A Ukrainian soldier at an undisclosed location, February 2022. Image: Screengrab / BBC via AFP

Emerging indications are that the carnage engulfing Ukraine offers no winning scenarios for either invaders or defenders.

Moscow continues to prosecute a slow, grinding strategy of encirclements and sieges. But as each new barbarity is splashed across TV screens, Russia is driven further into pariah-hood.

Kiev is resisting the invasion with fierce spirit, extracting a bloody toll. But it has, so far, been unable to divert the main Russian strategy. A ruthless and dogged Russian President Vladimir Putin looks set to push it to the hilt.

But if Ukraine fails to prevail in conventional war, Russia looks unlikely to win a partisan war. Western figures are already suggesting a long-term insurgency – indicating a “Fight the Russians to the last drop of Ukrainian blood,” proxy dynamic. 

While Western leaders congratulate themselves for their unified sanctions response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is looking embattled and embittered.

NATO ditched strategic ambiguity pre-invasion, saying it would not fight, and is now refusing to take military risk by enforcing a no-fly zone. Meanwhile, Western capitals are refusing to swallow sanctions pain by adding Russia’s energy exports to their list.

Though NATO has regained its sense of mission, refugee flows – 1.7 million and counting – look set to impose socio-political strains on the EU.

And sanctions have double-edged potential. Western media bans have been reciprocated by Russia, Washington’s financial sanctions may accelerate de-dollarization, and energy prices are soaring worldwide.

Yet despite these woeful scenarios, minimal effort is being invested in peace moves.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits a front line in Donbass on June 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ukrainian Presidency / Anadolu Agency

Slow siege strategy

Militarily, what Putin calls a “special operation” closely reflects the US-led “Operation Iraqi Freedom” of 2003.

Stated objectives are “denazification” (overthrowing of the Zelenksy administration) and “demilitarization” (presumably meaning the destruction of major arms and the disbanding of the armed forces). These mirror the US-led coalition’s moves to overthrow Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party regime and rob it of its (supposed) nuclear arms.

OIF saw early wins, long-term losses, but in Ukraine, Moscow may have terrain aims, too. Possibilities include taking southern Ukraine to ensure the sustainability of annexed Crimea and to win a land corridor linking it to Russia along the Azov coast, and/or parts or all of Donbass.

The multiplicity of objectives has necessitated a complex, wide-ranging offensive.

Russia’s effort has been bedeviled by poor morale and incompetency among some units, judging from footage of captured conscripts. And incompetent logistic backup appears to have impacted operations.

Even so, Russia’s game plan is clear and is proceeding: To surround and lay siege to key cities across eastern and southern Ukraine. The aim of siege operations has historically been to force the surrender of cities and the disarming of their garrisons without assaults.

Given the artillery-centricity of the Russian Army, a key element is bombardments – conducted to destroy targets and reduce resistance. Meanwhile, classic siege tactics of blockading power, water and food have been undertaken.

All elements are in play in Mariapul, where conditions are deteriorating reportedly with no fresh water or power and food supplies dwindling.

A related tactic is the provision of escape corridors, and encouragements to civilians to depart. Evacuations enable free-fire zones where the Russians can remove all gloves – a ploy the US used to prepare the battlefield when it stormed Fallujah.

This gradualist strategy does not deliver lightning victory.  And so far only one key city – Kherson – has succumbed, and civil resistance has been deployed against the invaders.

Even so, this deliberate strategy obviates the conventional wisdom among the commentariat that Moscow has failed to win immediate victory. Russia, after all, sustained the Afghan campaign for a decade and the Chechen Wars for over five years.

Russia’s pace may slow further in Ukraine. The spring thaw, that turns the ground liquid, obviates the deployment of armor for off-road combat, making road-bound columns even more vulnerable to attack.

Russia in a training exercise in Belarus days before its invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Screenshot / BBC

Heroic resistance, invisible strategy

The Kremlin clearly underestimated Ukraine and its will to fight.

Kiev’s troops, fighting a brutal and destructive invasion, so far have the morale advantage. And as Ukrainians flock to the colors, the manpower balance shifts against the Russians, who have likely deployed around 190,000-200,000 troops for their invasion.

Russia is suffering casualties that are almost certainly in the thousands. All indications are that Ukrainians are deploying NATO-supplied anti-tank and anti-aircraft arms with real effect. Underlining the intensity of the combat, two, and possibly three, Russian generals are among the dead.

And the worst-case tactic that Russia’s strategy may demand – absent Ukrainian surrenders – are Berlin-style city assaults. It is unclear if the Kremlin has enough skilled and motivated infantry to conduct such high-lethality operations against such determined defenders.

