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Is the West’s slow-walk strategy dooming Ukraine? General Zaluzhnyi’s memo says yes

Here is how to read between the lines of Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief’s essay on what Ukraine needs to defeat Russia
Zaluzhnyi
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. Photo: President.gov.ua
Is the West’s slow-walk strategy dooming Ukraine? General Zaluzhnyi’s memo says yes

General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, recently published an essay titled “Modern positional warfare and how to win in it.” While many have interpreted this as an admission of stalemate, Zaluzhnyi himself never used the term.

He describes land warfare as becoming more positional due to the lack of military asymmetry:

  • Both parties – when moving forward – are advancing against fortified positions protected by minefields, artillery, MLRS, anti-tank weapons, and manoeuvre forces in reserve.
  • Both are able to observe what the opponent is preparing far behind the frontline.
  • Both can targeth command and control nodes, ammunition and fuel depots, and concentrations of soldiers and weapons in the rear.
  • Both use precision ammunition.
  • Both struggle to establish the additional forces needed to explore the advantage of a potential breakthrough. Instead, they focus on securing a 1,200 km long frontline.
  • Both are being denied the use of conventional Air Power due to the density of Air Defence systems in the theatre.
  • Both are, not least, developing their ability to conduct and defend themselves against drone warfare.

The general concludes that breaking the deadlock would take a massive technological leap. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”

Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief reveals his strategy to defeat Russia

The general does, however, never mention a stalemate. Quite the opposite, he describes a situation where Russia and Ukraine are doing their best to wear down the opponent. The war continues to evolve, and we witness huge dynamics in other spheres but land warfare. While Russia still has the advantage, Ukraine is little by little gaining the initiative in maritime, air, and land warfare. And it has not yet peaked.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is, however, warning against a protracted war. For Ukraine, the continuation of positional warfare equals defeat.

Ukraine is both fighting a battle for its survival as well as the protection of European security and stability. It has been drawn into a war that has never before been fought. It has taken all the worst elements of World War I and introduced new, modern, low-cost, but highly effective weapons systems enabling the parties to fight a grueling war of attrition.

Josep Borrelll, the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, describes the war as a global problem. He stresses that the coming months will define global peace and the world’s future.

If Ukraine loses, we lose.”

That’s why General Zaluzhnyi’s advice on how to win the war is crucial.

This article will discuss both what he says, what he doesn’t say, and what he implies.

What he says

Firstly, he is consciously demeaning the enemy by writing “russia” without capital letters. Due to the heroic struggle of the Ukrainian people and appeals on social networks, the National Commission on State Language Standards has decided that writing words like “russia” and “moscow” in lowercase won’t be considered a mistake in Ukraine. It reflects Ukraine’s perception of its neighbour: a state sponsoring terrorism, acting in violation of all international laws and conventions involved in both genocide and ecocide.

Secondly, to counter all advocates for negotiations (at the cost of Ukrainian territorial integrity), he describes the failures of the UN and OSCE – both essential elements of the international architecture that has ensured security, stability, and prosperity in Europe since WW2. Due to their inefficiency, Ukraine and its international partners can only restore territorial integrity by military force.

Thirdly, he presents the war as a broader confrontation: “An armed confrontation between democratic and authoritarian political regimes with the prospect of its spread to other regions of the planet with similar geopolitical models (Israel and the Gaza Strip, South and North Koreas, Taiwan and China, etc.).”

Fourthly, he is discussing land warfare, command and control, and logistics. When discussing Air Power, Zaluzhnyi is primarily describing drone war in support of land operations.

The essay provides advice as to how to win the land war. Not the war.

Fifthly, he is providing a very honest assessment of the situation. The Ukrainian Armed Forces “entered the war with 120 tactical aircraft, out of which only 40 were considered to be technically suitable for utilization, and 33 medium and short-range anti-aircraft missile battalions, of which only 18 had fully serviceable equipment.” The combat aircraft and helicopters were all Soviet legacy and more than five years past their life expectancy. It had limited ability to breach minefields.

While Ukraine had built a modern EW capacity, it was still vastly inferior to that of the russian federation. Ukraine had – and still has – only a third of russia’s manpower potential.

He describes a war where both Russia and Ukraine suffer significant difficulties and large losses of material and personnel. “The prolonged nature of the war, limited opportunities for the rotation of soldiers on the line of contact, gaps in legislation that seem to legally evade mobilization, significantly reduce the motivation of citizens to serve with the military.”

