Russia and Ukraine have a common enemy – time
War’s most inflexible factor is time. How Ukraine and Russia’s clocks tick down will decide who wins this war.
War’s most inflexible factor is time. How Ukraine and Russia’s clocks tick down will decide who wins this war.
Just before Christmas the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said of the Ukraine-Russian war, victory “is maybe not achievable through military means, and therefore you need to turn to other means,” noting a possible slowdown of fighting provides “a window of opportunity for negotiation”.
His comment was criticised by other observers and the Ukrainians, who clearly have momentum and morale on their side. Milley’s assessment suggested neither side has a dominant position and, when subsequently clarifying his remarks, he said: “Russia right now is on its back. … You want to negotiate … when you’re at strength and your opponent is at weakness”.
As discussed in Armed Forces & Society, deciding the right time to negotiate, or to press an advantage, is a key question in war. As the conflict enters its second year, Ukraine appears to have the momentum. But both sides face considerable time pressures that must be considered in their theories of victory.
Working with – or against – time has always been a feature of strategy in war. Nobody knows who will win this conflict (or what constitutes victory), but the passage of time — understood in military terms as endurance and exhaustion — can help assess its direction.
The Russian invasion last February was carefully calibrated with specific dates and seasons in mind. They waited until after the Beijing Olympics, but before the spring thaw turned Ukraine’s hard ground to mud. The entire Russian strategy was shaped by the idea of a short, sharp invasion that would collapse the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Russian President Vladimir Putin figured Ukraine was vulnerable and Kyiv would fall in days.
Military planners throughout history have set timetables and sometimes they become hostages to these, such as the Germans in 1914. As the historian AJP Taylor memorably put it, “The First World War had begun — imposed on the statesmen of Europe by railway timetables”. Germany was not alone in miscalculating time. All sides in that conflict felt the war would be over by Christmas .
The seasons can have more to do with determining the winner than any martial prowess or decisive battle, a lesson learned by Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 when they invaded Russia and planned to conquer Moscow before their armies froze to death.
Time can also be considered less of a pressure and more of an ally. Combatants can seek victory simply by surviving and running out the clock on their enemies. This is especially true in counterinsurgencies and wars of national liberation. The US was once the beneficiary of such a Fabian strategy in the War of Independence. Two centuries later, the US ran out of steam in Vietnam and again in Afghanistan. As reportedly observed by a captured Taliban fighter, “You have the watches. We have the time”.
As Putin is learning in Ukraine, the further a campaign deviates from the initial strategy, the greater the chances of catastrophe. Although the Russians are farther from their initial strategy and campaign plan, it is not clear if time will be an ally for either side. Setting the Russian and Ukrainian clocks against one another offers a novel way to assess which side may outlast the other.
Moscow’s ticking clock involves several interrelated pressures that may cause Russia to run out of gas before Ukraine. There is near universal acceptance the “special military operation” failed (as initially envisioned). While Putin has scaled down his initial objectives, he shows no sign of abandoning his war, perhaps believing his clock is the favoured one.
However, failure to appreciate the realities of his own clock and correct course in response could lead to Putin’s political — and quite possibly, literal — demise. Among the principal issues for Russia is the terrible performance of its military. Combat losses — some estimates place killed and wounded at nearly 200,000 — are unsustainable for the long term without a national mobilisation (which would be politically fraught) and replenishment of modern weapons (impossible despite Iran’s support with drones).
To augment his forces, Putin reluctantly began a “partial mobilisation” in September, which has bought him some time. But the conscripts arrive in Ukraine with almost no training and antediluvian weapons. Even if Putin could generate more manpower, Russian armed forces are quickly depleting their weapons, especially the higher-end precision guided munitions, and these cannot be called up from Russia’s regions like conscripts. Replenishing stocks has ground to a near standstill because of Western sanctions.
Putin’s economic clock seems to be a mixed picture as Russia’s economy officially entered a recession in the second half of 2022. However, while Russia’s Central Bank predicted a further contraction of 7.1 percent, the International Monetary Fund has recently upgraded Russia’s economic forecast by predicting slight growth for 2023. This must be considered alongside the longer-term impact of sanctions that will continue to bite.
Although Putin set aside a considerable war chest to insulate his economy, many Russian assets were frozen abroad by sanctions. Putin is still making money and using energy as a weapon but Europeans do seem to be transitioning away and seeking new suppliers. To prevail, Putin likely feels he needs to outlast Western cohesion and a cold winter for Europe requiring Russian energy sources was a key pillar in that plan.
Putin underestimated the Western cohesion and unity generated in response to his invasion. If he and his military can survive long enough to see a dissolution of Western cohesion, that could be a deciding factor. Western aid has made the Ukrainian resistance possible and sanctions have drained Russia. A disruption to aid and sanctions could quickly deteriorate the situation for Ukraine. Perhaps Putin thinks this is a race against time he can win.
