Ukraine: Better to Burnout or to Fade Away?
The endgame in Ukraine seems to offer only two choices: going down in fiery glory with President Zelenski or following General Zaluzhnyi's strategy of husbanding resources for a gentle fade to black.
As I wrote in Quelling the Fire in Ukraine back in March of 2023:
War is like a brushfire—its kindling accrues for decades. Brief smoulders can be extinguished, but once true war blazes, it must burn until the conflictual tinder is spent on one side. This is the point a defeated people must submit to the will of their new master. For the victor, aggression evolves into responsibility and leadership. For the vanquished, belligerence dissipates into obedience. Together these movements mark the dialectical overturning of a fiery state of war into a fresh and hopeful peace.
Today, in November of 2023, vast amounts of Ukraine’s conflictual tinder lay charred on steppe wastelands following a summer of failed offensives. The remaining reserves of Ukrainian fighting potential are steadily declining. In the coming months, a dangerous situation may arise for Ukraine where they will no longer be able to resist Russian onslaughts.
At the same time, as the Russian military industrial complex finally kicks into high gear, and given their vast population, their war potential is on the rise. Today it may still be realistic to describe the battlefield situation as a stalemate. But with stockpiles of Russian conflictual tinder only growing, as Ukraine’s is being depleted—if current trends hold, Ukraine is facing a devastating defeat within a year or two. Ukraine will be forced to submit to Russia’s will.
With this evolving military calculus, combined with a shiny new war in Palestine, a radical shift in Western reporting on the Ukraine conflict has occurred. Gone are the days of exuberant gaslighting: how Russia was about to collapse, how cancer-ridden Putin was about to be overthrown, or how the golden underdogs in Ukraine were about to recapture all their occupied territory. Ukraine’s summer offensive was meant to spectacularly smash through the supposedly decrepit Russian defences. Glorious Ukrainian soldiers, astride Western tanks, would plough all the way to the Sea of Azov. But instead of re-enacting the German miracle of May of 1940 when Major General Rommel and his 7th Panzer Division rushed through France all the way from the Ardennes to the English Channel, Ukrainian forces face-planted on a Russian iron curtain and made only paltry territorial gains.
Given depleting Western ammunition stocks and ever-shortening Western attention spans, in 2023 Ukraine needed to impose a fast-moving war of manoeuvre on Russia. Instead of grabbing huge swaths of territory, the Ukrainian war machine was sunk by Russia into the quagmire of a gloomy war of attrition. Whereas the 2022 campaigning season ended on a high note for Ukraine—with sweeping territorial gains—2023 is ending in a temporary stalemate, which marks a strategic victory for Russia. But this stalemate will be short-lived. In 2024, Russia’s goal will be to launch its own war of manoeuvre and conquer regions such as Odessa, Kharkov and Nikolaev.
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The 3-M’s: Manpower, Matériel and Morale
There are three primary categories of conflictual tinder. Manpower is the mass of trained soldiers. Matériel is the arms and ammunition firepower of the fighting force. Most crucially, morale is the soldier’s fighting spirit. The 3-M’s exist in dialectical tension with each other: the more manpower and firepower a nation provides its soldiers, the higher their morale will be. Inversely, a group of soldiers with very high morale will accomplish tasks with less manpower and firepower than a group of soldiers with lower morale would be able to. But there are limits, the most highly motivated African natives were ultimately helpless against modern Western weapons during the 19th century colonial wars.
The 3-M’s are organized and directed through a fourth factor. Similar to the role ideology plays in civil society, strategic doctrine is a concept or “game plan” that guides the soldiers at all levels of the fighting force. Having the correct strategic doctrine reinforces the 3-M’s. For example a much weaker force that attempts to fight a conventional war against a stronger opponent will quickly lose their conflictual tinder. However, if they execute an insurgency strategy of avoiding head-to-head combat and instead seek ambushes and a long war, they have a chance to maintain their 3-M’s and to eventually emerge victorious.
In his book Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign, Jonathan Fennell conveys the value placed on morale in war by military strategists:
Throughout history, soldiers, military theorists and historians have identified morale as an important factor in combat performance. Four hundred years before Christ, Xenophon argued that ‘in action, the sustaining of morale was an imperative’, and when morale was high ‘action must be sought’. In the sixteenth century, Machiavelli commented that ‘if an army is to win the day it is essential to give it confidence so as to make it feel sure that it must win, whatever happens’. Napoleon had his dictum that the moral outweighs the material by three to one. Clausewitz argued that moral elements were ‘among the most important in war’, while du Picq wrote that ‘nothing can wisely be described in an army ... without exact knowledge of the fundamental instrument, man, and his state of mind, his morale’. Foch’s famous formula ‘Victory = Will’ was ‘representative of opinion among military professionals throughout Europe’ at the time of the First World War. Liddell Hart argued, between the wars, for ‘the predominance of moral factors in all military decisions’. On them, he argued, ‘constantly turns the issue of war and battle. And in the history of war they form the more constant factors, changing only in degree, whereas the physical factors are fundamentally different in almost every war and every situation.’ Referring to the Second World War, Patton claimed that 80 per cent of a commander’s role was ‘to arouse morale in his men’. Even today, General Sir Rupert Smith argues that ‘the will to win is the paramount factor in any battle’ and that ‘we call this will morale’.
