A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 6, 2023

How Ukraine's Attrition Strategy Is Weakening Russian Defenses

Ukraine is attacking on too many axes with too many units - while destroying too much Russian artillery and logistics - for the Russians to be able to maintain their defense across the entire breadth of Ukrainian attacks. JL 

RO 37 reports in Daily Kos:

While a battle of attrition eventually aims to capture ground, the first objective is efficient infliction of loss upon the enemy faster than they can replace combat power. (It) is not predicated on gaining ground. Radical increases in firepower make massed infantry less effective. Bakhmut is an ideal attritional battlefield, because Russia is in prepared defenses, and it is politically difficult to withdraw. Kherson is (also) ideal because Russia cannot allow Ukraine a bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro, and must bring forces into Ukrainian artillery range. Russia’s losses in armor and artillery cannot be replaced. Declining Russian combat forces from attrition will lead to gaps opening up in its defenses.

Attritional strategies get a bad rap.  

When someone mentions a battle of attrition, many people think of the years-long-stalemate of World War I, or the endless and strategically pointless body count battles that characterized the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Battles of attrition are heavily associated in many people’s imaginations with “lengthy stalemates” and “strategic immobility.”

As J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., professor of military history at the US Army War College and course director for military theory at the United States Military Academy observed in his 2010 essay, “The Issue of Attrition”:

Attrition is a dirty word. Soldiers and politicians seek quick, decisive victories; the World War I-style slugging match evoked by the term attrition is the last thing a commander or statesman wants to replicate.


People cite Sun Tzu’s aphorism “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited” as if it were true.

The American Revolution conclusively demonstrates that he was wrong. In fact, there is an entire and respected branch of strategy, insurgency theory, based specifically on attrition as the preferred defeat mechanism, and at least one author claims special operations forces produce strategic effect best through attrition.

From a theoretical standpoint, at its most simple level, an attritional strategy is most successful when the rate at which one can destroy the enemy army’s ability to sustain combat far exceeds the enemy army’s ability to replace its losses.

Enemy Combat Power - (Losses - Reinforcements) = Net Enemy Combat Power Change

However, one’s own army also sustains losses while fighting an attritional battle. Thus a net change in combat power in a theater might be more accurately described as 

[Own Combat Power - (Losses - Reinforcements)] - [Enemy Combat Power - (Losses - Reinforcements)] = Net Change

This is not exactly Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but bear with me.

The rate of reinforcement can be considered a constant. Neither side can likely freely change, in the shorter operational term, their own (nor their enemy’s) rate of reinforcement—only in a strategic, longer-term context. Thus, the success of an attrition strategy depends upon two things:

  1. The efficient infliction of loss upon the enemy. That is, what is the ratio between one’s losses and the enemy’s losses? 
  2. The infliction of the scope of sufficient losses on the enemy. Specifically, inflicting losses upon an enemy faster than they can replace combat power.

Efficiency is necessary in an attritional battle, unless one’s rate of reinforcement is overwhelming relative to that of the enemy. If one is suffering losses at two or three times the rate of the enemy force, it is unlikely that one can gain ground in the combat power equation. One’s loss will swallow whatever gains are made in inflicting losses upon the enemy.

However, in an attritional battle, the overall rate of loss also matters.

Take an extreme example, where every day, Ukraine kills two Russian soldiers and loses one of its own. While the losses inflicted are highly efficient at a ratio of 2:1, the rate of loss is highly unlikely to be sufficiently attritional to have a strategic impact. If Russia is suffering relatively insignificant losses that it can readily replace or even reinforce beyond its losses, an attritional strategy is not very effective.

Thus first, if we presume that, following the attempt to punch through Russian lines around Robotyne in early June failed, and Ukraine has shifted into a deliberate attritional strategy, Ukraine’s strategic distribution of forces begins to make a lot of sense.

From west to east, Ukraine is currently conducting

  • an offensive south of Kherson crossing the Dnipro;
  • an attack towards Tokmak, composed of:
    • a smaller thrust south towards Vasylivka;
    • and a major assault towards Robotyne;
  • a major offensive south from Velyka Novosilka;
  • a small offensive south from Vuhledar; and
  • a major offensive both north and south of Bakhmut.

Furthermore, Ukraine is also heavily contesting and yielding little ground to several Russian offensives:

  • a Russian offensive around Donetsk;
  • a major Russian offensive west from Kreminna toward Lyman; and
  • a major Russian offensive west from Svatove toward Kupiansk.

