Focus Ukraine: In search of a new strategy to win a protracted war

Ihor Petrenko, Dmytro Levus, Petro Oleshchuk, Oleksiy Kushch

15 mins - 14 de Febrero de 2024, 07:00

Agenda Pública and United Ukraine Think Tank present Focus Ukraine, a weekly article series analysing how the military conflict in Ukraine and the political and economic situation in the country will evolve. The articles are written by Ihor Petrenko, Dmytro Levus, Petro Oleshchuk and Oleksiy Kushch, experts of the United Ukraine Think Tank.

The theater of operations unfolding in Ukraine is acquiring additional features of a protracted conflict. The pressure exerted by the Ukrainian government's difficult military and economic decisions is being compounded by the risks of social and internal political struggle.

The Battle of Military Strategy: The Ukrainian military leadership is constantly searching for extraordinary responses to the traditional Russian tactics of invasion and barbaric rocket attacks
The line of contact between Ukrainian troops and the Russian occupiers has been stable in its core for a long time. But, in fact, this does not mean that there is no combat activity along it. Russian troops are constantly attacking Ukraine's defense positions. Over the past week, this took place in the Liman sector, near Krynky on the left bank of the Dnipro River, where Russians are trying to eliminate the bridgehead of Ukrainian troops. However, Avdiivka remains the main focus of the Russian invaders' attack efforts. Obviously, the military goals of the aggressor country are subordinated to the political agenda of the Russian Federation. In March, "presidential elections" are scheduled there, which are intended primarily to ensure not so much legitimacy as Putin's sacred status. In this context, the capture of Avdiivka is the success that the Russian dictator needs to demonstrate his power to the Russian population. Given this, the losses do not matter to the Russians if the ruins of Avdiivka are under their control. At the same time, it can already be stated that civilians do not matter to the invaders. In Avdiivka, there are facts of abuse and harsh treatment by the occupiers of local residents who refused to leave and were under their control. Later, they were forced to flee to Ukrainian positions. A Russian artillery strike was also recorded on the shelter of local residents in the well-known humanitarian center of this city.

It is obvious that the Russians have somewhat changed their assessment of their capabilities to conduct strategic air strikes using Shahed UAVs and missiles from Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3 strategic bombers. Last year, their intensity was higher, and they put Ukraine's energy sector in a difficult situation, but it survived and recovered. Now the strikes have changed. For example, we can say that the Russians are forced to use Shaheds not so much against facilities in the depths of Ukraine's territory as against frontline areas. Ukraine has managed to build an effective system of mobile groups with machine guns and man-portable air defense systems that repel these attacks. In the frontline regions, the reaction time is shorter, so the effectiveness of the Shahed's use can be higher. Moreover, Russians perceive civilian casualties as an additional factor of pressure on Ukraine, and their likelihood can never influence the cancellation of the attack. For example, as a result of the Shahed’s attack on a gas station with a fuel depot on February 9, a street with private buildings in frontline Kharkiv burned down. Seven people were burned alive, including a family: a husband and wife and their three young children. The missile attack on Kyiv on February 7 by Tu-95MS aircraft from Russian airspace was not successful from a military point of view. The capital of Ukraine has an effective air defense system that integrates both Soviet and Western equipment, and even ballistic missiles are shot down. In particular, on that day, 26 out of 29 cruise missiles were shot down. However, there was a hit on an 18-story residential building, which killed four civilians, wounded about 20, and evacuated several dozen. In addition, this missile attack was clearly politically provocative. Some of the Russian missiles targeting western Ukraine flew as close as 20 kilometers to the border with Poland before turning around. This is clearly a test of NATO's response to Russian aggressors.

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Ukraine manages to effectively counter Russia in the Black Sea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet, despite its absolute numerical superiority, has to be cautious and does not control large areas of the sea. The Ukrainian Defense Forces conduct unique operations at sea against the Russian occupiers. The 73rd Maritime Operations Center of the Special Operations Forces of Ukraine in the Black Sea, in the area of Russian aviation and fleet activity near the coast of occupied Crimea, destroyed equipment that the Russians had installed on an oil platform. The equipment was intended to enhance the operation of the Iranian-made Mohajer-6 unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. A Neva-B radar station for detecting surface objects (from motor boats to ships) was also installed there. The Russians used this radar to monitor the situation in the northwestern part of the Black Sea. Part of the equipment was captured and taken away by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the radio mast and antenna were blown up.