Zaluzhnyi highlights russian capacities and warns against underestimating the enemy: “..despite the statements of some so-called “military analysts,” various publications, including in the russian media, regarding the gradual weakening of russia, we have no right to belittle the importance and capabilities of russian weapons, its ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and countermeasures, the ability of the military-industrial complex of the aggressor state to supply the troops with a significant number of both outdated and modern weapons and equipment. We must realistically assess threats, analyze experience, and draw conclusions.”

The general is describing an enemy capable of learning from past mistakes, introducing countermeasures to Western weapons that are slowly being introduced into the battlefield, and increasing the production of weapons and ammunition despite Western sanctions.

Lastly, General Zaluzhnyi’s advice focuses on turning a positional war into manoeuvre warfare, and, not least, avoiding a protracted war. To find a way out of the positional form of warfare, he argues that it is necessary to:

  • gain air superiority;
  • breach mine barriers in depth;
  • increase the effectiveness of counter-battery; create and train the necessary reserves;
  • and build up electronic warfare (EW) capabilities.

Failing to change the dynamics and create the military advantages that can stop the war from being prolonged, carries significant risks for Ukraine (and consequently, Europe). The present situation is beneficial to russia, which is trying in every possible way to reconstitute and increase its military power.

What he does not say.

While he stresses the importance of conventional systems like missiles and ammunition, artillery systems, missile systems, electronic warfare, and other types of weapons and equipment provided by partners, general Zaluzhnyi discusses primarily Land Warfare, Drone Warfare, Command and Control, and Logistics.

He does not discuss either Sea Power or Air Power.

Zaluzhnyi does not stress the need for Air Defence to counter russian combat aircraft, helicopters, long-range cruise, and ballistic missiles or drones. That does not mean it will be less important moving forward. Air Defence is, on the contrary, already established as the Ukrainian government’s most urgent need. It is not only meant to protect Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure but also enable the Ukrainian Land Forces to increase the pace of the ongoing counteroffensive.

Nor does he highlight the need for modern, western-made combat aircraft. That discussion is long finished, and the process of integrating F-16 into the Ukrainian Air Force has finally started. The new combat aircraft is believed to start operating over Ukraine in 5-9 months. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway have already pledged the much-needed aircraft. The US has allowed its allies to provide Ukraine with F-16 but has yet to pledge combat aircraft from its vast inventory.

Oddly, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine does not mention the crucial importance of rebuilding the Ukrainian Navy. Ukraine is no longer economically viable due to russia’s war of aggression, including its destruction of critical infrastructure, industry, agricultural production, and not least, maritime embargo. While Ukraine has succeeded in opening a shipping lane that has increased both imports and exports, this is, at best, a high-risk endeavour. Civilian vessels are still exposed to maritime threats (e.g., russian Naval Air Power, cruise missiles, torpedoes, drones, and mines). Russia has only refrained from using its full potential until now, possibly out of fear of international repercussions.

Naval drones (“Sea Babies”) have succeeded in denying the Black Sea Fleet freedom of action. Warships have been relocated from Crimea to mainland russia. The russian navy is, however, still a readily available maritime force capable of stopping all civilian shipping if it so decides.

General Zaluzhnyi does not mention the impact the Ukrainian operations have on the enemy. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have targeted key Russian capabilities since early 2023. In October alone, it destroyed more tanks and armored vehicles than any other month since 24 February 2022. The number of Russian casualties and artillery pieces destroyed was the second-highest on record.

Since the counteroffensive started on 4 June, Ukraine has liquidated 98,950 russian soldiers, and destroyed 1,491 tanks, 2,502 armoured vehicles, 3,950 pieces of artillery, 293 MLRS, 237 air defence systems, 9 combat aircraft, 26 helicopters and 3,555 trucks.

Russia might have an “unlimited” manpower potential, but they are slowly running out of weapon systems and the ability to sustain the war. The war of attrition might not be exhausting Russia, but it is exhausting its soldiers. The information space is full of reports of low morale, complaints about lack of critical capabilities, poor leadership and Russia’s use of extreme measures to force its soldiers to move forward. Ukraine has succeeded in convincing 17,000 to lay down their arms and desert.

While Russia cannot sustain operations in the long run, it still believes it can sustain it longer than Ukraine and the West. Zaluzhnyi supports the Russian appraisal and stresses the need to do more quicker.

What he implies

General Valerii Zaluzhnyi is outlining the need for technological advances to break the “impasse.” The decisive factor will be not a single new invention but will come from combining all the technical solutions that already exist, he said. He urges innovation in drones, electronic warfare, anti-artillery capabilities, and demining equipment, as well as in the use of robotics.

At the same time, he points out that time is of the essence while highlighting that the West has not yet been able to ramp up the production of its defense industries.

