“Space we can recover, time, never.” Napoleon’s infamous statement on the importance of time in military strategy and operations rings true today. In its recent counteroffensive, the Ukrainian military has made use of blitzkrieg tactics, recapturing what Volodymyr Zelensky claims to be 200 square miles of Ukrainian territory, including the town of Lyman in the north of Donetsk. This might be worth celebrating were it not for the fact that Ukraine now faces an unfortunate choice: Stall the offensive and risk getting bogged down in the east—or press on with the operation and risk the use of Russian nuclear weapons.
In blitzkrieg operations, the enemy must be defeated quickly and decisively. Otherwise, the side employing blitzkrieg is at risk of logistics breaking down and the enemy counterattacking. This is precisely what happened to the Nazis when they attempted to defeat the Soviet Union. If an enemy’s economy can withstand the negative effects of war, blitzkrieg operations are difficult to sustain. As pointed out in the book Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations Since 1871, Britain’s modern economy allowed it to survive Nazi assaults during the Battle of Britain. It seems Russia can still fight for now. As The Economist reported in August, Russia is experiencing a recession, but not severe economic collapse.
If Ukraine attempts to push Russian forces out of most of Ukraine, the Ukrainian military will need to move into more war-torn territory. Such an environment would be much different than the one the Ukrainian military has so far experienced. Ukrainian soldiers could rely on pro-Ukraine fortified routes of military equipment flowing from NATO allies. It is likely that destroyed roads are littered across eastern Ukraine. These insufficient roads will prove an issue for moving mechanized infantry at a blitzkrieg pace. As Williamson Murray and Allan Millett point out in their book, A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War, poor infrastructure within the Soviet Union made it difficult for the Nazi’s Wehrmacht to resupply their troops quickly. There is a real risk the Ukrainian army may suffer a similar fate.
Russia also could try to use its airpower to destroy Ukraine’s logistical lines and any Ukrainian reserves. This use of airpower would be parallel to the concept of Soviet deep operations. As Richard Overy details in his book Russia’s War, the use of mobile forces to strike the reserves and back of an enemy’s forces was a key component to deep operations.
Moreover, as U.S. defense officials and reporter Lara Seligman recently noted, the Russians have been able to fortify eastern parts of Ukraine, such as Donetsk, for several years now, and show no sign yet of retreating. Such defensive positions would put Ukraine’s blitzkrieg operations to the ultimate test.
Ultimately, Ukraine is left with two choices: Stop where it is now, fortify its reoccupied regions and put its mobile forces in dispersed reserves in the event of another Russian attempted blitzkrieg. Or, continue to push forward with its offensive to retake the Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. As of now, Ukraine is pursuing the latter option. Zelensky has made clear his intention to push Russia completely out of Ukraine to restore pre-2014 borders.
This push to restore the pre-2014 borders in Ukraine increases the risk of nuclear escalation. As Michael Kofman and Loukinova Fink make clear, Russia views its threat in using nuclear weapons, namely tactical nuclear weapons, as a deterrent and as a tool to “escalate to de-escalate.” Russian military doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons dictates for Russia to use nuclear weapons under two conditions: if other weapons of mass destruction are used against Russia, or if there is an existential threat to the Russian state. With U.S. intelligence agencies believing that Putin sees defeat in Ukraine as a threat to his regime, and, consequently, as an existential threat to Russia, we are quickly approaching the danger zone.
All of this brings up a vital question: what is America’s strategy in Ukraine? The Biden administration announced on October 4th its intent to send a $625 million military assistance package to Ukraine. President Biden also reaffirmed America’s commitment to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” As noted, there is a chance for Ukraine’s counteroffensive to not be sustained unless Ukraine pushes towards Russian-occupied regions, risking the use of nuclear weapons. What, then, is America’s end goal in this?
The best option available for the U.S. is to encourage a negotiated deal – one which places Ukraine as a neutral country, aligned with neither NATO nor Russia. Obviously, this choice is not what everyone wants from this war. In geopolitics and diplomacy, countries rarely – if ever – get everything they want. Oftentimes, countries take the best of the worst options available. That’s why compromise is a fundamental part of diplomacy.
Compromise is what is needed now from this war. Ukraine would do well to heed Napoleon’s warning to be more mindful of time than space in its forthcoming military strategy and operations. The risk of not doing so could lead to nuclear Armageddon, leaving Russia, Ukraine, and the U.S. with little time to make a choice on what to do next.
Benjamin Giltner is a Contributing Fellow at Defense Priorities. The views expressed are the author's own.