The Russia-Ukraine war exhibits a stark asymmetry: Russia pursues aggression while Ukraine fights to preserve sovereignty, leading to divergent societal attitudes.
The deadlocked Russia-Ukraine war remains strikingly asymmetric in its character and key features. The core of this asymmetry is plain clear: Russia persists with the crime of aggression and Ukraine keeps fighting for preserving its sovereignty and restoring territorial integrity.
This basic difference determines dissimilar positions in the two societies: the Ukrainians are united in resilience against the brutal pressure, and the Russians meet the tragedy of war with indifference, which is actually a blend of reluctant reckoning with its reality, grim acceptance of the inevitable hardships, and learned helplessness.
The strategies for the war of high-intensity attrition during 2024 designed by the leadership in Moscow and Kyiv might seem quite similar, but they reflect the profound divergence in societal attitudes and so are in fact significantly different. For once, Ukraine and Russia expect the directly opposite stance from the Western coalition: the former needs expanded and sustained military and economic support, and the latter counts on fatigue and discord.
As of the start of 2024, President Vladimir Putin radiates confidence in the inevitable deepening of divisions in the hostile but disunited West, while President Volodymyr Zelensky sounds nearly desperate.
These perceptions may change and even reverse before the war reaches the two-year mark in late February. The EU is certain to find a way to overcome the stubbornness of Hungary’s Victor Orban and to approve massive new funding for Ukraine. The strong bipartisan support for Ukraine in the US Congress will also prevail over the election-year bickering in the House of Representatives, so that the long-delayed package of aid will be signed, sealed and delivered. What can undercut even deeper Putin’s assumptions of wavering West is a sequence of steps toward channeling Russia’s financial assets frozen in the US and the EU into reconstruction of Ukraine.
Means and methods of building the army
Another major difference in Russia’s and Ukraine’s strategies is the means and methods of building the mass army necessary for waging protracted war. With the population four times larger than Ukraine’s, Russia should have managed this task easily, but actually the problems with manning the trenches keep piling up.
Official figures on the numerical strength of the army are steadily rising, but the difficulties with filling the ranks are deepening, and the police operation in St. Petersburg on the New Year eve, when hundreds of migrants were rounded up and dragooned into the military service is just one illustration.
Putin’s reassurances that a new round of mobilization is not needed are typically interpreted in the concerned society as a sure sign of its forthcoming announcement, perhaps after the preordained inauguration of the irreplaceable leader for yet another presidential term at the end of March. Combat losses are so heavy that Russian prisons cannot yield enough criminals to replenish the decimated battalions, and recruitment abroad, for instance in Serbia or Nepal, is increasingly curtailed.
Only mobilization can produce a temporary solution for the manpower problem, but Putin is wary that this test of public indifference may produce a shock wave of resistance and protest.
Word of the year: Mobilization
Ukraine also faces a major problem with manning the army, and the debates on this problem are so intense that “mobilization” was recognized as the word of the Year 2023. Zelensky maintains that half a million soldiers need to be added to the ranks in 2024 and has duly introduced new legislation on expanding the pool for recruiting and harshening punishment for draft-dodging.
Various dissents and disagreements have instantly flared up in the parliament (Verkhovna Rada), which keeps working beyond the regular term because elections cannot be held under the martial law, in effect since 24 February 2022. Valery Zaluzhny, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, whose words carry a lot of weight, denies pressuring the political leadership but confirms the imperative in building up reinforcements.
What sharpens this imperative for Zelensky is the recognition that he cannot rely on his power of persuasion in securing further US support, as his visit to Washington D.C. in December was rather unproductive, and a clear confirmation of Ukraine’s unwavering resilience is indeed necessary.
Impossibility of compromise
Where Russian and Ukrainian strategies appear to converge, albeit from very different directions, is on the impossibility of any compromise leading to a sustainable peace. Putin indicates his readiness to negotiate, but his discourse leaves few doubts that he means talks about Ukraine’s surrender. His real purpose with these hints is to stimulate dissent in the West, and more than a few expert voices are indeed eager to sing to this tune.
Zelensky refuses to enter into any negotiations with Putin, but seeks to keep international discussions of his “peace formula” going, even if the recent secretive meeting in Saudi Arabia registered scant progress. Davos is his next destination, as the World Economic Forum grants an opportunity to hold a special session on this theme. Brainstorming the issues of rebuilding the European security system after the Ukrainian victory has become a rather theoretical exercise because the arrival to this positive situation from the present stalemate requires a long leap of faith.
War strategies typically fail the test of application to cruel reality, and for both Russia and Ukraine the crucial part of this test is domestic support.
Zelensky needs to tap into every resource of resilience, assuming that they will be replenished by the new hope rising from the reconfirmed support from the West. Putin has a monster propaganda machine at his disposal, but he needs to deploy it simultaneously for drumming the jingoist marches and for playing the “life-goes-as-normal” tune. Public indifference works fine for him so far, but the Kremlin has no way of knowing for how long it may last and what might suddenly turn it into resentment and anger.
The clash of two irreconcilable strategies is certain to produce surprising turns in the seemingly steady course of the long war, but resilience grants Ukraine a better position to withstand the bad surprises and to utilize the good ones.