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Expert: Russia cannot wage war of attrition indefinitely

Rainer Saks.
Rainer Saks. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Russia cannot wage a war of attrition in Ukraine indefinitely, and the high loss of life could also start to have an impact on Russian domestic politics, according to security analyst Rainer Saks. Which side has the best air defenses will also begin to take on more importance, Saks added.

"Russia would like to give the impression that it is prepared to wage a war of attrition. However, in reality, we see that it is not capable of conducting major offensive operations, which is why the Russian president's main political desire – to take control of the entire territory of Ukraine – [has not been fulfilled]," Saks said on radio show "Vikerhommik" on Monday.

According to Saks, the Russian armed forces are stepping up their efforts to conquer larger territories in order to create the perception in the West that supporting Ukraine is a hopeless endeavor.

"Unfortunately, in the West, and especially in public opinion, there is a very strong attachment to the idea to seeing the situation in light of which territories currently belong to the troops of one side or the other. But in actual fact, you have to look at what is happening at the strategic level," Saks explained.

"We can see that, what's going to happen in the war is not really just a question of the front line at all. If Ukraine has now indicated that it is capable of conducting its own air strikes against Russian infrastructure on Russian territory, and on a slightly larger scale, as has happened over the last few days, and if this becomes routine on both sides, then it will really start to matter which side's air defenses are better," the security expert said.

"And this could turn out in very different ways. Air defense also means that if, in the case of Russia, we see that their air defenses are not working, and Ukraine, as you know, is using predominantly Western-made weaponry, then that also calls into question Russia's greater strategic defense capabilities as a whole. So, Russia has actually taken very big risks, it is not easy for them to fight this war in Ukraine."

Saks also acknowledged that while Russian President Vladimir Putin will have no difficulty in formalizing victory in next year's presidential elections, it will still place certain constraints on him. One of the factors certain to have an impact will be the high loss of life in the war in Ukraine.

"I am of the opinion that Russia cannot carry on like this indefinitely. Somewhere in Russian society, too, this limit has to be reached. Maybe we really can't perceive it so to speak and predict it, because to do that we would have to be in the Russian information space ourselves," Saks said. "At the moment Russia is clearly trying to avoid a new [wave of] mobilization. There is talk of some pretty big numbers that they could recruit to make up for the losses, but these are actually still very much estimates based on Russia's own sources."

"It's a question of motivation, of what the soldiers are fighting for. Up to now, the Russian leadership has somehow managed to motivate its soldiers to die on the front line. However, I don't think it's possible for it to last that long and that Russia can continue in this way indefinitely without declaring mobilization. And that is what Ukraine is playing on at the moment, trying to discredit Russia's ability to manage this kind of political process in Russia," he said.

Saks also said he did not believe claims that Germany and the U.S. were trying to pressure Ukraine to negotiate with Russia by limiting the supply of arms.

"I think that if there is any truth to it, it is that perhaps there are officials or politicians among the leadership of both Germany and the U.S., who think that they could try to resolve the conflict in this way. But, I am absolutely convinced that the leaders of Germany and the United States understand very well what this type of pressure on Ukraine would mean in terms of the overall longer-term strategic plan," Sak said.

"One issue is Western countries running out of resources to support Ukraine. However, to just try to somehow come to an agreement with Russia at the expense of Ukraine and at whatever cost – I believe that's not a mistake the leaders of Germany and the U.S. are planning for now in any case," he added.

"I'm also very doubtful that they would be able to work together strategically as a duo to engineer a situation whereby supplies to Ukraine are such that Ukraine has to sit down at the negotiating table as a result of this war. I see that, as a rule, they are usually not capable of such complex schemes. Because of this, I think it is more of a case of, either deliberately or unintentionally created, information noise," Saks stressed.

In terms of the current course of the war in Ukraine, Saks said that the situation on the front line is now rather static. Russian troops are attacking in large numbers in Bakhmut, where they are trying to regain positions they lost to Ukrainian forces in the fall. Another offensive is ongoing in the Donetsk urban area, where Russia is trying to capture Avdiivka and Marinka, which Ukraine now controls.

Russia will probably also attempt to resume its attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure in the winter. However, so far those attacks have not been very successful from Russia's point of view, Saks added.

"Russia would definitely like to show that this is the beginning of a process, but I think that the Russian air strikes so far have not been as successful as they would like. Because the weather has already turned cold and at this time last year, Russia was already carrying out these big air strikes - so they are happening much later than they were last year, which surely could not have been their plan. However, there is the possibility that they are gathering resources in order to carry out air strikes more frequently and on a larger scale this time around. We shall see," Saks said.

"Elsewhere on the front line there have been smaller attacks [by Russia] and attacks on the Ukrainian side, but I would say that the offensive activities the Russian army are currently conducting have certainly not achieved the level of success the Russian leadership can be satisfied with. Let's not just talk about losses here, but also look at how slowly they've been able to advance – it's really only a few kilometers at a few isolated points. That is certainly not satisfactory for the Russian leadership," said Saks.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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