Maintaining high Ukrainian fighting morale is the primary job of President Zelensky, although imploring his Western partners for donations of foreign matériel and economic aid is a close second. A recent article in Time magazine portrays Zelensky as angry at his Western partner’s betrayal for not supplying enough arms and as delusional in his insistence that Ukraine can still win:
<…> Another tells me that, most of all, Zelensky feels betrayed by his Western allies. They have left him without the means to win the war, only the means to survive it.
But his convictions haven’t changed. Despite the recent setbacks on the battlefield, he does not intend to give up fighting or to sue for any kind of peace. On the contrary, his belief in Ukraine’s ultimate victory over Russia has hardened into a form that worries some of his advisers. It is immovable, verging on the messianic. “He deludes himself,” one of his closest aides tells me in frustration. “We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.”
Zelensky’s stubbornness, some of his aides say, has hurt their team’s efforts to come up with a new strategy, a new message. As they have debated the future of the war, one issue has remained taboo: the possibility of negotiating a peace deal with the Russians. Judging by recent surveys, most Ukrainians would reject such a move, especially if it entailed the loss of any occupied territory.
What choice does Zelensky have? The moment he starts discussing peace negotiations, Ukrainian fighting morale will sink to zero. Russia will be more than happy to start such negotiations with as much public fanfare as possible. They know well that such a spectacle will split Ukraine and fracture its presently combined fighting spirit against Russia into factional fighting that could lead to a Ukrainian civil war.
But there is no reason for Russia to actually honestly engage in any negotiations — they are better off continuing the war until that day Ukrainian conflictual tinder declines so low that they are forced to capitulate.
Division of Duty
One major problem with the architecture of the Ukrainian war effort is the unstable division of labour. The West provides most matériel, but only excess and out-of-date firepower is on offer. In addition, Western intelligence and some mercenaries aid the Ukrainian war effort. Ukraine in turn provides the manpower—the raw meat to be fed into the Russian artillery grinder.
To boost morale, until recently, the West’s information warfare media machine, in combination with over-the-top Ukrainian propaganda efforts, aimed at crystalizing both Ukrainian and Western public opinion into supporting the war. But recently mainstream Western news agencies have published articles with the obvious intent of challenging the previously crafted narrative edifice. The Western media is choregraphed and journalists rigorously obey the discourse deemed desirous by information campaign designers. And so it is no accident that the Western media is starting to at least friendzone reality. Who knows, someday it might even embrace it?
The West has steeply decreased its shipments of arms to Ukraine. As Zelensky observes, there are now only enough arms to just get by. And yet soon even this threshold will be missed as the arms flows trickle to amounts that do not allow Ukraine to survive.
Since the launch of the April offensives, Ukraine continues to execute a “better to burn out than to fade away” strategy. Today they continue to launch offensives—albeit on a much smaller scale than the summer campaign in the Zaporizhzhia oblast. Ukraine is even having limited success crossing the Dnieper in the Kherson area. But holes are appearing along the very long but thinly stretched front lines and the Russians are advancing in several areas—most worryingly for Ukraine in Avdiivka.
In response, Zelensky’s top rival General Zaluzhnyi is pushing for a more defensive-oriented approach, where Ukraine would retreat in areas where powerful defence lines would be built. The war could go on much longer, but would the “fade away” strategy bring a better deal for Ukraine in the end?
Ukraine’s manpower shortage is so dire that they are now recruiting women. There was recently a video on Telegram of a Ukrainian soldier surrendering to Russians. As she dropped her weapon she begged the soldiers not to shoot her because she was pregnant. Such videos are difficult to verify but the Western press is now openly articulating Ukraine’s manpower woes. From NBC:
U.S. and European officials have begun quietly talking to the Ukrainian government about what possible peace negotiations with Russia might entail to end the war, according to one current senior U.S. official and one former senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions.
The conversations have included very broad outlines of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal, the officials said. Some of the talks, which officials described as delicate, took place last month during a meeting of representatives from more than 50 nations supporting Ukraine, including NATO members, known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the officials said.
