Russia bets it can outlast the attention span of the West to defeat Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting that the war in Ukraine will drag on for years and that Russia can outlast the attention span of the West, says professor Peter Roberts in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Vazha Tavberidze. Roberts is a senior associate fellow at the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute, a think tank focused on defense and security. The West's preferred way of fighting today –  massive overwhelming force meant to achieve a quick victory – is not working in Ukraine, argues Roberts. For Ukraine, much will depend on the country's ability to step up its own military production, with its Western partners playing a role.

A destroyed Russian tank. Image Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.

By Vazha Tavberidze

How much has the Western way of war evolved since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022? What has been learned?

'It's an interesting question. The Western way of war is a concept that many people have held to be fixed, that it was about maneuver, that it was about expeditionary warfare, about high technology, that it was about speed and tempo, air power, precision. And I think that's an idea that held sway through most of the Western powers since probably the 1980s.

But if we look back to 2003, 2004, that was probably the high point and the end of that concept. Thereafter came a series of very difficult engagements for the West, a series of lessons which they could, should have, perhaps some of them did learn, about the idea that maneuver, time, and speed didn't necessarily work that way, particularly with the enduring campaigns they experienced over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And one thing I think that Ukraine has brought out very strongly is the return to conventional high-end warfare that, in a sense, was largely forgotten after Korea and Vietnam: long, protracted, grizzly fighting.

The idea that it could be fast was a very selective approach from the West that said: Hey, we can make wars happen swiftly, quickly, and with good ends. And Ukraine has prompted many Western allies and their militaries to say: Oh, we need to go back to an industrialized scale of readiness and preparation, of training of manpower, of capabilities. And not to forget some of those conventional arms that many in the West wanted to sacrifice, so that they could invest in cyberspace and all that new technology that was thought to be battle-winning, but really hasn't delivered.'

So, the old saying that the boys will be home by Christmas is now further from the truth than ever?

'It is. And I think there's a real dilemma in Western militaries because they are geared and prepared to fight short, sharp wars, high technology wars. And they're also facing this dilemma that that's not how the enemies are fighting. And I think the fact that the enemy gets a vote has largely been forgotten in Western military mindsets.'

Was it because the odds were so much in the West's favor?

'Absolutely. And although the odds were always in the West's favor, you could see these lessons coming out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 You had in Afghanistan an alliance that was unmatched across history in terms of military capability, that had more computing power than the rest of the world, that had intelligence and analysis, that owned the air and had the most sophisticated technology in generations…and yet they were beaten. And they were beaten by a force of 5,000-10,000 fighters, who were riding around on horseback, building bombs in mud huts, and fighting with World War II weapons.

So, this idea that the Western way of war, as they envisaged it for 30 years, could endure and would still succeed was deeply flawed and problematic. And yet very few people accepted that. There were huge amounts of denial, and there still is denial.

For all the announcements after Ukraine that Germany would rearm, that the U.K. would invest more money, you see very few states living up to it. Poland perhaps; Sweden; certainly the Baltic states; but very few of the big [European military] powerhouses – the U.K., France, and Germany – have lived up to the political rhetoric straight after Ukraine.

And I think that therein lies one of the key problems: they can't seem to convince their populations or themselves that they're at a moment where they need to really invest.'

A Ukrainian soldier inspects a downed Russian Shahed drone. Image Telegram.

The combined arms maneuver was widely advocated prior to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Yet we saw little of this and, in fact, Ukraine's commander in chief of its armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, pointed that out in a recent interview with The Economist and admitted the war is at a stalemate. Why?

'The combined arms maneuver is only a way of fighting, right? It means that instead of fighting as dismounted infantry or just an artillery battle you fight with all the arms together: engineering, artillery, infantry, plus airpower and long-range strike initiatives. The difference is that the West expected to use maneuver far more; to move forces around the battlefield to attack an enemy's will and cohesion to fight. And Ukraine did that on several occasions. The Ukrainian general staff did a brilliant job of attacking Russian command and control. They did an excellent job of severing supply lines and of attacking their deep areas. And that's where we saw success in the counteroffensive late last year.

