Analysis |

In Putin's War of Attrition on Ukraine, the Biggest Question Is Who Blinks First

The number of Grad rockets still in Soviet-era stockpiles can determine how long the war lasts – as can the patience of Western politicians who in the summer are more interested in vacations than arms deliveries

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Russian servicemen standing guard at the destroyed part of the steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Wednesday.
Russian servicemen standing guard at the destroyed part of the steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Wednesday.Credit: Olga Maltseva/AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters its fourth month next week, it has become a war of attrition. Along 1,300 kilometers (810 miles) in the Donbas region, the two armies are making only minor gains, advancing or retreating at most dozens of kilometers.

This is no longer a war of movement. It's a war of endurance, pitting the civilian economies and populations against each other, as much as their militaries.

By all signs, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war he started are still popular among broad swaths of the Russian public. Putin’s problem is that the Russians who support him support the war he sold them, which isn’t a war at all but a “special military operation” that by nature should be over quickly and successfully. As time passes – and with it both military funerals and soldiers coming home discussing their experiences – the illusion will be much harder to maintain.

For weeks the Kremlin’s propaganda channels have been preparing the ground for something much bigger, though not just against Ukraine: a “war against NATO” that would give Putin the excuse he needs to declare war officially, enabling him to mobilize Russia’s resources while sending conscripts and reservists into the fray. But that declaration, which many expected on Victory Day early last week, has yet to come.

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Putin’s hesitation probably comes from two sources. First, his political advisers are cautioning him that total mobilization will cost him public support. Second, his generals are warning that a million conscripts will be worse than useless on the battlefield without the necessary equipment and while the experienced officers needed to train them are either dead, wounded or busy fighting.

Moscow watchers are competing among themselves, predicting when the Russians will start turning against Putin. Perhaps in August, when it becomes impossible to ignore just how exhausted and depleted the Russian battalions have become six months in. Or maybe in September, when Russians return from their holiday dachas and start coming to terms with a long winter of economic hardship.

Ukrainian servicemen carrying the coffin of a dead soldier in Kyiv earlier this month. Credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

Western intelligence agencies, especially those of the United States and Britain, are constantly briefing the media with the goings-on in the Kremlin. On Thursday, Britain's Defense Ministry reported that Lt. Gen. Sergei Kisel has been relieved of his command of the 1st Guards Tank Army after its failure to encircle and capture Kharkiv. And Vice Admiral Igor Osipov was dismissed as commander of the Black Sea Fleet after its flagship battle cruiser Moskva was sunk.

But while Western intelligence has achieved an impressive level of penetration, there are crucial details not even the Kremlin or Russia's General Staff know.

No one is sure how much of the equipment and ammunition in the massive stockpiles built up in far-flung regions back in the Soviet era are still usable. Much of it was pilfered over the years by officers who sold whatever they could, either to line their own pockets or feed their starving troops. One particularly crucial detail is how many usable Grad rockets remain.

Since the early weeks of the war, it has been clear that Russia's military lacks enough guided munitions, whether launched from the ground, air or sea, for a wide-scale war. For major firepower, it has little choice but the old Grad multibarreled launchers that entered service in the 1960s. It still has thousands of them.

If there are enough rockets left, and we’re talking about millions, Russia can keep up its war effort even without an injection of fresh troops, making the lives of Ukrainians in towns near the front a never-ending nightmare and preventing a Ukrainian build-up for a large counteroffensive.

Russia can restart production, but it will take months to rebuild production lines that were dismantled decades ago, and even longer to reach a capacity that can help the Russian army hold the territory it now controls in Ukraine. The number of Grad rockets still in the Soviet stockpiles can determine how long this war of attrition continues.

A Grad multiple rocket launch system manned by a Ukrainian soldier in the Kharkiv region last month.Credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters

But another critical detail can't be answered even after every last emergency depot has been opened. No one can say for certain how steadfast everyday Russians will remain once they realize they're fighting a long grueling war and the economic sanctions are set to increase.

On the Ukrainian side, things are a bit clearer. The Ukrainians have a better idea than their Russian neighbors what they're facing (though the Kyiv has also kept military casualty numbers under wraps). Over the past three months, the Ukrainians have proved remarkably resilient.

Since the invasion on February 24, Ukraine has been under martial law and general mobilization. There is no shortage of personnel, with reservists and volunteers from Ukraine and around the world willing to fight, as well as experienced foreign officers helping with training. For now at least, the arms and military equipment continue to arrive from the West, boosted by the U.S. Senate’s approval Thursday of another $40 billion of funding for Ukraine.

The crucial question is how long Ukraine, led by its chief presenter, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, can hold the world’s attention over the summer months, when Western politicians prefer to go on vacation rather than approve weapons deliveries.

In Europe, especially in the major countries most reliant on Russian energy like Germany and Italy, the hardest decisions on forgoing Russian gas have yet to be made. In private there is talk of allowing Russia to retain some of the territory it has captured, and French President Emmanuel Macron has said that one must "never give in to the temptation of humiliation."

Ukraine is about to face quiet diplomatic pressure to agree to these concessions with the added threat of a slowing of military and economic assistance. The pressure will worsen an already dire economy.

French President Emmanuel Macron outside the Elysee Palace in Paris on Thursday.Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP

On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow announced that Russia would lift its Black Sea blockade, which severed Ukraine from its export markets, only if the Western sanctions are lifted. Millions of tons of Ukrainian wheat will soon start to rot, with global food prices rocketing as a result.

But a NATO mission to open the Black Sea's shipping lanes isn't yet in the cards. The European Parliament’s vote Thursday to remove customs duties from Ukrainian exports is of limited use when the only way to export goods is by rail and trucking networks already straining.

Ukraine doesn’t lack for men and women prepared to fight, both on the battlefield and the home front. But their ability to fight for long may not be up to them.

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