There is a question whether cohesion among Western states can last indefinitely; it likely cannot. While the US can chart its own policy course, European institutions must achieve consensus to act. Significantly for any analysis of Western cohesion, definitions matter. What we term as “the West” (wealthy democracies providing military aid to Ukraine) may be divisible into two factions: the US and Europe, although intra-European unity is far from assured.
Growing public dissent could be another problem for Putin, especially if a future mobilisation impacts Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the past, he has been able to iron-fist his way to suppressing free speech. The invasion and the disastrous results thus far initially inflamed Russian public dissent, but his security services seem to have tamped down protesters, albeit ruthlessly.
Adding to the growing public pressure, Russian elites are increasingly restive. As Putin tries to shift blame and enhance performance by reshuffling his military’s leadership, he has become obliged to field strongman (read: ruthless) commanders, even enlisting the paramilitary Wagner Group to shoulder a larger share of the combat load in Ukraine. The risk Putin runs is choosing between fielding a group of ineffective but loyal toadies and appointing more effective strongmen who may turn on him.
With all of these societal and political fissures and pressures against Russia’s clock, Putin’s ability to salvage anything resembling victory is quickly waning. His hope is to outlast the Ukrainian clock.
After a year, Ukrainian forces remain strongly motivated and, thanks to unprecedented military, economic, and political support from the West, more capable than ever to defend and retake their territory. Despite this, the primary path to victory may only be a terrible slog in outlasting Putin and exhausting the Russian military.
The Ukrainian military has exceeded expectations, performing amazingly well against what was thought to be an overpowering Russian force. Facing an existential threat to their homeland, morale among Ukrainian fighters is surging while Russian troop morale plummets.
All the same, Ukraine is also up against a ticking clock in terms of rebuilding a shattered economy and devastating Russian strikes against critical infrastructure. There is a real possibility the Ukrainian Armed Forces (or its backers) could run out of certain weapons systems, or even steam more generally, and this largely depends on the robustness and durability of external financial and military support as well as avoiding a stalemate as the initial war in the Donbas resembled.
From a material sense, the Ukrainian burn rate for weapons has exceeded donor nations’ use calculations. NATO countries, including the US, appear ready to keep up with Ukrainian demand. But one NATO official described 20 of its 30 member countries as being “pretty tapped out,” and others have some desperately needed resources but are mired in export control red tape.
How much longer can Ukraine expect to receive substantial amounts of foreign military and economic aid? The answer to this question will most likely dictate how much time Ukraine has left on its clock. It is difficult to imagine Ukraine carrying on a conventional resistance without a continued and uninterrupted infusion of foreign military and intelligence assistance.
The Ukrainians are rightly concerned about a frozen conflict and waning international attention. For now, Ukraine has dominated the news cycles, prompting Ukrainian flags being flown from global capitals to the social media pages of celebrities. Ukraine dominates the online narrative space with the skilled weaponisation of memes and urban legends while Zelenskiy is feted by world leaders. How long can this level of global attention and popular support persist? A new crisis, new strain of COVID, or even an early US presidential campaign may compete with Ukraine for the world’s attention. Flagging global interest could drastically decrease Ukraine’s clock.
Both clocks are ticking
Time is a critical consideration in evaluating each side’s prospects. For Russia, the foundering of its military, inadequate manpower, unsustainable equipment losses, compounding economic challenges, and Ukrainian support from the West are all pressing against Putin’s clock. It remains to be seen whether further support from Russia’s few remaining friends or a reshuffling of commanders (now with Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov in overall command) will make a difference.
For Ukraine, pushing Russian troops out of Ukraine’s pre-2014 boundaries would be a total victory, but there are are lingering questions in Western capitals about Putin’s redlines for escalation, especially regarding the status of illegally annexed Crimea. Outlasting Putin and putting time on Ukraine’s clock through foreign support appears to be the clearest path to prevailing.
How each clock interacts with the variables and with the adversary’s clock offers a way to assess relative advantage as the war continues. As military and political leaders throughout history have learned, time waits for no one.
David V. Gioe, PhD, FRHistS is a British Academy Global Professor and Visiting Professor of Intelligence & International Security at the Department of War Studies King’s College London. He is also History Fellow for the Army Cyber Institute at the United States Military Academy. This is his own analysis and reflects no official government position|
Tony Manganello, PhD, is an associate professor of National Security Studies at Indiana Wesleyan University where he serves as department coordinator for the criminal justice program.
The research was undertaken with financial assistance from the British Academy’s Global Professorship programme.
This article was adapted from a longer article, A Tale of Two Clocks: A Framework for Assessing Time Pressure and Advantage in the Russo-Ukrainian War, first published in the journal Armed Forces & Society.