Ukraine has clearly prioritized the Robotyne and Velyka Novosilka offensives.

There were nine NATO-trained and -equipped heavy armored brigades identified in the Pentagon papers leaked by Jack Texeira: the 21st, 32nd, 33rd, 37th, 47th, 82nd, 117th, and 118th Brigades (with a ninth name being illegible).

Additional and notable veteran units that Ukraine started resting and retraining in November 2022 were the 1st and 4th Tank Brigades, the 25th and 80th Air Assault Brigades, and the 92nd Mechanized Brigades. All were removed from the frontlines to rest and refit for the next offensive. These 14 NATO-trained brigades—around 30-40,000 soldiers—represent the best-trained and -equipped core of Ukraine’s offensive power.

The 33rd and 47th Brigades are already operating around Robotyne. Additionally, it’s believed that the 118th Brigade was deployed to Robotyne as reinforcements on July 26, which was erroneously reported as the deployment of three of Ukraine’s best brigades at the time. The 37th Marines are operating around Velyka Novosilka, alongside the 4th Tank Brigade.

This means five of Ukraine’s 14 crack brigades are deployed in these two axes, in addition to numerous other veteran brigades, like the 65th in Robotyne, as well as the 35th and 36th Marines around Velyka Novosilka.

Ukraine continues to keep its three most powerful brigadesthe 1st Tank, the 82nd Air Assault, and the 92nd Mechanized—in reserve, but it has deployed a significant share of its other powerful brigades in other sectors of the battlefield.

The 21st “Swedish” Brigade is around Kreminna and recently lost its first CV90 infantry fighting vehicle. The 32nd is operating around Kupiansk, while the 80th Air Assault Brigade is fighting around Klishchiivka, south of Bakhmut.

In particular, Ukraine’s counterattack around Bakhmut is of a significant scale.

North of Bakhmut, the 57th Motorized, 30th Mechanized, 93rd Mechanized, and 10th Mountain Assault Brigades can be found, while the 3rd Assault, 5th Assault, 80th Air Assault, 22nd Mechanized, and  28th Mechanized Brigades are south of Bakhmut.

While the scale of the attacks across the Dnipro River around Kherson and Ukraine’s attacks out of Vuhledar have been relatively small, they have also been triggering furious artillery duels. All of this raises a question: Why does it seem like Ukraine is intent on attacking everywhere, and defending everywhere? Why wouldn’t Ukraine concentrate its forces in one area of the battlefield?

In the context of a battle of maneuver, Ukraine’s choice to spread out its forces and launch small-scale attacks all over the battlefield (and vigorously defend every part of the battlefield) doesn't make sense.

In a battle of maneuver, such as a blitzkrieg assault, the goal of the attack is positional. The goal is to gain ground operationally and strategically, to flank or surround the enemy, or to cut them off from their bases of supply. In such contexts, concentration of force is paramount, because regardless of losses, capturing key positions and encircling the enemy is the entire goal of the offensive.

Understanding a battle of attrition requires a shift in focus from merely “gaining ground.” While a battle of attrition eventually aims to capture ground and strategic locations, the first and primary objective is centered on the two elements laid out above.

  1. The efficient infliction of loss upon the enemy.
  2. The infliction of losses upon an enemy faster than they can replace combat power.

Neither of these goals is predicated on gaining ground. In fact, in many cases, trying to rapidly gain ground works directly against the first objective—the efficient infliction of losses.

Careful attacks, aimed at uncovering enemy positions and inflicting maximal firepower on the enemy while taking the fewest losses, essentially require both superior firepower and small unit actions to reconnoiter enemy concentrations.

Large mass groups of armor or infantry are ideal for trying to gain ground, but they are more susceptible to enemy artillery and firepower. Small unit infantry actions that cautiously creep forwards are far more resilient and efficient, albeit at the expense of speed of advance.

In this context, the Ukrainian transition from NATO-style assault tactics of concentrated armored columns in early June to smaller unit infantry actions aimed at gradual and progressive advances, particularly around Robotyne, make sense.

Ukrainian servicemen of the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade "Edelweiss" fire a rocket from a BM-21 'Grad' multiple rocket launcher towards Russian positions, near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on June 13, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov / AFP) (Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

If the goal of the Ukrainian high command is attritional, keeping Ukrainian heavy armor like Leopard 2s and Bradleys as safe as possible, while slowing pressing forwards and engaging in artillery duels, is an ideal way to inflict efficient losses on the enemy with the lowest levels of risk.

