Not The Question--When Will Ukraine Attack?

John Kuehn Blog Post

The Ides of June

John T. Kuehn

When will the Ukrainian offensive begin? My Shakespeare professor once told me as an undergraduate,   Hamlet asked the wrong question.   It was not to be or not to be, it was “should I plot my revenge and kill my father’s murderer?”

Volodymyr or Vladimir?  That is the question.   Western, or rather American-European pundits, are looking at the current situation in Ukraine through the wrong lens.  They should be looking at the war through the lens of these two men, and their respective strength of character and will power. And that is the key to how Ukraine should proceed. 

First, the situation hangs on what we historians call “great man history,” on the wills of two men, two leaders, one a ruthless autocratic who has deliberately concentrated the power of the state in his own hands, the other a man who was thrust into that power and had the presence of mind to seize it.  “Great man/woman history” is often a flawed lens for analysis, but in this case it is not.   Individuals can have agency, sometimes quite a bit of agency.   Also, readers must know that this odd personal dichotomy of decision-making is a rare circumstance—that in today’s age of structuralism and collectives it is unusual for two men to have so much power to make all-important decisions on behalf of so many.  It is also contingent.  Of the two, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the one with the more precarious hold on individual decision-making power—as one would expect of a nominally democratic government backed by a consortium of democratic, mostly NATO nations.  NATO, jokingly, is often said to stand for “not able to organize.” 

Putin is the far more firm in his hold on power and decision-making.   Yet both leaders retain, in the words of Clausewitz, “an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to the truth; and…the courage [or stubbornness in Putin’s case] to follow this faint light where it may lead.” [On War, Book 1:3, emphasis original]   This sort of determination, on the part of both men, is one reason the war has lasted more than a year (or 9 years if we go back to 2014), and will likely continue beyond whatever offensive lies around the next corner.

So what about the much-anticipated 2023 offensive?  We must understand that Zelensky, and his advisors, seem to be exercising that rare thing in war, strategic patience.   What will happen if he decides to wait until the Fall, or the Winter, or even next Spring to go on the offensive?   How will his situation be worse?  And how much worse would it be compared to that if he squanders his carefully built up reserves against Putin’s prepared defenses?  Why not let Putin stew in the cage with his “bears?”   Putin seems to be the one with less strategic patience, why not let him lose patience and launch another fruitless offensive as at Bakmut?  The problem is that this war is attritional, something Western “manueverists” abhor—but which war as a phenomenon seems to tend to.  Maintaining what one has is the cheaper, better alternative. But it makes for a boring mini-series or news story.  Right now both sides are on the strategic defense, although Russia continues its immoral and illegal strategic missile bombing campaign. 

An even better question is, “Who will lose patience first?”   The “third man” at this table is Zelensky’s NATO backers.  Will they lose patience and cut off his support because what he is doing does not match their expectations of warfare?   Clausewitz also stated: “defense in general (including of course strategic defensive) is not an absolute state of waiting and repulse….it is permeated with more or less pronounced elements of the offensive.” (Book 7:2)  In other words,  that military power need not be employed in the kinetic offense to achieve a result.  Is the real offensive, as   Zelensky builds power and his people endure, the offensive against Putin’s will?

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Dear Dr Kuehn,
I am pleased that your blog post shows some realistic elements (e.g. by describing the current Ukrainian government as ‘nominally democratic’) that are often missing in Western commentary on the war in Ukraine. In some ways however it is still typical of so many pieces written by Western pundits whose source bases do not include Russian language sources in assuming Ukrainian (Zelensky's) wisdom and Russian (Putin's) folly. As an alternative to what you suggest, it is quite possible that it is Putin who has been showing some of the same the ‘strategic patience’ you attribute to Zelensky in limiting the scope of Russian offensive operations in recent months. It is certainly quite possible that defending against Russian offensive operations around Bakhmut has cost the Ukrainian side more casualties than they can reasonably afford – particularly amongst seasoned troops - while Russia has used Wagner as a tool both to sustain a very limited offensive and preserve regular forces. Finally, it is also possible that the Russian side is using this time wisely to better train and prepare for the much-vaunted Ukrainian offensive – possibly even with a view to launching its own offensive operations on the back of defending against that. These are all possibilities for which there is at least some evidence in the Russian-language sources. Even with hours of watching and reading Russian news sources and the available Russian language military literature like Red Star and Military Thought I cannot of course confirm with any authority whether any of this is or is not the case, but these are possibilities that are easily lost if one builds up Zelensky in the way you do in your post. Perhaps Zelensky’s obsession with defending Bakhmut – subjecting some of the best Ukrainian troops to concentrated Russian artillery fire – has been complete folly? It is quite possible to argue that in general Putin is a man with considerable patience – after all, he waited until 2022 to seek to decide the matter of persecution of the Russian minority in eastern Ukraine (e.g. in terms of laws undermining the use of Russian language) and possibility of NATO expansion into Ukraine. Russia could have acted earlier, but Putin arguably showed considerable restraint and sought to give the Minsk Accords a chance. Putting Zelensky on a pedestal and assuming some sort of supreme wisdom on his part, and the inverse from Putin, doesn’t necessarily help us better understand what is actually going on in the war in Ukraine.
Alexander Hill
Professor in Military History
University of Calgary