Ukraine’s long game

History suggests that Kyiv’s latest offensive requires patience as much as it needs bullets.

A soldier from the 110th Territorial Defense Brigade seen controlling a drone for surveillance at an undisclosed position in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Ukraine.
A soldier from the 110th Territorial Defense Brigade seen controlling a drone for surveillance at an undisclosed position in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Ukraine. Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

By its own admission, Ukraine’s offensive is not moving as rapidly as originally hoped. Facing an entrenched and well-prepared enemy, a lightning advance that pushes the Russian forces completely out of their borders now looks unlikely to materialise in the near future. This should not come as a surprise. Military analysts have long claimed that this conflict is particularly grinding, akin to the First World War and the Iran-Iraq War, and that it is likely to last much longer than initially anticipated. It is important therefore, even in light of recent frustrations and doubts some in the West may hold, that Ukraine needs to be granted time and patience to allow its offensive to develop.

It may take longer than expected, and it may achieve little or none of its objectives in the short-term, but this does not mean Kyiv’s offensive should be regarded immediately as a failure, and it certainly does not mean the war will result in a Russian victory. Even with a limited amount of quick battlefield successes, Ukraine may still find other long-term advantages can be made, either in the field or in other realms, such as politics or morale. Finding such returns after initial losses would not be without strong historical precedent. Military history is littered with faltering operations that delivered only incremental short-term gains on the ground, yet went on to provide significant long-term profits. Some historical case studies are even starker than this, with failed operations leading to the beginning of future victory.

An interesting, yet not wholly analogous, example of this is the 1968 Tet Offensive. Tet saw the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong commit tens-of-thousands of troops and insurgents into their largest coordinated operation of the Vietnam War thus far. Towns, cities, and military installations across the length of South Vietnam came under attack, but militarily the Tet Offensive became little other than an abject failure in the short-term. The communist forces suffered heavy losses, did not meet their combat objectives, and failed to incite the popular uprising they had once sought.

Yet, in time, Tet became an offensive of considerable long-term importance. The scale of the operation, the size of the troop numbers, and the bold display of resilience shocked the Johnson administration and the US military leadership. Thereafter, they began to seriously reconsider whether the war was actually winnable, paused the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, and were more open to peace negotiations. Domestic outcry also dealt a critical blow to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, leading him to not seek re-election just shy of two months later. Despite the Hanoi politburo initially being despondent with their lack of progress, Tet gave it a platform for future operations and arguably became the beginning of the end for the US military intervention into the Vietnam War.

Ukraine’s current operations may not become as pivotal as the Tet Offensive. Yet the nuanced meaning of 1968, that significant positives can eventually be found after minimal or slow tactical advances, can be instructive. Kyiv’s offensive may come to be defined as something short of an immediate military triumph, but gradually may still discover other advantages to be gained. It is thus imperative that their NATO partners continue to grant them patience and deliver the weapons systems required, even in the face of political and economic difficulties and the feared ‘Ukraine fatigue’. Time and support will allow Kyiv to improve its offensive capabilities, acquire new positions from which to launch future attacks, and continue its demonstration of resilience to Moscow.

Regarding Russia, Ukraine’s offensive will not become as politically impactful as Tet. In the absence of democracy, Vladimir Putin is not susceptible to public pressure in the way that President Johnson once was; a vocal anti-war movement is almost non-existent, protests will not bring down his regime, and he may remain in power for years to come. But not all of the effects of the Tet Offensive were due to poor public relations, and the recent Wagner Group mutiny does show that turmoil does lie under the surface of Putin’s strongman façade. Peace negotiations still feel distant, but at some point they will have to begin. Even with little battlefield improvements, a well-orchestrated Ukrainian attack that demonstrates stanch resilience and retains the backing of NATO will continue to mount pressure on the Kremlin. Indeed, the offensive could still turn out to be the foundations needed in the search for the coveted tipping point.

The war in Ukraine has always had the hallmarks of a protracted conflict, and at this crucial juncture it is important not to lose sight of the broader landscape. Great expectations have been pinned on Ukraine’s offensive, but wars are often resistant to the wishes of those fighting them. The offensive may be slow, and it may not be the coup de grâce for Putin’s invasion or his regime. But quick decisive blows are rare in warfare, and even more improbable in this particularly attritional conflict. It may not become immediately apparent, but Kyiv will still find that subtler advances can be made if they are permitted time and unwavering support. In what may be an extended struggle lasting years, it is important to remember that wars are seldom won or lost on the success of a single offensive.


Ronan Mainprize