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Ukraine’s War of Attrition

Feb 20, 2024
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

Those who have not experienced a war in person often find it hard to understand its many difficulties. Hence, Western countries that have not experience war on their soil cannot foresee sufficiently what might happen in Ukraine. And so the issue of aid to Ukraine has become prominent.

At the World Economic Forum held in Switzerland, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described 2024 as a decisive year and asked for continued military assistance. He also said that the West’s desire to avoid further escalation of the war has cost Ukraine precious time and soldiers’ lives. The Western countries’ policy of not over-stimulating Russia has led to insufficient and slow-moving assistance to Ukraine, which is one of the main reasons why Russia took the opportunity to expand its offensives.

Despite the high cost, Russia has turned to a sort of military Keynesianism, thanks to two critical variables. First, even in the face of inflation and rising prices, the Russian public still has not demanded an end to the war. Second, high oil prices have to a certain extent offset the impact of economic sanctions.

Since the outbreak of the war, international crude oil prices have hovered between $70 and $100 per barrel, allowing Russia to accumulate sufficient funds to prosecute the war. According to a Reuters investigation, Brent crude will reach $84.43 per barrel in 2024. Russia has budgeted 6 percent of its 2024 GDP for military expenditures. The country has chosen military Keynesianism to serve its military operations and drag Western countries into a war of attrition. Its minimum goal is very clear: sustaining the war during the American presidential election cycle.

On the other hand, according to foreign trade data released by the Bank of Russia on Jan. 19, the surplus in Russian balance of payments decreased by 40 percent from 2022. At this rate, while dragging the West into a war of attrition, long-term attrition will also put the cost of the war beyond Russia’s capacity to pay. 

Resistance from within 

People supporting aid to Ukraine believe that the cost of arming Ukraine is low while Russia’s cost to win will be high. Thus, questioning the increase in war spending may be understandable but it’s also shortsighted. They argue that the West will be forced to pay a higher price if Russia wins. Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate Minority Leader, commented in October that “The Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest competitors. I find it hard to see anything wrong with it. ”

However, many Western political elites disagree. In the United States, Republicans generally insist on conditional aid to Ukraine, with Donald Trump and his supporters holding a more radical position. Trump even said that he would tell Ukrainian President Zelenskyy that the U.S. will not help Ukraine any more and that Ukraine and Russia must reach a peace agreement.

The same has occurred in Europe. In June, the German far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) won a district election and called for the end of sanctions against Moscow and the end of Russia’s war in Ukraine, believing that the U.S. is deliberately splitting Eurasia through the Ukrainian war to serve its own interests. 

Coping with attrition 

Western countries have realized that it is difficult to win the war by helping Ukraine regain lost land. In this connection, they have adopted a series of measures to deal with the war of attrition, including:

• Maintaining highly intense military assistance to Ukraine to improve its deep-strike capabilities against Russian logistics and of air defense by, among other things, removing restrictions on ATACAMS, bringing F-16s into the war zone faster, providing more advanced artillery and anti-tank missiles, expanding Ukraine’s weapon-production capacity and helping Ukraine to establish and consolidate concrete defense lines in its eastern region;

• Using NATO military forces to deter the Russian flank. On Jan. 18, NATO kicked off an exercise called Steadfast Defender 2024 — the largest drill since the end of the Cold War. The exercise involved 90,000 NATO soldiers and other personnel. The Baltic states plan to build a defense network of concrete bunkers;

• Sustaining economic sanctions on Russia, especially with expanded sanctions against third-country entities linked to Russian military enterprises. The West has also adopted wider restrictions on dual-use goods and technologies, advanced technologies and goods that might help improve Russia’s industrial capacity;

• Seeking cooperation with China. Since the outbreak of the war, Western countries have always believed there’s an important role for China in ending the war. However, they are also aware that it will be difficult to cooperate with China in the Ukrainian peace process if they continue seeing China as a security threat, as NATO does.

Any war may have its origin in the international political system. Judging from the current international political system, neither an armistice nor peace talks will appear this year, and the war will continue to drag on between Russia and Ukraine.

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