The war in Donbass is turning more and more into a war of artillery. Between May and August, large amounts of territory switched owners as first the government forces and then the rebels carried out dramatic manoeuvres. For the last few months, however, the front lines have hardly moved, and in the past week the volume of artillery fire has reached unprecedented levels. As the Duke of Wellington allegedly said at the Battle of Waterloo, ‘Hard pounding this, gentlemen, let us see who will pound the longest.’
The lack of manoeuvre, the dominance of the artillery, and the seemingly pointless battles over tiny pieces of territory – most notably Donetsk airport – increasingly resemble the First World War, with the important exception that combat is taking place not in the countryside but in cities. Civilians, therefore, are suffering in large numbers. A hundred years ago, generals dreamt of breaking through ‘the mud and blood to the green fields beyond’, as the motto of the Tank Corps put it. If the warring parties in Ukraine are unwilling to make peace, the only way for the suffering to end is for one or other of them to achieve this.
Right now, the rebels appear to have the initiative. In the past week, they have captured the new terminal of what remains of Donetsk airport, entered the nearby village of Peski, taken ‘checkpoint 31’ in Lugansk Province, and advanced a short distance towards Mariupol. This has been made possible by what appears to be a substantial increase in military support from Russia (above all, there must have been a supply of a copious volume of artillery shells). But is not clear how far Russia is willing to go. The signals are confusing. On the one hand, Russian officials have been uttering what sound like threats, saying that in escalating military activity the Ukrainians have made a blunder which they will regret; on the other hand, the Russian government has announced that it wishes to work to produce a new ceasefire. Russia seems to be willing to give the rebels what they need to avoid defeat, but it doesn’t seem to be willing to give them what they need for victory.
The resources available to the Ukrainian state far outweigh those available to the rebels – a population of some 40 million people, and huge stores of military equipment left over from the Soviet era (much of it in a poor state of repair, but theoretically usable given a bit of effort). Were Ukraine to wage total war, committing its entire population and economy, it could crush the rebellion (albeit with enormous bloodshed, and assuming that doing so did not provoke a massive Russian response). Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko recently announced a new round of conscription designed to increase the size of the armed forces to 250,000. This is not total war, and insufficient to defeat the rebels. Knowing that anything more would produce serious social, economic, and political problems, Kiev is still fighting its war half-heartedly.
Imperial Russia’s most famous military theorist, M.I. Dragomirov, commented that war consisted of two components: the physical and the moral. Put another way, war is a matter of mass and of will. The rebels have the will, but not the mass. The Ukrainians, by contrast, have the mass but not the will. For the stalemate to be broken by military means, one or other of these has to change.