However, choosing ro employ small unit actions aimed at slow advances runs counter to attrition goal #2: the infliction of losses upon an enemy faster than they can replace combat power.

Thus, rather than increase the intensity of attacks at key locations (as would be done in a battle of maneuver), Ukraine has chosen to launch attritional attacks—many, many efficient attacks in favorable locations. And Bakhmut is an ideal attritional battlefield, because Russia is sitting in front of its prepared defenses, and it is politically difficult for it to withdraw.

Kherson is an ideal attritional battlefield because Russia cannot simply allow Ukraine to establish a secure bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro, and must constantly bring forces to contest Ukrainian small-unit advances along the river into Ukrainian artillery range.

Even if the intensity of the attacks and the risks that Ukrainian troops are willing to engage to gain ground is limited (thus making the ground gained more minimal), if Ukraine can maintain a broad attritional drain on Russian forces on many battlefields while maintaining an efficient infliction of losses, Ukraine is likely winning the attritional battle.

Despite being on the offensive, Ukrainian armor losses—as tabulated by Oryx since the start of the counter-offensive on June 5—have been approximately even with Russia’s, counting both disabled or damaged armor and destroyed armor. However, Ukraine has maintained an approximate 3:1 advantage in artillery losses for the past two months.

It’s Ukraine’s advantages in GPS-guided munitions, superior counter-battery radar, and long-ranged HIMARS attacks that permit Ukraine to strike back at Russian artillery with precision and speed.

The flip side to efficient doling of damage to the enemy is the replacement/reinforcement side of the equation. Many non-experts who opine on the Ukraine War comment that due to Russia’s manpower advantage, Ukraine cannot win a war of attrition. One well-known YouTuber even claimed that Ukraine cannot win the war without inflicting three times as many losses as it receives, because Russia’s population is three times higher than Ukraine's.

This is a ridiculous assertion.

These population- and manpower-based claims had merit 200 years ago, or even 70 years ago, to an extent, but sheer manpower has long since lost much semblance of relevance as a determinant of firepower. Perhaps, in certain analysts’ imaginations, the 1.3 million-strong North Korean army looks more powerful on paper compared to the 470,000-strong U.S. Army—but such analysis doesn’t deserve serious discussion.

The reason that manpower has become less significant is due to the radical reduction of combat density on the modern battlefield—how many troops per square kilometer you can effectively deploy. Radical increases in firepower make clustering infantry densely together less and less practical, making massed infantry tactics less effective.

A Tiger tank was a fearsome heavily armored beast of a tank, but had poor accuracy beyond 1,000 meters, could fire just 8-10 rounds a minute, and had a single coaxial machine gun for support against infantry. Charge 1,000 infantrymen armed with rifles nearly shoulder to shoulder at a single Tiger tank, and the infantry will almost certainly win (or at least force the Tiger to flee).

By contrast, against formations of infantry, modern Infantry fighting vehicles are far deadlier. Designed to spit out massive amounts of anti-infantry firepower, Bradley’s 25 mm auto-cannon can fire up to 200 rounds per minute—highly accurate high explosive rounds that can tear through groups of infantry. With modern optics and digital fire controls, with a line of sight, a Bradley can engage enemy positions well over 4,000 meters away, rapidly mowing down any infantry that might try to approach it.

Bradley Fighting Vehicle
A Bradley fighting vehicle

1,000 riflemen without anti-tank guided missiles or armor support would have no chance against even a single Bradley.

Certainly, armed with ATMGs and other anti-tank weapons like unguided RPGs, a Bradley can be threatened by large groups of enemy infantry, even without armor support. But the mere presence of a Bradley (or other similar high firepower, heavily protected armored vehicles) essentially precludes clustering even dozens of infantry into highly compact formations for massed attacks.

Russian attacks during the Winter Offensive were termed “human wave attacks,” but most near-suicidal Russian infantry attacks involved repeated waves of small squads of just three infantry, slowly pressing their way through enemy fire to establish forward positions. This was a tactic pioneered by the Wagner Group. It has gotten broad application among Russian assault units, who first use barely trained conscript or convict “disposable infantry” units, heavily supported by artillery to probe for weaknesses in Ukrainian defenses, before sending in highly trained shock troops to follow up.

Relying on three-man squads of infantry limits casualties at any one time, but also limits the scale of attacks in any tactical space. This further limits the operational tempo of attacks, and ends up with a strategic effect—only limited quantities of infantry can be deployed per kilometer of front.

