8 November 2023
By Ilya Shablinsky
British magazine The Economist published an article by Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, and interviewed him a short while later (excerpts in Russian were published in Spektr magazine). The commander-in-chief was very candid – unexpectedly so, you might say. Hence, readers were given a fairly complete picture of what has been happening at the front in recent months. Of course, this was a one-sided view of the front, from the perspective of people defending their land.
The view didn’t exactly spark excitement among those whose sympathies lie with Ukraine and its effort to beat off the aggressor. The commander-in-chief set out why the Ukrainian army had advanced just 17km in the four months of its southerly offensive. Zaluzhny gave the distance himself.
He recalled how at the beginning of the offensive, in an attempt to understand what lay behind the failures, he had ordered a book by a Soviet general, Breakthrough of Fortified Defence Lines [‘Proryv ukreplennoi polosy’], which focused on World War I. It turned out that the war of 2023 closely mirrors that of 1914 in terms of their main features, involving the same minefields, hundreds of rows of trenches, pillboxes, and heavy fire on the advancing troops from the defending side. There is also the same reliance on sheer numbers. Yet there are some differences. Here’s a quote from Zaluzhny: “The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy does, and they see everything we do. To break the deadlock, we need something new, like gunpowder, which the Chinese invented and which we still use to kill each other.”
Next-generation military technology has yet to emerge, as we know. The Ukrainian commander-in-chief acknowledged that, as a result of this, the fighting was developing into trench warfare. This is a more dangerous form of warfare for Ukraine than for Russia.
Since Zaluzhny is the one making these assessments, this may well be the case. How we should interpret this article and what conclusions we should draw is another matter.
One-by-one, Zaluzhny outlined Ukraine’s main problems at this stage of repelling the invasion. The first is the continued superiority of Russia’s armed forces in terms of its air force and air defence systems. The Ukrainian army advanced without ensuring that it had air cover or air superiority. As a general rule, this happens very rarely. It contradicts military theory. But this is precisely what happened on the Zaporizhzhia sector of the front. The result? The Ukrainian Armed Forces are at a standstill and now in desperate need of supplies of both the promised F-16 fighter jets and new drones.
Next, they will need electronic warfare equipment. They must improve the conditions for counter-battery warfare, which the Ukrainian armed forces waged with some success in the summer. After that, they will need supplies of mine clearance equipment. Ukraine requires many more tanks with minesweepers.
There are also problems with manpower. Mobilisation in Ukraine has not been easy in recent months. What’s more, the Armed Forces of Ukraine cannot afford to recall instructors from the front to train soldiers. Russia’s reserves, in contrast, seem inexhaustible. Having said that, Putin isn’t able to take advantage of his superior troop numbers – the ability of the Russian armed forces to train and equip recruits is limited.
Russian industry is stepping up its arms production, and the same is happening in NATO member states, whose economic capacity surpasses that of Russia. But they will need at least a year to expand military production. No one was preparing for a long major war. No one was expecting it.
Ukraine is fighting with what it has managed to get hold of and it must take extreme care of each and every item of equipment. Ahead lie new lines of trenches, concrete tank traps, ditches, and endless minefields. So yes, there is trench warfare of attrition underway, and this is an extremely difficult test for Ukraine.
What can be said about this?
The commander-in-chief’s article was probably addressed mainly to Ukraine’s Western partners. It’s no coincidence that it was published in the London magazine The Economist. The main goal of Zaluzhny’s candid reflections was to broaden the range of military support for the Ukrainian army in this war of attrition, and in the new and not wholly favourable international conditions caused by the outbreak of war in the Middle East.
The commander-in-chief said nothing about disagreements within the Ukrainian leadership, but we know that there have been certain disputes on the advisability of its dogged defence of Bakhmut, and now new ones over its surrounding areas. Control over this city really did not and does not have any strategic significance.
We don’t know anything about the other disagreements.
What would I consider the most important thing here? As far as we can tell, this message is addressed not only to Western allies, but also to his own people. Valery Zaluzhny admits that the offensive has now been effectively halted. He explains why further advancement to the coast of the Sea of Azov was impossible. He argues that people in Ukraine overestimated the capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces on the one hand, and underestimated the capabilities of Russia on the other. He is well aware that this admission will not be taken well by many people in Ukraine (and outside Ukraine).
Zaluzhny did not even mention the possibility of an agreement with the enemy. But of course now, after his article, conversations about an agreement are taking place.
It’s clear that there will not be an agreement in the coming months. The trench warfare will continue, and both sides will test each other’s defensive methods. But it’s also clear that the Ukrainian army is approximately 80% reliant on weapons supplies from the US and Europe. If their allies decide that for any reason military operations need to be halted for some time, then they will raise this with the Ukrainian leaders.
Even so, it will be up to Ukrainian leaders to resolve this question, which is an extremely painful one.
I have many acquaintances from Ukraine. Being in Latvia, I can discuss the prospects of the war with them. None of them are involved in the military and are generally not politically active. They are ordinary people. And they speak mostly Russian, although they do know Ukrainian. But each in their own way, they have already experienced the hardships of the ongoing war and developed a new worldview. I would say that it involves an expectation of victory. No gray areas and no doubts. Their tremendous respect for Valery Zaluzhny has not been shaken, even after his evaluation of the situation. But at the same time, they are frightened by the idea of the country’s southern coast — Berdyansk, Melitopol, Mariupol — remaining with the enemy. Many of them still have relatives there. These relatives describe small and rather vile details of adapting their local ways of life to the Russian reality. They write about TV programs, about patriotic billboards, about machine guns at the markets, about the total powerlessness of the locals.
Some simply cannot imagine how an entire nuclear power plant can be taken away from a country. It’s government robbery! They’re used to things like, say, washing machines being stolen. But a nuclear power plant! Can’t that only power Ukrainian cities? And so on.
At the same time, everyone can imagine all too well that every day dozens of young men are dying as part of the trench warfare — sons, husbands, fathers…
My acquaintances, citizens of Ukraine, of a country that has shown unbelievable fearlessness and steadfastness, are now absorbed in painful reflection after the Commander-in-Chief’s article. Ukraine has expelled the enemy from Kyiv and Kharkiv. Yet still now, in the event of a ceasefire agreement Putin will celebrate a victory — albeit on a smaller scale than he wanted — because he has taken a slice of foreign land. People ask me, “Is this scumbag really going to get away with this?” And I don’t know how to respond — the words that would comfort them escape me.
Of course, we could speculate about what the state of the Russian government and its regime will be after its escapades, or about what will become of Putin’s economy. But for now, these musings don’t serve anyone.
It is unlikely that Zaluzhny coordinated this article with the Ukrainian president. Of course, freedom of speech there is nowhere near what it was in peacetime. Controls are quite severe. But the Commander-in-Chief can express his point of view without much risk. Actually, Zelensky has already responded to the Commander-in-Chief, emphasizing that there is no stalemate on the front. That’s more or less what a president is supposed to say. He should give the nation hope. It’s one of his responsibilities.
Meanwhile, NATO leaders and the bloc’s officials should think about how to provide Ukraine — which has sacrificed for all of Europe — with additional security guarantees. That is their responsibility.
The war continues. And in case anyone has forgotten, I suggest you return to what most analysts wrote about the prospects of this war on its second, third, or even tenth day. Do you remember? Time will tell.