The war in Ukraine is not always on the front page of our newspapers these days. But the conflict seems to be shifting.
Western specialists are estimating that Russia’s military is approaching what the Prussian theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz called a culminating point — a situation in which the forces of one or both sides are incapable of further strategic offense. They are just sufficient to establish a defensive redoubt, waiting for peace negotiations, and hoping in the meantime to avoid the enemy’s wrath. Peace or defeat.
If this is correct about the Russians, Ukraine's own military seems to be gaining in strength and widening its own strategic and tactical outlook.
Earlier in August, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder — long an ally of Vladimir Putin — announced that the Russian leader is interested in real peace talks. We have heard this before. Whether this was a Schroeder trial balloon or a Putin-inspired deception, we don’t know. But we can say Putin is getting backed into a corner. For months, the signs of Russian military distress have increased.
The most recent Western estimates of Russian manpower losses cite a figure of 80,000 killed or wounded, in any case taken off the battlefield. Since the invading force originally had about 190,000 total troops, including logistics and other non-combat personnel, this loss is huge.
Attempting to compensate, Moscow has been running a kind of hidden conscription within Russia that has yielded small results. Young men are going into hiding and escaping in other ways. A few months into the war, Russian recruiters were already luring Syrian and other foreign fighters with bonuses. It now seems that the Wagner group is canvassing Russian prisons, looking for “volunteers.”
In any case, the Ukrainians don't have to kill all the Russians to win. A less deadly strategy is to destroy their ammunition and vehicles, while rendering unusable the bridges and roads necessary to get to the front lines. Dozens of ammunition dumps and operations centers have been destroyed, with considerable deaths of officers. The HIMARs and other long-range artillery systems supplied by NATO countries are having a devastating effect.
In one key instance, repeated shelling of the Antonivka Road Bridge, which is vital to resupply of Russian forces around Kherson, has shut it down. The result is that a few thousand likely desperate Russian soldiers look to be stranded on the western bank of the Dnipro River. There are reports that some are just surrendering. Putting the Antonivka out of commission will be crucial when the Ukrainians try to oust the Russians from Kherson, an offensive that may already be underway with partisan warfare inside the city.
As Russia falters, approaching its culminating point, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky now says that a partial victory that leaves Russian troops anywhere on Ukrainian soil is unacceptable. He is ruling out Ukraine accepting a peace-in-place agreement, the kind of "frozen conflict" that exists in Georgia and the Donbas. He’s even talking about taking back Crimea.
"Neither a smoldering nor frozen conflict should remain after this Russian war against Ukraine”, he says. “This is an important conclusion. Ukraine must regain everything that Russia has temporarily seized, and the aggressor state must be punished for the crime of aggression".
Even if one can doubt that Kyiv will be able to evict Russia entirely from territories it has captured, no one thought three or four months ago that the battlefield, the balance of forces, and soldiers’ morale would look anything like it does today.
Crimea, seized in 2014, appeared to be a settled issue, even if the world’s countries rejected Russia’s annexation. But then, also last week, Ukraine hit Russian installations deep in the peninsula, attacking a munitions dump at the Saki airfield near Novofedorivka.
Such Ukrainian tactical successes carry their own dangers, however. On one hand, Zelensky is raising the stakes, saying Crimea is Ukrainian, and Kyiv will never give it up. On the other hand, the rising possibility of defeat puts new pressure on Putin to escalate in response. But if his army is at a culminating point, what could Putin do if the Russian redoubt collapses?
Any analysis of this war must keep in mind that possible nuclear use cannot be excluded. This is an invulnerable trump card that hovers over the Ukraine/Russia battlefield and — let us also remember — surrounding countries as well. In an instant, nuclear use could negate Ukraine’s position if Russia dropped a tactical weapon on a Ukrainian city and threatened more.
It’s clear Putin wouldn’t want to do it, nor is it in his or Russia’s interest. But how much defeat could Putin take?