This problem can be addressed through armored units. While shrapnel or cluster munitions can destroy large groups of infantry, more heavily protected units of mechanized infantry or armored columns can survive a much broader range of firepower. One cluster of 80 dismounted infantry can be wiped out in seconds by a single Bradley. Riding in 10-12 infantry fighting vehicles, it takes a great deal more firepower to take them on.

Thus particularly on the offensive, modern combat force is far more dependent on armored forces and firepower than it is upon manpower. Having a great deal of manpower can help one to repeat attacks over and over. However, one cannot make an attack more effective by simply trying to run larger and larger groups of soldiers at enemy objectives. Beyond a certain concentration, dismounted infantry simply die in greater numbers without any added benefit of combat power.

Manpower can certainly hurt you if you run out of it. Russia’s steadfast refusal early in the war to commit to mobilization led directly to undermanned Russian units lacking sufficient infantry numbers to defend the Kharkiv region, helping Ukraine overrun Russian positions behind Izium in September 2022. But having more manpower than you can use at one time in a given area is worthless.

Reportedly, Russia has concentrated nearly half its army in the Kreminna and Kupiansk directions. Media reports breathlessly spoke of Russia preparing for a major breakthrough in the north as 100,000 Russian troops concentrated in Luhansk.

Ukraine has dispatched the NATO-trained 32nd and 21st “Swedish” Brigades to this area. This has broadly fit with Ukraine’s attritional strategy of efficient infliction of damage, while preserving their best crack units to exploit an eventual weakness. Having launched its counter-counteroffensive in the north in mid-July, Russia has almost nothing to show for its offensives on these two axes of advance.

If Ukraine is employing an attritional strategy, then these attacks play directly into Ukraine’s hands. Russian units taking the operational offensive forces Russian units to move out of secure and fortified defensive positions to advance against Ukrainian troops sitting behind their own defenses.
By ratcheting up the intensity of combat in additional areas, it makes it easier for Ukraine to expand the scale of Russian losses, without sacrificing efficiency.

The impotence of the Russian attacks, both now and throughout the winter, shows how simply amassing more troops in an area doesn’t translate to operation combat strength sufficient to create the sort of operational or strategic breakthroughs that Russia can exploit.

Thus, it should be clear that the forces that Ukraine needs to degrade most urgently are likely not manpower, which Russia is capable of replacing in massive quantities. Russia’s losses in armored fighting vehicles and artillery are the losses that Russia cannot so easily replace. And there is ample evidence that Russia is running out of both.

Russian tank production has remained between an estimated 20-25, to perhaps as much as 30-35 units per month. There were reports in May that Russia had ordered Uralvagonzavod, Russia’s primary supplier of tanks, to cease production of domestic goods and focus all its resources on war production. Some pro-Russian sources were predicting UVZ could produce “thousands” of T-90M tanks in 2023, stating that hundreds of T-90 tanks had already been delivered to the front, and would be followed with monthly dispatches of all the modern tanks Russia could ask for.

These T-90M tanks have largely failed to materialize; Russia continues to deploy older and older tanks to the front, pulling out multiple shipments of T-55 tanks—whose designs were drawn up during World War II. Russian armor losses, as tabulated by Oryx, show no spike of modern tank losses this year, instead following the trend of showing increased losses of older model T-72s—including nearly 50-year-old T-72 Urals from 1974 that had been sent into combat without any upgrades.

This is unsurprising, as it has been noted that the bottleneck for Russian tank production isn’t tank bodies, but the fire control equipment. Night vision equipment, laser or optical range finders, electronic controls, gun-stabilizer equipment, and other advanced parts require considerable expertise to produce, and often require electronic parts from the West that Russia has struggled to get in sufficient quantities, due to sanctions.

The difficulties extend to the BMP3 and Russia’s infantry fighting vehicle forces. Russia ceased domestic production of the cheap and ubiquitous BMP2 IFV to focus on the production of the more advanced BMP3, but the BMP3 competes for the same electronic parts and high-quality steel needed to produce modern tanks and artillery.

A Ukrainian truck tows a captured Russian BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle on a road near Izyum, eastern Ukraine, on October 1, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Juan BARRETO / AFP) (Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images)
A Ukrainian truck tows a captured Russian BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle in October 2022

BMP3 deliveries have been far, far outstripped by Russian losses. Russian manufacturers proudly declared that they had accelerated BMP3 production and were making their third delivery of BMP3s in May, saying they had already produced as many BMP3s of 2022 in the first five months of 2023. However, the delivery was actually for “several dozen” BMP3s.