It is not expected to achieve the output needed before 2025. The NATO countries are presently procuring weapons and ammunition from non-Western suppliers. Some of the weapons pledged for Ukraine (e.g., air defense) will not be delivered before November 2025. Ukraine and the US are developing hybrid air defence systems and delivering systems long decommissioned from service.

The West is running out of weapons and ammunition that can be given to Ukraine but is still discussing the need to increase production.

On 4 October, CNN reported that NATO countries are running out of ammunition to give to Ukraine. NATO and British officials urged the bloc’s nations to ramp up production to “keep Ukraine in the fight. Frustratingly, I argued that “NATO is running out of weapons with which it can supply Ukraine” last year already.

Nearly two years later, the West is still discussing the urgent need to act.

Russia is, in contrast, fast increasing its defense production output. It is believed that it is in the process of building new attack aviation squadrons. It has increased the production of missiles from 60-70 per month in May to 100 in August and 115 in October. It has built new facilities for the mass production of drones. Russia has, not least, secured defence supplies from Iran and North Korea.

The advice provided by Zaluzhnyi and Ukraine’s urgent needs do not match the industrial output of the West. Nor do they match the slow Western decision processes, defined by their fear of crossing Russia’s hollow red lines and failure to understand the scale and scope of the war.

Ukraine’s urgent need for defense aid to avoid a stalemate and a protracted war does not match the slow and incremental delivery of weapons and ammunition. On the contrary, the latter has helped turn the war into a positional war. The West has not been equipping Ukraine to win the war.

Why isn’t the West equipping Ukraine to win the war?

Highlighting the need to act quickly and resolutely to avoid a protracted war while simultaneously stressing the lack of industrial output to support the urgent need to shift the military balance in favor of Ukraine, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine does not state the only obvious alternative open to the democratic world: NATO or a coalition of the willing needs to intervene militarily in line with the 2010 Strategic Concept and the UN doctrine Responsible to Protect. He makes the arguments needed for the West to conclude itself.

I have long argued why a military intervention is in NATO’s interest.

The EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’s statement that “If Ukraine loses, we lose,” stressing that the coming months will be defining for global peace and the future of the world, helps reinforce the message. The assessment is a result of Russia’s war of aggression and NATO’s decision not to intervene. The latter is, however, only a question about political will.

General Zaluzhnyi is, however, not criticizing Western strategy. Ukraine is critically dependent upon the defense, finance, and humanitarian support from its partners.

However, his assessment of the enemy and the battlefield’s situation implies that he believes that the Western strategy does not work.

The sanctions do not stop Russia from waging war in Ukraine. As mentioned above, it is even expanding its defense production. International support for Ukraine may also erode in the light of what is being seen as Western double standards in the Middle East, reducing the likelihood of the Global South joining the international effort to isolate Russia. More crucially, the slow mobilization of the US and European defense industries, combined with the very slow and incremental inflow of weapons and ammunition, have helped ensure the positional and protracted war.

The General stresses the importance of domestic defense production to be able to “continue the effective destruction of enemy warehouses, disruption of supply chains”. That is fully in line with Ukraine’s recent initiative to establish an International Defence Industries Alliance to increase its domestic defence production, when possible jointly with international industries. He argues that while partner nations are in the process of dramatically increasing the production capacity of weapons and ammunition, the process is too slow.

Nearly 10 years into the war – or two years after the start of the full-scale war – the production will not peak for yet 1-2 years.

Zaluzhnyi is rightfully implying that Ukraine cannot trust the 54 members of the “Ukraine Defence Contact Group” to provide the defense systems and ammunition Ukraine needs tomorrow.

It’s not only a question of production capacity but also costs and priorities as the international security environment continues to evolve, and not least, Western focus shifts (e.g. Middle East, South China Sea and the Arctic).

Ukraine has reported Russian losses throughout the war while keeping its own losses a closely guarded secret. That has not stopped Western media from speculating. In August, The New York Times quoted anonymous officials claiming that Russia’s military casualties, the officials said, were approaching 300,000. The number included around 120,000 killed in action (KIA) and 170-180,000 wounded (WIA). Ukrainian casualties were believed to be 70,000 KIA and 100-120,000 WIA. The Russian losses reported by the West are traditionally far lower than the Ukrainian reports. As of today, Ukraine has reported 306,860 KIA, implying that as many as 500-550,000 are injured.

While the numbers remain unclear, General Zaluzhnyi stresses that “offensive operations of both parties occur with significant difficulties and large losses of materiel and personnel”. Ukraine is suffering many of the same challenges Russia is facing regarding the lack of rotation of troops, recruitment, and motivation.