But – and this is the reality – the problem is that it requires a very good understanding of ones adversary – which Ukraine has – but I'm not sure the rest of the West does. And secondly, the geometry, the geography of a country that allows you to be able to do so. Now, while the battle lines in Ukraine are enormous – you know, hundreds, thousands of kilometers long – the reality is that it is not the type of ground that allows you to use that kind of maneuver warfare to punch through with an armored fist and then to make huge gains.

It's back to the World War I sort of movements going to and fro

The mountains, the rivers, the weather, the farmland, hedgerows, all prevent that kind of maneuver. And then there's the fact that Russia has done a very good job of building defensive arrangements that prevent a breakthrough, which means that you are now fighting for ground as General Zaluzhniy said, 100 yards at a time. It's back to the World War I sort of movements going to and fro.

That's not to say that advances can't be made, that you can't defeat the adversary. It just means that we go back to a timeline the West doesn't like, which is a long, slow, grinding, unpleasant time frame full of death and destruction with bloody battlefields. But it's a really difficult thing conceptually for many Westerners to get their heads round. They want a single punch with an armored fist to break through fences, break out the other side, and then spread out and defeat the Russians. And that's a very traditional Western approach. I just don't see that there is a way to make that happen right now.'

I've seen that described as Hollywood-like warfare. How fair is that in the description?

'Well, Hollywood popularized it, I think there's a romanticized notion that this is what can happen on every battlefield. The reality is it can happen and has happened on battlefields. The Germans used it very well in the blitzkrieg and in the Ardennes Forest (during World War II). And the same way the Americans have used it very successfully in World War II, and indeed going through to 2003. I mean, there's lots of examples where it works, but it depends on having a number of things in place to make it work. And the Ukrainian battlefields don't have the geography that allows that kind of warfare to happen.

So, I think, in a sense, there was an expectation for a Hollywood war: a fast, quick win using this methodology. I just don't think that the context of the war has allowed it to happen for a whole variety of reasons. But the number one reason is geography. The Ukrainian General Staff have been pretty clear about this. They have been under huge pressure, not just from their own politicians and society, which one would expect, but also from the West to make some kind of amazing breakthrough, as if this was suddenly possible.

The key is that context differs for every single fight that you go into. No two battles are the same. And because the enemy is also adapting, battles are dynamic. Day five is not the same as day one. So, the doctrine should be an overarching set of ideas that gives you the flexibility to outthink your opponent.

At times, however, you come to a stalemate; both sides are fighting at their best with the equipment they have; there is nothing that's going to change it in the short term. And that's where you end up with a protracted fight and indeed with frozen conflicts if they go on for a long time.

So, if you look at Georgia from 2008, it is largely a frozen conflict. Russia invaded and annexed a piece of their sovereign territory in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and has held on to them in a frozen conflict. It is not going to give them back, it is building military bases there. And we have to be very careful that we don't allow this sort of position to harden in Ukraine.'

Destroyed cars in Kherson, southern Ukraine, after a Russian attack in December 2023. Image Telegram.

Speaking of Russia, let's speak about what can be said about the Russian way or rather, the [Russian] culture of war? And what are some of the biggest differences between Russia and the West in that respect?

'Essentially, the Russian General Staff was as seduced by the Western shock-and-awe approach that we talked about. And indeed, their attempted lightning raid on Kyiv at the start of the war was exactly that. It was a lightly armored special forces convoy, supported by air power and armor, that was to take key areas, decapitate the government, and effectively sever the snake. This is hugely familiar to anyone who's lived in the West. So, they tried desperately to make that happen. And Ukraine put in superb reactions to hold them off and defeat them.

What I think saved the Russian offensive was the fact that part of that plan was to fix in place the majority of Ukrainian military in the east of the country with artillery and large-scale Russian military and arms deployment. That ended up in an artillery war, a very Russian way of war: long, slow, monotonous, very attritional, uncaring, less reliant on thinking, more reliant on sheer weight of firepower, on destruction, and no thought to the consequences. And that, in many ways, symbolizes the Russian way of war, as it has been successful but enormously wasteful.