Taking this at face value, Russia had received three shipments of perhaps 60-70 BMP3s in five months, or around 30-40 BMP3s per month. Oryx has recorded 2,616 Russian IFV losses as of Saturday. This represents a loss of roughly 160 IFVs every month since the start of the war.

Russia has tried to keep pace by refurbishing old BMP1s and BMP2s in storage and rushing them to the front, but it has been observed that as the war goes on, the ubiquity of early Cold War Russian armored vehicles has grown more and more common.

An un-upgraded BMP1, for example, has armor that is only 6 mm thick in certain places, making it vulnerable to virtually any anti-tank weapon, including armor-piercing machine gun rounds. It would stand almost no chance against a Bradley or Marder main gun.

Russia’s artillery has likewise degraded.  

The Royal United Services Institute noted that a lack of 152 mm ammunition and replacement barrels was driving a shift from a primary reliance on 152 mm howitzers to increasing use of mortars to replace shortfalls in firepower. This mirrors reports from the frontlines, such as from Ukrainian officer Tatarigami_UA, who noted an overall shift in Russian tactics in February, when Russian units began operating with a greater emphasis on mortars. This also follows reports that 152 mm artillery usage had dropped by 75% or more.

Furthermore, Oryx verified losses of Russian artillery had been predominantly 152 mm artillery at the start of the war. The 152mm self-propelled artillery was the most commonly used artillery unit until May and Jun , when 152 mm artillery losses were surpassed by 122 mm howitzers and 120 mm mortar losses. This likely represents a significant drop-off in the number of 152 mm artillery being deployed, also suggesting Russia’s increasing reliance on mortars is real.

Of 152 mm artillery units still being deployed, an increased reliance on older towed artillery units, rather than better-protected and more mobile self-propelled artillery, has been observed.

Russian Koalitsiya-SV self-propelled howitzers roll along Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 7, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV        (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Koalitsiya self-propelled howitzers—in 2017

You can read more about the death of Russia’s specialized steel industry in the early 2000s and its implications for Russian artillery production in greater detail here.

Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to degrade Russian ammunition and fuel supplies—through attacks on both stockpiles and transportation infrastructure.

Ukrainian cruise missiles and drones have struck key Russian rail transportation bridges.

Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to receive new military equipment that far exceeds Russia’s production capabilities.

Since June, Western allies have delivered, or newly promised, approximately 600 new armored fighting vehicles:

Leopard 2 repair facilities are now running in Poland, and tanks are being delivered from the front lines for repair. While Ukraine has lost 12 Leopard 2A4s and 2A6s, nine were deemed repairable by Oryx. Similarly, while Ukraine is confirmed to have lost 48 Bradleys in combat, just 23 are deemed total losses by Oryx.

Two aspects of Western armor are sometimes overlooked. Heavy Western armor design helps keep highly trained crew and passengers alive when vehicles are hit, but they also are designed to compartmentalize damage and keep them repairable. So while Soviet and Russian armor designs are toast if the ammunition is hit, Western armor like the Leopard 2 or the Bradley are designed to eject the force of ammunition explosion upwards, which increases crew survivability but also keeps such armored vehicles repairable upon recovery.

A vulnerability in Ukraine’s air defenses was identified through a deficiency of SHORAD (short-range air defense) units, cheaper highly mobile short-range anti-air units. Russia exploited this weakness in the early days of the counteroffensive by attacking Ukrainian armored columns with Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters.

The UK has helped address this deficiency by delivering Supacat heavy trucks with ASRAAM IR Anti-air missiles strapped to them. The ASRAAM is traditionally an air-to-air missile; this is the first known instance of its use as a SAM missile.

The ASRAAM is not radar-based, but is instead a heat-seeking missile, making it more autonomous than a radar-based anti-air missile. Thus it’s well suited to be used as an improvised SAM missile.

The system does appear highly improvised, with a simple launcher welded onto the rear of the high-mobility vehicle. It’s unclear if it has its own radar, but it’s likely a very inexpensive and weak system if so. the ASRAAM normally has a range of 25 km, but this assumes being fired from a fighter jet flying at Mach 1 or greater,  and at high altitudes. But when the 50 km-ranged AIM-120A AMRAAM is fired from a NASAMS, its range drops to under half to around 25km. Thus, the 25km ASRAAM will likely only sport a horizontal range of 10-15km at most.

While an improvised system comes with some obvious limitations, this solution does come with two significant advantages. The UK, and many European allies, have major stockpiles of older ASRAAM missiles it can dispatch to Ukraine without fear of impacting their own stockpiles. The Supacat high mobility vehicles are also ubiquitous and can be delivered in mass quantities. Thus it appears this system can be delivered in quantity as soon as launchers can be affixed to trucks.