Referring to the front line in Avdiivka, where Russia has recently made incremental gains during the last weeks by throwing in two of its armies, he points out that they saw 140 Russian machines destroyed and ablaze within hours of coming within range of Ukrainian artillery. “Those fleeing were chased by “first-person-view” drones, remote-controlled and carrying explosive charges that their operators simply crash into the enemy”.

He stressed, however, that the same unfolds when Ukrainian troops try to advance. Not mentioning numbers – and recognizing that Russia’s view on the value of human life is highly different than the Ukrainian values and principles – he still implies that Ukrainian soldiers are suffering similar horror as the Russians. Unless Ukraine can break out of the positional war and defeat Russia, it is going to find that it “simply doesn’t have enough people to fight.”

General Zaluzhnyi implies that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are suffering huge losses when trying to advance and might falter and fall unless it is able to break out of a future impasse.

Conclusion

The West has long warned about the risk of stalemate and protracted war. As early as February 2023, General Mark Milley, the former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to achieve their military aims, and argued that the war would end at the negotiating table. 

At the time, I agreed with him, stressing, however, that “he is right only because the US and Europe deny Ukraine the tools needed to evict the Russian forces. On 29 January the Institute for the Study of War pointed out that the patterns of Western aid – slow and incremental – and its refusal to supply Ukraine with higher-end weapons systems have shaped Ukraine’s ability to develop and execute sound campaign plans. It has limited Ukraine’s ability to initiate and continue large-scale counter-offensive operations.”

In March, I stressed that “neither the US nor NATO would ever consider starting an offensive against dug-in and prepared ground forces, supported by long-range fire, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters without being able to project overwhelming force in all three dimensions.

Most of the prerequisites will […] not be in place before summer. Some – including long-range fire, combat aircraft, and sheer numbers – might not be in place this year. Some of the requirements are still being denied. […]

Still, Ukraine might attempt a counteroffensive before summer for lack of alternatives as time favors Russia.”

Ukraine started the counteroffensive on 4 June without many of the prerequisites in place. It started for lack of alternatives and in recognition of the West’s unwillingness – or inability – to set up Ukraine for victory.

Despite its lack of territorial gains, it has been highly successful. It has been bleeding the Russian Armed Forces, reducing it to the second-strongest army in Ukraine. A country without a Navy has forced most of the Black Sea Fleet to relocate and denied it freedom of navigation. Ukraine has been able to reopen shipping lanes and restart imports and exports. It has denied Russia Air Supremacy as both parties have embraced Drone Warfare. It has not least, launched numerous strikes against Russian rear areas, including headquarters, logistic hubs, air bases, warships, and ground lines of operations.

General Zaluzhnyi’s essay and interview are noteworthy not only for what he says, but also for what he doesn’t say, and what he implies.

  • He argues in favor of technological development and a massive technological leap to break the deadlock.
  • He stresses the urgent need to establish domestic production of defense systems and ammunition.
  • In the process, he implies that Western strategy does not work, and Ukraine’s partners cannot be trusted to provide Ukraine with what is needed to defeat Russia.

Track records prove him right.

The General stresses that time is of the essence, a conclusion supported by Josep Borrelll. The latter argues that the coming months will be defining for global peace and the future of the world, underlining that “If Ukraine loses, we lose.” None of the suggested measures, however, allows for a quick fix. They only ensure Ukraine’s ability to sustain its war efforts in the absence of – or as today – with a continued slow and incremental Western defense support.

General Zaluzhnyi does not suggest a quick fix because it has already been debated and shot down by NATO: A Ukrainian NATO membership and/or a Western military intervention.

His observations and recommendations, however, more than imply that urgent measures are needed as time benefits Russia. There are no other options available to us than Ukrainian membership and/or military intervention.

If Ukraine loses, we lose.”

The costs of failing to act are carried by us all.

Hans Petter Midttun is educated at the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy, the Norwegian National Defence Command and Staff College and the Norwegian Defense College, as well as education from the Federal Defence Forces of Germany. He has broad international experience from both operations and postings abroad (NATO, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and Ukraine). The service includes seven years in command of frigates and six NATO deployments. Midttun put into operation, tested and verified the operational capabilities of one of the newest frigates in the Norwegian Navy. He served at the Norwegian Joint Headquarters and Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) before being posted to Ukraine as the Norwegian Defence Attache (2014-2018). Based on previous experiences, Midttun is presently publishing articles and analytic works on the security situation in and around Ukraine as a private person.
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