‘This is a message of futility’

The war in Ukraine has now lasted more than three hundred days. Both Russia and Ukraine have problems with the supply of weapons systems and ammunition. But neither country is giving up. ‘The war of attrition is now in full swing.’

Ans Boersma

The image of the week: the Ukrainian president addressing the US Congress. Volodymyr Zelensky’s glorious speech gave hope, also in his own country. “Ukraine will stand firm and will never surrender!” he spoke. He returned home with extra (military) support.

Russian President Putin was not impressed. He promised to shoot down the delivered Patriot missile system and said he will spend as much on the war as necessary. It also sounded that Ukraine’s new weapons will not prevent Russia from achieving its military goals.

With two tenacious parties, the end of the battle is not yet in sight. The question is who wins the arms race. It is mainly an ammunition race, says professor of military history Kris Quanten (Royal Military School Brussels). In addition, the amount of ammunition it rotates is problematic on both the Ukrainian and Russian sides.

Quanten cites the battle around Bachmoet as an example. On the Ukrainian side, between 5,000 and 7,000 bombs and grenades are fired every day. On the Russian side, there are 40,000 per day. Quanten: “In the US they produce 15,000 155 millimeter grenades on a monthly basis. You immediately see what the problem is in terms of supply.” That is why the US is currently looking at alternative solutions for Ukraine, such as converting so-called glide bombs many of which the country still has left over from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Russians have to turn to pariah states such as Iran and North Korea for extra ammunition. The fact that Russia is already sounding the alarm there indicates that they are in trouble in terms of ammunition and weapon systems. But Ukraine is also facing difficulties in this area. It looks like it could turn into a war of attrition, predicts Quanten.

Prolonged conflict

What now? Defense expert and professor Alexander Mattelaer (VUB/Egmont Institute) outlined three scenarios at the start of the war: in the former, President Zelensky would succumb to the pressure of a heightened military threat. As we now know, that certainly did not happen.

A second scenario was that Russia wanted to wage a short, sharp war to break morale in Ukraine. This also failed. The third scenario is that Ukraine holds out and the war turns into a protracted conflict. That war of attrition is now in full swing, says Mattelaer.

The war is not going to be settled in the short term, says Quanten. There’s no movement in it. Mattelaer also fears that we will remain in the situation for a longer period of time in which people wait and see which party will hold out the longest from a military point of view.

He thinks the situation looks better for Ukraine. “If the entire collective productive capacity of Western democracies aligns itself with Ukraine, Russia will hardly be able to compete.” Russia will try to increase its own production capacity, but will be hampered by sanctions. The same goes for the friends they knock on, Iran and North Korea.


The Russian president said on Thursday that “all armed conflicts end through negotiations”. But the debate about possible talks cannot be viewed separately from what is happening on the battlefield, says Mattelaer. Going to a ceasefire from the current frontline would mean Ukraine giving up about a quarter of its territory. Good news for Russia, but Ukraine is obviously not enthusiastic about this. Especially since the country has shown in recent months that it is capable of launching a counter-offensive and regaining ground.

If Ukraine manages to maintain this momentum, they can push the Russians back to their original external borders. Only then will a ceasefire become acceptable to Zelensky. And: if Ukraine now negotiates and accepts loss of territory in exchange for peace, it also means that waging an aggressive expansionist war strategically pays off for Russia. This is not only bad news for Ukraine, but for the entire region.

Putin ramps up violence

It is most likely that both parties will try to make the best possible use of the coming months for their own objectives. For Ukraine, this means trying to keep the infrastructure going and gathering resources for a new counter-offensive. Russia is doing just the opposite. It will strengthen its defensive positions and continue strategic bombing of civilian targets and critical infrastructure to break the will of the population. Putin is currently increasing the intensity of violence and threatens to do so even further.

The Russians will use winter as a weapon, predicts Kris Quanten. “The doomsday scenario is that in winter Russia will weaken the Ukrainian population and crack their morale. To then launch a large-scale offensive in the spring.”

So no happy tidings from the front. Quanten: “It is a pointless battle with pointless victims. This is a message of futility that should make you think.”

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