Several systems are reportedly already deployed to Ukrainian cities as a defense against Shaheed drone attacks, but several systems are now serving as front-line SHORAD systems as well—presumably in defense against Ka-52 attack choppers.

Just as critically, Ukraine’s 155m m artillery ammunition issue has been largely solved for the foreseeable future.  Although Ukraine was desperate to find shells to feed its artillery corps, the U.S.’s decision to send 155m m DPICM cluster munitions was a game-changer in terms of supply quantity.

Ukraine’s monthly shortfall of 155 mm shells relative to allied production was an estimated 50~100,000 shells. With a stockpile of 3~4 million 155mm DPICM stockpiles, U.S. stocks of cluster munition shells would take around 30 months to exhaust, sven absent any production increases in 155 mm shells, which are planned to come together by next spring.

The cluster munition shells are also far deadlier in attacking enemy fixed positions than conventional HE shells. The Royal United Services Institute cited a study that indicated when U.S. forces employed conventional munitions against entrenched Vietnamese troops, it took 13.6 shells to kill a soldier. But when U.S. forces deployed cluster munition shells, it only took 1.7 shells.

The DPICM shells should help resolve Ukrainian ammunition issues not only through their sheer available quantity, but also via their brutal efficiency. These shells should help ensure that a shell shortage will not cause any pause in Ukrainian offensive pressure. Ukraine should be able to keep pressing an offensive indefinitely—until either the Ukrainian Army or the Russian Army reaches a breaking point.

One thing is clear. Ukraine is making good on its losses, and expanding its armored forces. It continues to amass an increasingly Western anti-air battery system, and Western allies continue to make efforts to fill any gaps in Ukraine’s equipment needs.

Russia has been increasingly forced to replace its best equipment with 60- to 70-year-old equipment or worse.

Again, World War I is frequently the war that people think of when they hear “battle of attrition.” What many people don’t realize is that World War II was, from a strategic perspective, also a battle of attrition. The massive clashes of Soviet and Nazi forces on the Eastern Front, as well as the battles in Normandy, represent primarily frontal clashes of armored forces seeking to grind down the other side’s reserves.

German forces in Normandy, for example, yielded very little ground for nearly two months—until the attritional battles wore down their ability to resist ,and gaps opened up in their defenses for the Allies to exploit.

Consider Ulysses S. Grant’s attritional seven-week “Overland Campaign” against Robert E. Lee in the American Civil War in 1864. It culminated in the siege of Petersburg that would bring the war to an end the following year. Consider also Mikhail Kutuzov’s six-month-long attritional defense of Russia against Napoleon in 1812. Each offers a famous example of when attrition led to decisive victory in a reasonably short time frame.

Perhaps the Western world does not want Ukraine to emulate the eight-year-long attritional war that the Continental Army won over the British Empire, but it does go to show how the strategy can lead to decisive outcomes. So why do certain attritional campaigns lead to decisive victories in a matter of weeks or months, but others lead to years of stalemate, or victory only after many years?

It leads back to the simple theoretical issues of “scope” and “efficiency.” If an attritional campaign is launched with insufficient scope, then the damage dealt to the enemy army is insufficient to break it: If reinforcements exceed or nearly match losses, then no attritional progress is made, and the war of attrition becomes a stalemate.

If an attritional campaign is launched with poor efficiency, the campaign is rarely successful. Poor efficiency means the attacker is losing too much in exchange for the losses. In a war between approximate peers, an inefficient war of attrition is likely to weaken the attacker more rapidly than the defender; an inefficient battle of attrition is doomed to failure in a near-peer war.

The question becomes: Does Ukraine have both necessary elements for a successful war of attrition?

I would argue yes. Ukraine’s losses have been efficient, with approximately even armor losses as Russia, while doling out a sharply greater proportion of artillery losses. Ukraine also has been causing a sufficient scope of damage to Russia to degrade its forces—as evidenced by its need to reach for older and older equipment to keep its front lines staffed, and sharp declines in its 152 mm howitzer firepower.

Russia can replenish its manpower reserves by calling for another mobilization, or by expanding its program of pseudo-mobilization. But Russia’s losses in its armored forces and artillery cannot be replaced by manpower, and declining Russian combat forces from attrition will lead to gaps opening up in its defenses.

And thus Ukraine’s strategy of attrition appears to be on the right track.


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