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Russia and Ukraine Brace for a War of Attrition

The conflict has settled into a war of attrition, with little movement along the front line in recent weeks, even as both Zelenskyy and Putin face growing political pressure to show results on the battlefield.IHOR THACHEV/AFP via Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin’s decision this week to expand the size of his military offered further evidence for a conviction taking hold in both Russia and Ukraine: The two sides are settling in for the long haul in a war that could last another year, or longer.

Putin, secure in his power and having silenced dissent, appears to have little incentive to stop the war, which he has now waged for more than six months without declaring a nationwide draft that could have provoked domestic discontent.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, warning his nation on Friday that the coming winter would be “the most difficult in our history,” is being bolstered by a largely unified West and a defiant populace in his insistence that there will be no compromise with an invading army.


The conflict has settled into a war of attrition, with little movement along the front line in recent weeks, even as both Zelenskyy and Putin face growing political pressure to show results on the battlefield.

Ukraine has held off from mounting a large-scale counteroffensive despite claiming for months that one was coming, and Russia has avoided sharply escalating its assault despite warning that it would retaliate against Ukrainian attacks in the Russian-controlled peninsula of Crimea.

“Expectations that this will end by Christmas or that this will end by next spring” are misguided, said Ruslan Pukhov, a defense analyst who runs the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a privately-owned think tank in Moscow.

Ukraine, benefiting from a continuing flow of Western weapons like the $3 billion package that President Biden pledged this week, has the resources and morale to continue to resist the Russian assault. Russia, fighting the war at peacetime strength without mass call-ups of military-age men, appears to have the resources to keep waging a brutal war of attrition — but not to mount a decisive new offensive.


The largely static period on the battlefield coincides with increasing expectations — fueled by Ukraine itself — that Ukraine’s military will mount some kind of significant offensive to show that it can make good use of Western-provided weapons and reassure allies that the economic sacrifices they are making will pay off.

Putin, as well, faces domestic pressure from far-right nationalists who want stepped-up aggression in Ukraine, particularly after recent strikes on Crimea and the death of the ultranationalist commentator Daria Dugina in a car bombing last weekend. But the Russian leader, in control of the state media and the political system, is well-situated to ignore such calls, analysts say.

Instead, Putin insists that his forces are advancing in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region “step by step.”

However, Russia has failed to capture a single major population center since early July. And for Putin, who justified the invasion by falsely claiming that Ukraine was committing a “genocide” of Russian speakers in the Donbas, anything short of full control of the region would be seen as a major defeat.

Putin’s decree on Thursday raised the target number of active-duty Russian service members by 137,000, to 1.15 million.

In the Russian state media, the message that Russia could only be at the start of a long and existential war against the West — now being fought, by proxy, in Ukraine — is sounding with increasing clarity. It is a shift from the messaging six months ago, when Ukrainians were depicted as lacking the will to fight and eagerly awaiting Russian “liberation.”


“We will have fewer Russian tourists in Europe, but the size of the Russian army will increase by 140,000 regular servicemen,” Igor Korotchenko, the editor of a Russian military journal, said on a state television talk show on Thursday. “I expect that this is just the beginning.”