Russia’s recent wave of attacks on Odesa and its surrounding ports demonstrate again the maritime fundamentals of the Ukraine War – and again reinforce the need to consider both faster materiel transfers. It also presents a major opportunity for NATO to consider the reimposition of deterrence and escalatory ceilings. The U.S. should grasp this opportunity and accelerate military deployments to the Black Sea region, working in concert with Romania to provide a defensive bubble for Romanian and adjacent air and maritime space.
After nearly 18 months of war, Russia and Ukraine remain locked in combat. Ukraine has gone over to the offensive, waging a long-term anti-logistical campaign with the intent of ultimately punching through Russia’s defenses in southern and eastern Ukraine. Russia, meanwhile, is fighting back hard, leveraging its improved fortifications to stymie Ukrainian advances, while also feeding forces as far forward as possible to prevent a Ukrainian breakthrough. Both sides are searching for relative advantage in the east. But the south remains the decisive axis. Russia hopes to press Ukraine near Svatove, both to split its attention between axes and, more critically, to prevent a Ukrainian punch in the northeast. The line that defends Svatove lacks natural fallback points if broken, meaning Russia is at serious risk if Ukraine lands a telling blow there.
The above indicates neither a stalemate nor a concluded offensive, but rather an intense, brutal battle between equally matched adversaries. Ukraine understands it has one shot at a genuinely decisive breakthrough and has been conservative in large-scale force commitments because it grasps that an operational failure will make it vulnerable by early spring 2024.
Ukraine has therefore shifted to its deep strike playbook, which succeeded in the Donbas, around Kharkiv, and in Kherson Oblast – but which takes time to bear fruit and shows few territorial gains until the enemy is sufficiently degraded. At some point, Ukraine’s offensive will culminate, the result of materiel attrition from months of combat. But there are weeks, more likely months, of hard fighting ahead, particularly since Ukraine still receives fresh equipment from the West. With the new announcement of cluster munitions transfers, Ukraine now has an enormous reserve of artillery shells on which to draw. All the while, Russia loses a combined-arms battalion’s worth of equipment each day.
Again, the above implies no guarantee of victory. Rather, the reality is that Ukraine still has time to make a strategically significant breakthrough, and that despite unavoidable combat damage, it retains the means to generate that breakthrough with proper planning and sequencing and sufficient operational skill.
Yet Western media has again embraced a defeatist narrative, like that of summer 2022, where a Ukrainian success is deemed impossible. This is the defeatism that Russia seeks to exploit through its strikes on Ukrainian ports.
The Kremlin understands that it must fight a multi-year war to achieve its two objectives, the conquest of Ukraine and the destruction of the U.S.-backed European security system. Russia’s invasion in February 2022 was not meant to be the final, major confrontation with NATO that would prove Putin’s pièce de résistance, but rather a coup de main that resurrected the Russian Empire within the span of a few months.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.