The war of attrition resulting from the failure of the Russian ‘blitzkrieg’ in Ukraine continues tragically with four scenarios ahead, some more probable than others in light of the battle of Bakhmut that has been going on for months now.
The comparison with Thermopylae and the possibility of a Pyrrhic victory
The Russian attempt to invade Ukraine from the north, east and south to take first Kyiv and possibly the other main cities in a short time failed, the conflict has turned into a protracted attrition warfare, large-scale, high-intensity and multi-domain – albeit with a predominantly terrestrial connotation. The Russian offensive momentum essentially ended last summer with the latest gains in Donbass, while subsequent Ukrainian counter-offensives in the autumn liberated large swathes around Lyman e Kherson.
For the past five months the battle has been raging mainly around the town of Bakhmut under Russian attack. Indeed, Russia has concentrated and lost an unprecedented amount of units there, for both military and political reasons. Among the first, the importance of the center to pave the way for a subsequent offensive towards the most important cities of Kramatorsk e Severodonestk. Among the latter, the Moscow power struggle between the regular armed forces and the mercenary company Wagnerwith the latter betting a lot of political-military capital on its success in Bakhmut where the Russian Defense Ministry had failed.
Ukraine has chosen to staunchly defend the town of Donbass for military and political reasons. The main operational factor is the ratio of military losses strongly unfavorable to the Russians – is estimated in the order of 5 a 1 – due to tactical and operational reasons, including the Russian employment doctrine itself and the rivalry between Wagner and regular units. In fact, keeping Moscow’s forces busy at Bakhmut meant depriving them for months of the ability to break through the long Ukrainian front at other points. In addition, this made it possible to gain time until more arrived 100 Western-made tanks mainly donated by Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland
Norway, Poland, United Kingdom, Spain, United States. To the operational ratio is added a political and symbolic one: the heroic resistenza di Bakhmutsuch as that of Mariupol in 2022has raised the morale of the Ukrainian population who see the Russian invader stopped by their own soldiers for months and months compared to Moscow’s plans.
Wanting to venture a historical comparison, Bakhmut – and before Mariupol – were in a certain sense for Ukraine what they were the Thermopylae for the Greek cities facing the Persian invasion: a heroic resistance in the face of a numerically overwhelming enemy which allowed the rest of the forces to better prepare for the defense of their territory. Even if in a few days or weeks Bakhmut should finally fall into Russian hands, it would probably be a Pyrrhic victory: the eventual conquest of a few tens of square kilometers will in fact have worn down the Russian forces so much as to make their further offensive almost impossible in the Donbass or elsewhere.
Four scenarios for the conflict…
More than 13 months after it began, the war can still turn towards four different scenarios, identified a year ago on AffarInternazionali on the basis of the balance of power in the field. The first would see in theory a further Russian advancebut it is a hypothesis that has become even more unlikely today – bordering on impossible – given the difficulty of taking Bakhmut despite the use of tens of thousands of conscripts recalled to arms by Putin last September.
The second scenario would see the liberation by Ukraine of substantial portions of territory occupied by Russia. The probability of such a hypothesis is difficult to evaluate also due to the strategic communication of Ukraine understandably intended to confuse the Russian invader, to encourage domestic public opinion, and to push the Western allies to supply better and more military equipment as soon as possible. In the uncertainty – and secrecy – that surrounds the Ukrainian plans, it can be ventured that a counter-offensive by Kyv is difficult but possible, especially if it avoids the Crimea – geographically more defensible from those who occupy it – and aimed at the portion of the front near the Sea of Azov, for example towards Melitopol. Interrupting territorial continuity between the occupied territories in Donbass and Crimea, and thus regaining access to the Sea of Azov, would be a great victory for Ukraine, especially compared to the situation a year ago when Europe questioned the of Kyiv and Kharkiv in the face of the Russian offensive.
…of which two are more probable
Il third scenarioto date somewhat likely at least in the short term, sees the war of attrition continue on large scale and high intensity, with bloody battles in certain areas of the long front and Russian shelling all over the Ukrainian territory, with no major advances by either fighting side. Russia has the military and industrial capability – as well as autocratic control of the home front – necessary for a protracted war, while Ukraine is willing and can continue to defend itself as long as it has the Western weapons to do so. However, although a war of attrition can continue at this level for several months, it is hard to assume that it will continue for years, as the attrition of the two sides’ human resources will reach increasingly high and difficult to sustain levels.
The fourth scenario is therefore quite probable in the medium to long term, and sees the continuation of a low-intensity conflict, if not exactly frozen, along a front line substantially similar to the current one, militarized and not recognized by the international community. Unfortunately, it would not be new for the tragic recent history of Ukraine, which has seen about 14 thousand fallen in Donbass after the Russian invasion of 2014 and before that of 2022 in what for the West was not a war. Both sides seem to have the ability to maintain the current front line for a long time, which in the meantime has been fortified on both sides, and to prohibit deep penetrations by the opposing side.
The last two scenarios presuppose the solidity of a couple of elements that proved to be fundamental during the conflict. On the one hand a strong and constant military and economic support to Kyiv by the United States, Europe and other Western allies, crucial to balance the mass of Russian forces. On the other the will of the Kremlin to continue a war that has so far brought little benefit and large, escalating costs not only to Russia as a whole but also specifically to its military and political leadership.
Rebus sic stantibus, the war continues. And this is the reality that Italy, Europe and the entire West have to deal with.
Cover photo EPA/ROMAN CHOP