The Ukrainian Defense Forces also continue combat operations aimed at depriving Russia of the opportunity to receive funds for its aggressive war. After a drone strike, the Ilya oil refinery, an enterprise located in Krasnodar Krai, 50 km from the regional center, hundreds of kilometers from the border with Ukraine, caught fire. The refinery is one of the leading oil refiners in the Southern Federal District of Russia. The Afipsk refinery, also in Krasnodar Krai, also burned after a UAV attack.

Ukraine's leadership is looking for new approaches and strategies to win a long-term war. It is necessary to overcome the stagnation at the front and create a realistic plan for 2024, taking into account the actual situation on the battlefield. To this end, personnel changes are being made in the Ukrainian Defense Forces. On February 8, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi was replaced by General Oleksandr Syrskyi as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine by a decree of President Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Oleksandr Syrskyi is an experienced combat general who has led the Armed Forces of Ukraine to real victories on the battlefield. Colonel Vadym Sukharevsky, who is responsible for the development of unmanned systems and their use, and Colonel Andriy Lebedenko, who is responsible for innovation, the technological component of the army and combat systems, became deputies to Chief Commander Oleksandr Syrsky. Anatoliy Bargylevych became the Chief of the General Staff. Brigadier General Volodymyr Horbatiuk, who will be in charge of operational work, staff work, planning, and management; Brigadier General Oleksiy Shevchenko, who will be in charge of logistics; and Brigadier General Mykhailo Drapaty, who will be responsible for training and exercising the military. 

According to military experts, the personnel changes in the Armed Forces of Ukraine are optimistic and mean that the Ukrainian leadership is committed to a systematic approach to reforming the army, as it is difficult to achieve victory without it. A clear system of working with the latest technologies in the Armed Forces of Ukraine is also being built.

Replacement of the Commander-in-Chief and a difficult decision on military mobilization: opposition political forces are cautiously emerging from the shadows in anticipation of unpopular government decisions
The main topic of Ukrainian politics at the moment is the resignation of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhnyi and the appointment of Oleksandr Syrskyi to this position. From a purely legal point of view, this issue is the responsibility of the President of Ukraine, who, according to the Constitution, is also the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Accordingly, any personnel changes in the army are the exclusive competence of the political leadership of the state, which reflects the European tradition of subordination of the military vertical to the political one. At the same time, this issue has become too politicized in Ukrainian society because of the special treatment of Zaluzhnyi, with whom a certain part of society has associated its hopes for repelling Russian aggression.

It should be noted that although the political struggle in Ukraine is officially "on pause" and no elections are currently being announced or held under martial law, in reality neither politics nor preparations for elections have disappeared, although most politicians prefer to avoid any public hints of this.

Accordingly, the topic of politicization of Commander-in-Chief Zaluzhnyi was relevant throughout the entire period of repelling full-scale Russian aggression. Opposition politicians sought to use the very figure of the famous general in the context of "abolishing" the President of Ukraine, rejecting the latter's participation in the defense of the state. All this formed a rather complicated configuration of Ukrainian politics, in which the figure of the Commander-in-Chief, which was theoretically supposed to be depoliticized, became as political as possible. All of this left its mark on the effectiveness of army management. Therefore, when the question arose of the need to reboot the army leadership, which is quite normal for a belligerent state, as constant changes in approaches and methods of warfare are natural for this type of military conflict, this topic was immediately actively politicized in order to cause discontent in Ukrainian society.

Opposition politicians chose a "win-win" strategy, demanding to "explain" the reasons for the popular general's resignation.

And this is despite the fact that Zaluzhnyi resigned on his own, and the President of Ukraine awarded him the title of Hero of Ukraine, which is the highest state honor. Consequently, tensions in society over an issue that, in theory, should be resolved exclusively by the political leadership on the basis of considerations that should not be public, have reached a high level, which could ultimately be used as a means of destabilizing the situation in Ukraine.