The discussions are an acknowledgment of the dynamics militarily on the ground in Ukraine and politically in the U.S. and Europe, officials said.
They began amid concerns among U.S. and European officials that the war has reached a stalemate and about the ability to continue providing aid to Ukraine, officials said. Biden administration officials also are worried that Ukraine is running out of forces, while Russia has a seemingly endless supply, officials said. Ukraine is also struggling with recruiting and has recently seen public protests about some of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s open-ended conscription requirements.
Later in the article, General Zaluzhny gives a shockingly frank appraisal of Ukraine’s failure to breakthrough to the Azov Sea:
An army of Ukraine’s standard ought to have been able to move at a speed of 30km a day as it breached Russian defensive lines. “If you look at NATO’s text books and at the maths which we did [in planning the counter-offensive], four months should have been enough time for us to have reached Crimea, to have fought in Crimea, to return from Crimea and to have gone back in and out again,” General Zaluzhny says sardonically. Instead he watched his troops and equipment get stuck in minefields on the approaches to Bakhmut in the east, his Western-supplied equipment getting pummelled by Russian artillery and drones. The same story unfolded on the offensive’s main thrust, in the south, where newly formed and inexperienced brigades, despite being equipped with modern Western kit, immediately ran into trouble.
“First I thought there was something wrong with our commanders, so I changed some of them. Then I thought maybe our soldiers are not fit for purpose, so I moved soldiers in some brigades,” says General Zaluzhny. When those changes failed to make a difference, the commander told his staff to dig out a book he once saw as a student in a military academy in Ukraine. Its title was “Breaching Fortified Defence Lines”. It was published in 1941 by a Soviet major-general, P. S. Smirnov, who analysed the battles of the first world war. “And before I got even halfway through it, I realised that is exactly where we are because just like then, the level of our technological development today has put both us and our enemies in a stupor.”
There are preliminary signs of Ukrainians splitting into two camps: the spectacular “burnout” cabal of President Zelensky against the more careful “fade away” policy of General Zaluzhny. This rift could lead to a collapse of a collective anti-Russian fighting spirit and transition into a civil war for control of an ever-shrinking rump Ukraine.
Russian peace demands
Russia, as a key player in the rising multipolar primal horde, has no interest in ending the war in Ukraine any time soon. While talk of a stalemate is at this moment within the range of reality, in the coming months the momentum is clearly turning in the Russian direction. As Ukraine’s conflictual tinder continues its collapse, Russia will be able to make major land grabs at a small price in manpower and firepower. And so frankly, outside of a complete Ukrainian capitulation, this war is not ending soon. Russia has no need to negotiate although it may wish to project an image to the Global South that it wishes to do so.
What could Russia gain at the negotiating table anyway? The lifting of Western sanctions? Not interested—Russia’s economy is booming under the sanctions regime. In an attempt to gain leverage, Ukraine has attempted to launch waves of drones and missiles towards Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet, and even Russia proper, but after a few successes, Russian air defence capabilities have risen to the challenge and now it is rare for a even single missile to hit its target.
In any peace process, the most fundamental Russian demand will be no NATO membership if any Ukrainian state exists after the war. And it is far from certain that any Ukrainian state will survive into the future. Russia will certainly keep the four regions it currently occupies, even hardliner ex-NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has already conceded this. Russia will also very likely take the Odessa, Kharkov and Nikolaev regions, thus turning rump Ukraine into a landlocked backwater. The longer the war goes on, the smaller the rump Ukraine will be that survives the war. At some point Russia will just grab all of Ukraine east of the old Galicia region from the Hapsburg Empire. Russia will be happy to gift the Western portion of Ukraine to Poland, Hungary and Romania. After all, this would cement the concept of territorial expropriation by Western nations of former Ukraine lands, which in turn, justifies Russia’s much larger land grab.
Ukraine will have to negotiate in secret in order to keep fighting morale from collapsing. No soldier wants to die once its clear that negotiations will soon end the war. As I pointed out in Quelling the Fire in Ukraine, the only real leverage Ukraine has is to dump the deadbeat Western powers and their depleted ammunition stocks and appeal directly the China to broker a peace deal that would eventually bring Ukraine into the BRICS-11 order. It is by embracing China—and in rejecting NATO—that Ukraine has any hope in retaining even limited sovereignty.
Remaining stuck in the burnout / fade away binary locks Ukraine onto the path of death—its only choices are between a fiery crash or a protracted stay in a palliative care ward. The way out of this death trap is for Ukraine to choose rebirth by aligning itself with the rising multipolar world. In this case, Russia would be inclined to be more generous in its peace terms.