The Russian way of war is a long-term game, an attritional fight to exhaust the enemy over 5 or 10 years

But listen, while war is never efficient, the Russian way of doing it is enormously wasteful, firing 60,000 rounds a day. It held in place the Ukrainian military that was there, and then made those huge incursions into Ukraine, taking enormous amounts of land, but then being held off by Ukraine's brilliantly executed defense. It's hard to think in history of a better executed way that any nation has lost ground slowly to an adversary and wore them down to hold up at that line that they got before the first counteroffensive took place.

So, the Russian way of war is a long-term game, an attritional fight to exhaust the enemy over five or 10 years. That has been very successful historically. It's not about beating them. It's more about being able to exhaust the enemy to the point at which they want to give up. And this is exactly where Russia is working now. It's working at the infrastructure. It's hitting the centers of population; it's hitting the electricity supply, water and gas – all these things that make life acceptable during wartime. That's where they're attacking whilst holding the line. This is how they hope to bring Ukraine to its knees.'

Combined with attempts to outlast Western resilience, I suppose?

'This is why Russian and perhaps Chinese ways of conducting war have been more successful than the West's, because they have a longer-term view. We know that there is a real problem with the next U.S. presidential election, particularly if Donald Trump retakes office. His relations with the Russians probably mean much less support for the Ukrainians. The Europeans don't have enough firepower or production capability to match what the U.S. has been giving.

And so, there's a real timeline problem here. And the West has a short attention span. The support from February until November in 2022 has died away and we see very little of that continued support going on now.

So, there are enormous problems. Time is really on the Russian side, as it is for the Chinese. And that's one of the things that Russia understands. It's willing to throw away lives and money, it's willing to throw away lots and lots of things. But it knows that if it can outlast the attention span of the West in political terms, in societal terms, then it will eventually be able to take Ukraine, and Georgia, and the rest of the Caucasus.'

Germany has supplied Ukraine with Iris-T air defence systems. Image Telegram.

You mean in its entirety?

'Indeed, I think if Putin is successful in Ukraine, I think we will see Russia push further in Georgia. And whether they actually annex territory or just become the major power broker across the Caucasus, I wouldn't be surprised by any of those moves.'

Being Georgian, I would be surprised if there was another incursion of Russia into Georgia. I was a bit surprised when you said Russia might be able to take the whole of Ukraine.

'I think it's going to be a really close-run thing. If the West wasn't as distracted, I think it might be impossible. But there several things that are playing against Ukraine that make this a really difficult fight.

First is the potential election of Trump and the end of U.S. support for Ukraine – that might happen sooner than we wish.

Second is the political timeline for the West and their loss of interest in Ukraine is coming.

Thirdly, I think that the sanctions against Russia have not been effective. And I don't think that there has been an uprising of the global community toward Ukraine.

So, you look at those who are applying sanctions on Russia, and those who are supplying arms to Ukraine, they're effectively the same group of countries; that's less than 15 percent of the world's population. So, none of the global south are providing Ukraine with those arms.

So only one-fifth of the world stands behind Ukraine. Now that's not by gross domestic product, that's by population, I accept that. But I think with that without the support of the global south and the wider international community, Russia is seeing itself as having pretty much a free rein.

This is going to be the secret: who can outproduce the other?

And Moscow, in its own mind, sees itself as a place where it is pitted once again versus NATO. And I think Putin certainly understands that the arrival of Trump back in power – which I'm sure he'll be doing everything he can to assist – does not bode well for Ukraine and plays directly into Putin's hands in the longer term.

On the other hand, you've got to look at Ukraine. They are better fighters. They are more technologically adept. They are not just accepting a line of control, and they are continuing to push. They now outnumber the Russians by seven to one in some places. They've taken huge losses. But they've started not only rebuilding, they've started mass manufacturing, and have arrangements with Western arms suppliers to start producing inside Ukraine. And I think this is probably going to be the secret: who can outproduce the other? And we know from the history of Ukraine's military industrial complex that once it gets geared up, it will be unstoppable.

And so, it's a question of what Ukraine can produce in the longer term. And I very much hope that we will see a slow but gradually increasing pace of Ukraine's military advances to kick the Russians out. The best Ukraine can do at the moment is to do exactly as it's doing and keep fighting hard. The gains made with the crossing of the Dnieper river were superb and a great time just to show the world the fight had not ended here. It might not have grabbed headlines, but has been really important.'

This article was first published on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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