, and more western aid would tilt that balance more in Ukraine’s favor. Second, a growing chorus of Western leaders, including from Canada, Czechia, Estonia, France, Lithuania, Netherlands, and Poland, are increasingly more open to the idea of sending troops to Ukraine. The idea of sending a European Union-flagged military mission to Ukraine29 has been discussed, and one finds reasoned arguments30 that support sending compact units of US special operations soldiers that maintain small footprints and are well suited to tight policy spaces as political leaders worry about escalating this conflict. 

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Air Force, US Naval War College, Department of Defense, or the US Government. This article was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.

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