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How Ukraine Can Defeat Russia

To repeat, there is no real foundation for Western defeatism.  A viable strategy for a Ukrainian and Western victory is at hand, and merely requires vigorous action.

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The White House and collective West have been widely criticized for their unwillingness to devise a consistent strategy for helping Ukraine win its defensive war against Russia. 

Illustrative of this prevarication, the Financial Times circulated a story (March 22) that the White House had asked the Ukrainian government to stop its drone strikes on Russian oil refineries, because this ostensibly would raise the price of fuel in the United States during Joe Biden’s presidential election campaign.  But though the Russian production of diesel and gasoline has declined, compensatory exports of raw crude seem to be increasing.

If the White House had indeed called for a halt to Ukrainian drone attacks, this it would be tantamount to a cynical or very misguided attempt to trade Ukrainian blood for West-bound oil, even as Ukrainian civilians remain heavily exposed to Russian terror bombing.  Kyiv itself denied that the request was made and stated that it would not accede to such a request in any case. 

The truth is unclear, but the Times story (possibly Kremlin-inspired to create discord) indicates that the West remains lost for a strategy to defeat Russia.

Fortunately, from Ukraine’s perspective, a strategy is beginning to emerge from the logic of events across the theater of the war.  This strategy does not require much imagination from the West, but merely the incrementalism (very costly to the Ukrainians) that has characterized Western actions over the last two years.

The strategy relies on several conditions, but seems consistent with recent trends.  The first condition is that the current Ukrainian defense lines will generally hold, and that defeatism is not warranted.  The Kharkiv line in the north is geographically favorable.  Farther south, where the Russians recently made some gains in the Donbas area, the AFU (Armed Forces of Ukraine) could pull back 15-20 kilometers to a defense line of rivers and wetlands, pending the arrival of more artillery shells.  The entire contact line is saturated with drones on both sides, and experience of the last year has shown that drones remove the element of surprise and make defense lines both effective and static.

The situation is considerably more favorable to the Ukrainians in the south.  The AFU have seriously compromised the Russian anti-air defenses in Crimea; and a combination of Western-supplied short-range air-to-ground missiles and Ukrainian-made cruise missiles and surface drones has forced most of the Russian BSF (Black Sea Fleet) to move out of its main base in Sevastopol to Novorossiisk, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea.

It should be noted that Ukraine has modified its military strategy.  The emphasis is not so much on regaining territory, at high cost, which the AFU failed to do in their summer 2023 offensive, as on destroying the enemy’s personnel, logistics, and industrial capacity.  Ukrainian strikes on Crimea and the BSF serve this purpose well, in accordance with Volodymyr Zelensky’s assertion that Crimea will be the focus of the AFU’s actions this year.

With suitable weapons, Ukraine could exploit two key Russian vulnerabilities.  One is the geographical reliance of Russia on the Black Sea for the bulk of its international commodities trade; the other is the reliance of the economy on oil.  AFU drones have hit oil targets as far north as St. Petersburg and as far south as Tuapse, on the south-eastern Black Sea coast.  Significantly, the Kremlin has stopped the export of gasoline.

Ukrainian and Western sources concur that AFU drones have reduced total Russian refining capacity by about 14% from January through March.  Two trends are likely to follow.  One is that AFU drone strikes will increase in technological sophistication and frequency; another is that Moscow will take counter-measures, most probably by shifting some air defense installations away from the combat zone in order to cover refineries inside Russia.  It can be conjectured that the two trends will roughly cancel each other; therefore the AFU could continue to reduce refining capacity at the current rate, especially given that Russia’s territory is too large to be covered completely.

Extrapolating mathematically, Russian refining capacity could be reduced by 28% by the end of June and 42% by the end of September.  However, since two-thirds of Russia’s refineries are in the European part of the country, reachable by AFU drones, this would mean that the local effect would be greater by one-third.  In other words, refining capacity in the European part of Russia could be down by more than one-quarter or one-half by the end of September, even as fuel currently in storage would be depleted.  Imports of fuel from Belarus or Iran and transport from Siberia would be insufficient to make up the deficit.

The financial news is also not good for Russia.  About half of Russia’s foreign currency reserves of $600 billion have been frozen in Western banks; while liquid assets within the domestic National Wealth Fund have been drawn down by 44% from January 2022 to December 2023 – that is, from about $100 billion to $56 billion.  The Kremlin has increased military spending to record levels, which pushed GDP growth to a claimed 3.6% in 2023, with unemployment low because of the military industry’s demand for labor.  The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that in 2024 military spending will be $140 billion, representing 35% of total government spending and 7.1% of GDP.  Here it should be understood that expenditures on war industries are so-called “regrettable expenditures,” because they detract investment from productive civilian uses.  Consequently, the claimed GDP gain is a misleading statistic that disguises a loss in public welfare, as allocations for education, health, and social services decline.

If the economy were to flag because of fuel shortages, Russia would not be able to sustain the industrial competition with Ukraine and its Western partners that is now beginning to characterize the war.  Some Ukrainian experts believe that Russian military production has reached its peak, and has little room for expansion for lack of sanctioned Western machinery and components.  Experts also attest that Russian equipment losses at the front exceed replacement capacity.

Thus, one can visualize a situation a year or two from now where the bulk of Russian military equipment is in tatters (as is the case presently), the treasury is empty, and there will be no money for reconstituting the civilian economy.  The civilian economy shall have been further de-industrialized for lack of attention and loss of traditional markets.

The cheerless prospects for the economy perhaps help explain why the Kremlin recently was willing to risk its aviation in the Donbas region, where the Russian forces lost 14 airplanes in as many days in February.  That is, the Kremlin perhaps senses that time for further mobilization of military resources is not in Russia’s favor, as was commonly believed.  Russia’s main responses will likely be to continue missile strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure and terror bombing of civilians.

Actually, more to the point, time would not be in Russia’s favor IF the West were to continue to supply Ukraine with weapons at a requisite rate.  Ukraine’s Western partners need to supply Ukraine with enough appropriate weapons to make sure the strategic conditions mentioned above prove valid.  The AFU must be enabled to hold their defense lines and intercept Russian missile attacks; and to continue to hit targets in Crimea, the Black Sea, and in Russia itself, with a view to eventually liberating Crimea and then the Donbas.

To repeat, there is no real foundation for Western defeatism.  A viable strategy for a Ukrainian and Western victory is at hand, and merely requires vigorous action.

About the Author: Dennis Soltys

Dennis Soltys is a retired Canadian professor of comparative politics, with specialization in the former Soviet region

Written By

Dennis Soltys is a retired Canadian professor of comparative politics living in Almaty.