The Brief — War of attrition
The current phase of the war in Ukraine, one year after Russia started its brutal aggression, is reminiscent of the entrenched phase of World War I when hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides died in muddy trenches of Flanders and France, fighting to conquer only a few metres.
This is happening right now in the surroundings of Bakhmut, a small city that was much happier when it was internationally anonymous.
The problem, as we see it, is that the war of attrition is something Russia’s leadership actually favours.
Many analysts agree that the tolerated costs of human life are not the same in Russia and Western societies, including Ukraine. Russia is ready to lose 1,000 soldiers per day in Bakhmut, provided that Ukraine loses a similar – or even smaller – number.
The bottom line is that Russia has many more soldiers, treating them as cannon fodder. What matters for Russia is to weaken the enemy, fostering the feeling of war fatigue.
People die on the front, but the battle also consumes weapons and ammunition. Russia hopes the West won’t be able to keep pace with supplying Ukraine with the weapons and the ammunition it needs, as NATO has already warned.
And, of course, Russia counts on Western public opinion dropping its support for providing military aid to Ukraine. Across the Atlantic, support among Americans has fallen to 58% this month, according to a new poll, a huge drop from 73% in April 2022.
Russia obviously banks on the war of attrition to be able, at some point, to negotiate a peace agreement sealing the situation on the battlefield as the new boundaries, which would include all the territorial gains, especially along the coast of the Azov Sea.
Ukraine would never accept such an agreement because the Ukrainians want to recover their pre-war borders (and possibly, Crimea). They also know that such “peace” will mean another frozen conflict, likely followed by renewed Russian aggression in a few years.
In a lengthy speech on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin delivered the message that Russia is prepared for the long haul in a battle against a West he says seeks “unlimited power”.
We should not be naïve. For Russia, the ‘long haul’ could mean many years, spanning across the next elections in the US and in key EU countries.
Putin banks that his regime will prove more resilient than the pampered Western democracies, who would get tired of the effort of supporting Ukraine and elect leaders with whom Russia will do business again.
Putin’s most potent weapon, which works both at home and abroad, is his propaganda. For now, the Russians are supporting the war effort, largely thanks to the fake narrative of a decadent and evil West wishing to destroy Russia.
Russian propaganda also targets Western societies. In a country like Bulgaria, where general elections are due on 2 April, there is an openly pro-Russian party campaigning according to Putin’s playbook. And there are several other political forces more discrete in their support for Moscow.
EU pundits would be well advised to take Bulgaria as a test case of what Putin could do elsewhere. Dividing Western societies during a war of attrition is not Russia’s distant objective. It is already happening.
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Look out for…
- Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Tallinn to mark the anniversary of the Estonian Declaration of Independence and one year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; meets with Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
- Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton receives First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Economy of Ukraine Yulia Svyrydenko.
- Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager attends the ceremony organised by the Danish Parliament in support of the Ukrainian people as we reach one year of Russian invasion of Ukraine.