It should be noted that the information and psychological war waged by Russia against Ukraine has now reached its peak. The Russian propaganda machine, after the first setbacks of the invasion, has adapted to the new realities and is using any problems of Ukrainian society to promote theses favorable to Russia.

The key points of this propaganda influence are as follows: 1) agitation against mobilization; 2) spreading disbelief in the Ukrainian army; 3) splitting society around certain topics; 4) fueling political struggle and information attacks against the state leadership.

All of this is intended to undermine the situation in the country, so that at some point Ukraine will be unable to repel Russian aggression.

At the same time, the formation of the new leadership of the Armed Forces also came under scrutiny from the political community.

A discrediting campaign against the new Commander-in-Chief was immediately launched, and this campaign has clear signs of a "Russian trace." The tension was somewhat eased by the appointment of Syrskyi's deputies, many of whom are young, well-known, and popular military officers who have already distinguished themselves during the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Against this backdrop, the issue of mobilization in Ukraine remains relevant, and to intensify it, the parliament should adopt a new version of mobilization legislation. The initial version of the law, previously submitted to the Verkhovna Rada by the Cabinet of Ministers, raised many criticisms, in particular, the possibility of blocking the accounts of citizens who failed to appear at the armed forces recruitment centers.

This led to a number of changes to the law, which was adopted in the first reading. Now the parliament has to vote on the final version of the law.

Opposition factions refuse to support the new law, so only the ruling «Servant of the People» party and some other MPs vote for it.

The politicization of the army issue at this stage is a major feature of the Ukrainian political struggle. Not all Ukrainians perceive a distinction between political and non-political positions, and this is significantly reflected in the political discourse of Ukraine, where there are sometimes demands to "elect" both the Commander-in-Chief and all military leaders. All of this is a feature of the growth and development of Ukrainian democracy, which is at war and in a difficult socio-political situation. On the other hand, overcoming such difficulties is a sign of the growth and development of Ukrainian society.

Structural contradictions, total austerity and signs of systemic economic cooling: dangerous statistics versus the amazing resilience of the population
The economic situation in Ukraine is characterized by significant structural contradictions.

On the one hand, macroeconomic stability is an obvious fact. Despite the population's fears of devaluation of the national currency and expectations of accelerating inflation, the real situation is not as tragic as it could be during a full-scale war.

The average annual inflation rate for 2023 (January-December of the reporting year to January-December of the previous year) exceeded 12%, which is an indicator of galloping price growth by European standards. At the same time, such inflation is not perceived as critical in Ukraine. 

Suffice it to say that in the context of a low-intensity hybrid military conflict in 2014-2015, inflation was 24% and 44%, respectively.

In addition, the Government and the NBU now prefer another inflation indicator - the consumer price index at the end of the year (December to December). In 2023, this indicator amounted to 5.1%, which brought it as close as possible to the NBU's official inflation target (4-5%).

But there are not only positive prerequisites for such macrofinancial stability. The war can generate additional impulses of non-core (non-monetary) inflation and act as a disinflationary factor.

The inflationary impact of the war was manifested in Ukraine in 2022, when, in the face of non-synchronized and incomplete foreign aid, the NBU had to print money (almost UAH 400 billion, which is the equivalent of EUR 10 billion at today's exchange rate).

At the same time, in 2023, with the regular flow of external support (which amounted to EUR 40 billion, excluding military support), the disinflationary factor of the war manifested itself: the loss of 6 million domestic consumers who became migrants, the impoverishment of almost 50% of the population - all this negatively affected domestic effective demand

In 2023, the NBU did not issue any unscheduled hryvnia.

Now, Ukrainians simply do not have enough money for the most necessary things, ordinary people are saving on food, medicines and social services, including medical ones. Under these circumstances, the sharp deceleration in inflation at the end of the year should be seen not so much as a sign of macrofinancial stabilization as a sign of systemic economic cooling.

Demand in Ukraine is shrinking across all structural elements: households are spending less on consumer goods; businesses are cutting back on investments and capital expenditures; even the government is starting to cut back on its spending, including on economic support and infrastructure.

The economy is falling into a so-called restrictive spiral of spending cuts and, consequently, income.

Under these conditions, the decline in inflation, along with a positive signal of slowing price growth, also indicates the risk of recession if the situation is not remedied in the near future.
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