Main Image Credit A road in Bucha littered with Russian tanks and armoured vehicles destroyed by Ukrainian forces. Courtesy of mvs.gov.ua / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
The Russian Army has suffered tactical defeats, but to prevent its recovery the pressure must be sustained.
The revelation that the inhabitants of Bucha were massacred prior to the withdrawal of Russian forces has intensified calls for expanding military assistance to Ukraine. The murder of civilians may be an inflection point in perceptions of the war, but the use of reprisals to collectively punish communities for resistance is a standard component of Russian anti-partisan warfare, and neither Bucha nor the response to it should therefore be treated separately from the wider conflict, within which such atrocities are a symptom and not a bug in Russian behaviour.
The discovery of what happened in Bucha – enabled by Ukrainian forces retaking ground north of Kyiv – marks a broader turning point in the fighting. In the first month, the Russians were taking heavy casualties, but nevertheless advanced to surround several Ukrainian cities. They outran their supply lines and so have now had to retreat from the northern axis to concentrate against Donbas. Morale in the Russian Army is low. The question now is whether the Russians can regroup and concentrate, or whether the Ukrainians can prevent them from doing so.
Blunting the Donbas Axis
Russia’s initial concept of operations failed because of poor operational design, a lack of preparation, and stiff Ukrainian resistance. The next month is likely to see the Russians consolidate around Mariupol, push fresh units into Donbas to try to surround the Joint Forces Operations area, and continue their steady progress northwards along the Dnieper River. This means Russian forces need only sustain one axis with artillery ammunition, and because the advance is along a broad front, its logistics tail should be exposed to fewer raids by the Ukrainians.
That the Russians now have a more realistic operational concept and a better appreciation of Ukrainian capabilities means they may prove more effective. Ukrainian forces in Donbas are tired, have limited ammunition, and with less air defence than was available around Kyiv they will struggle to reposition. Preventing the Russians from building momentum therefore means that the Ukrainians must shift troops and key supplies towards Donbas to prevent the Russians from recovering their morale and order.
Kyiv has few incentives to seek a ceasefire, which would simply allow Russia to consolidate its gains and prepare more thoroughly for a future round of fighting
For those supporting Ukraine, the immediate priority is to provide a steady flow of anti-tank guided weapons (ATGWs), optics, man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), ammunition for Ukrainian artillery and surface-to-air missile systems, and loitering munitions. The latter – from Harpies and Harrops, to Hero-120s and Switchblade 600s – would allow the Ukrainian military to strike Russian air defences, command posts, and artillery in depth, potentially allowing Ukrainian aviation to resupply units that are cut off.
Jets, tanks and other more elaborate weapons systems requested by Ukraine are of limited relevance to this fight. The Russian attack will likely step up within two weeks, and whether they begin to build momentum will be discernible within four. This is too short a time horizon for larger and more complex military hardware to affect the result. It is critical, therefore, that Western states keep up a steady tempo of these materials.
Regaining the Initiative
In the opening phases of the war, most Western military analysis – including my own – was pessimistic about the prospects for the conventional Ukrainian military. This was largely because of a failure to anticipate the lack of planning or preparation among Russian units. In any case, in the first phase of the fighting, the focus of military assistance was on systems that could immediately shift the balance on the ground. Questions of the longer-term reconstitution of Ukrainian combat power seemed premature.
Now, however, it is evident that even if the Russians manage to make gains in Donbas, the conflict will be protracted. Kyiv has few incentives to seek a ceasefire, which would simply allow Russia to consolidate its gains and prepare more thoroughly for a future round of fighting. Ukraine would struggle to gain access to finance for reconstruction with the prospect of a renewed Russian offensive on the horizon. Russia could return to its pursuit of the economic and political destabilisation of Ukraine in the meantime.
If European countries are serious about their language of ‘never again’, then the most important action is to stay the course in arming Ukraine to ensure that Russia loses the war and occupies as few towns as possible
Yet if Ukraine is to sustain a protracted campaign, it will incur losses of equipment and personnel. As the Ukrainian military goes on the offensive, it will have fewer troops with the necessary skills to manoeuvre. Russia also retains formations as yet uncommitted to the conflict. The Ukrainian military will eventually exhaust NATO’s limited supply of Soviet-era air defence missiles and other materiel supporting its systems. As stockpiles of spare parts and munitions for key systems begin to run out, it will be necessary to transition to alternative platforms.
In this context, some of the longer-term offers of aid – even with their associated training burden – begin to make sense. If Ukraine keeps up the fight with its current capabilities augmented by tactical Western systems for the next two months, the intervening period can be used to train some Ukrainian troops on successor systems. What those systems should be must ultimately come down to the industrial and logistical capacity to support them. There is little point foisting worn-out equipment that is no longer in production on Ukraine, since once its forces have learned to use it, the equipment will not be sustainable. Instead, Ukraine will need to shift in the medium term onto Western platforms. NATO members therefore should work out what is most sustainable and plan accordingly.
The answer to Bucha is not for NATO to enter the conflict. It may be to expand sanctions. But if European countries are serious about their language of ‘never again’, then the most important action is to stay the course in arming Ukraine to ensure that Russia loses the war and occupies as few towns as possible. Current efforts need to be kept up in the short term. But now it is clear that Kyiv will survive, NATO members must start to seriously consider what their support will deliver into the summer.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare