The Russo-Ukrainian War is all about territory. Russia wants to complete its occupation of the oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson; Ukraine seeks to liberate all occupied territories, including Crimea. This is what the game theorists call a “zero-sum game” – what one wins the others must lose. This feature of the war explains why a negotiated outcome is so difficult to achieve, why the current battles matter so much, and why those commenting on the war spend so much time staring at maps.
Another feature of the war is that the territory being vigorously defended is hard to take. The land that Russian forces are currently defending was mostly taken in the first month of the war. Since then, they have ceded much more than they have taken. The Russians have put enormous effort and resources into their offensives since April 2022, yet what has been gained, despite the enormously high cost, has been limited – especially since they have reduced the occupied cities to rubble in the process. This was the case with their most recent offensive, lasting from January to June, during which they wrecked the eastern towns of Soledar and Bakhmut. But largely failed elsewhere.
Ukrainian offensives have been more successful when facing Russian forces thinly spread and struggling with logistical and command difficulties; they have found it tougher advancing against well-prepared Russian defences. This is why there is so much anxiety surrounding the Ukrainian offensive, which has been under way for just over a month.
Ukrainians insist it is not yet in its highest gear because they have yet to commit the bulk of their fresher, better-equipped and more mobile forces. That is because before they reach a breakthrough phase – when they start retrieving territory at speed – they must first go through an attritional phase to degrade the Russian defenders’ capacity for resistance. [Continue reading…]