But while Western media on the ground report micro-stories of heroism and horror, the macro outlook is grimmer. The superiority of Russian firepower and the slow spread of areas under their control show this is an uneven battle, with the invaders dictating events.

Italian conflict historian Gastone Breccia told Asia Times he has not identified a Ukrainian strategy beyond “inflict casualties, strengthen national determination and win the hearts of the international community.”

The capital, Kiev, which Ukrainian President Zelensky has vowed not to leave, is becoming the key focus.

“The Ukrainians have created concentric defensive lines around Kiev but the Russians are gradually encroaching upon the suburbs and taking key junctions and infrastructure,” added Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security consultant. “It does not seem as if the Ukrainians have any counteroffensive strategy.”

And yet, in the last 24 hours, Ukrainian forces recaptured the Kharkiv satellite town of Chuhuiv, taking considerable war booty and reportedly killing three Russian commanders – an impressive tactical win.

But elsewhere, the crisis is mounting.

According to an EU source, some 23 Russian battalion groups, or BTGs, are bypassing Kharkiv and heading west for the Dniepr. And as 18 BTGs have peeled off from the vast convoy – what appears to be a siege-logistics train – to the capital’s northwest to invest the city from the west.

Firefighters work on a fire on a building after Russian bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022, as Russian armed forces are trying to invade Ukraine from several directions using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian positions in the south. Photo: Fox News / Screengrab

West plays it safe

Zelensky has appeared both frustrated and desperate in recent pronouncements. He has some reason to doubt Western good faith.

In the weeks prior to the Russian invasion, NATO abandoned strategic ambiguity, making clear it would not fight for Ukraine. That almost certainly factored into Putin’s calculations.

Now, as Ukraine bleeds rivers, NATO continues to play it safe.

Though Ukraine’s air defense remains functional, Russia has overall air superiority – explaining Zelensky’s agonized pleas for NATO to establish a no-fly zone. NATO, fearful of an escalatory clash with Russia, has refused.

Early suggestions that Warsaw Pact legacy jet fighters could be shifted from Eastern European NATO countries to Ukraine have so far gone nowhere.

Currently, US officials are discussing “backfilling” the Polish Air Force with US assets, enabling Poland to dispatch airframes to Ukraine. With Russian forces constricting Kiev, it is unclear how long this process will take, and Poland currently appears unenthusiastic.

At a meeting on Monday between British, Canadian and Dutch leaders in London, another blow to Ukranian hopes was delivered when it was stated that Europe cannot sanction Russia’s core export – an action Zelensky has strongly urged.

“We have to ensure [energy sanctions] do not generate unmanageable risks to energy supplies in European countries and beyond,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

A worker at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Lubmin, northeastern Germany. Photo: AFP / Tobias Schwarz

Proxy War, ‘Peoples’ War’

Yet, Western figures still insist Ukraine can win.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told BBC news that Ukrainecan absolutely win against Russia” – though he did not explain how.

Retired US general and former national security advisor to Donald Trump, HR McMaster, told France24, “I believe that Ukraine can win the war.”

However, subsequent comments suggest McMaster was thinking of an insurgent war. Russia “cannot completely occupy and subjugate Ukraine and put in place a pliable puppet government,” he opined.

Retired Admiral William McRaven, who formerly commanded US special operations forces, was on the same page.

“From a conventional standpoint, the Russians have clearly overmatched the Ukrainians,” he told CNN. “But can they take over and subjugate the Ukrainian people? I don’t see that happening.”

Putin’s end game is unknown. It is possible Moscow is considering a “butcher and bolt” outcome – exiting Ukraine after overthrowing Zelensky and attriting his military, then subsequently conducting cross-border strikes as needed.

But if a triumphant Moscow attempts to control Ukraine – via conquest, or installation of puppet governance – Russia could face a debilitating struggle.

Referring to what military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called volksbewaffung (“arming the people”), Breccia said, “We could see in Ukraine a particularly effective blend of unarmed popular resistance and partisan struggle.”

Kiev has already raised multiple territorial defense units.

“For a partisan war to succeed, two things are needed: space and external support,” Breccia, who teaches at the University of Pavia, continued, suggesting the possible establishment of a provisional government in Lviv, in western Ukraine.

“Ukraine is wide enough, with a 1,000-kilometer border with four NATO countries, that will be impossible to control,” he said. “Remember Afghanistan or Vietnam? I can only see a bleeding ulcer striking down the Russian bear.”

But regardless of ultimate success, the process would be woeful, bloody and extended for Ukraine.

“The longer this fight goes, the more chance the Ukrainians have of winning,” said McRaven.

Without stating it directly, McMaster indicated that Ukraine is already fighting a de facto proxy war on behalf of the West. “It is really important for the free world that Russia fails, utterly,” he said.