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Russian Military Objectives and Capacity in Ukraine through 2024: response to Watling and Reynolds

By Matthew Parish

In their article dated 13 February 2024, published on the website of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, Dr Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds describe a narrative of Russian military strategy in Ukraine in 2024 that, while accurate in a number of ways about the restructuring, munitions and matériel capacities of the Russian Armed Forces’ operations in theatre in Ukraine, in my opinion misdescribes both Russian strategic objectives in the current conflict and also overstates the dangers posed by the Russian Armed Forces in Ukrainian theatre: with one significant exception.

Watling and Reynolds advance a tripartite hypothesis about Russia’s contemporary military intentions. On the one hand, they say that Russia harbours a strategic set of political goals about the future of Ukraine that they are progressing towards in a coherent fashion. The goals they identify on the part of the Russian Federation are the annexation of Kharkiv and Odessa (and presumably the Mykolaïv corridor as well); procuring an undertaking on the part of Ukraine not to join NATO; and replacing Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the President of Ukraine, with a more acceptable head of state suitable to the Kremlin. The second plank of their hypothesis is that Russian military capacity has substantially improved since the beginning of the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, including substantial increases in active service personnel and an effective programme of organisational restructuring. The third part of their hypothesis is that Russian capacity to accrue and accumulate military equipment is currently poor but various strategies are being developed by Russia to improve production and acquisition of matériel from allied states and therefore substantial improvements in their production capacity can be expected.

The conclusions Watling and Reynolds draw is that 2025 is a critical year for the Russian Armed Forces, as their long-term capacity to produce matériel from their own industrial base will fade by 2026 and that therefore the proper approach of the NATO member states in resisting Russia’s aggression in 2024 is to provide increased and adequate armaments to Ukraine in order to blunt the effectiveness of a Russian military campaign in 2024 that might produces changes on the ground that will assist Russia in negotiating a resolution to the war in Ukraine on terms favourable to it of a kind that the authors have described.

While I agree with the second of these conclusions, there are a number of other points of the logic and reasoning of the article with which I must respectfully disagree. The thrust of my complaint about the article Watling and Reynolds have written is that the conclusion, namely that all we need to do is to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces through 2024 with sufficient resolve and then the Russian military offensive will stall in 2025 and the war will naturally reach a conclusion beneficial to the West, is over-optimistic and even pernicious. The truth is regrettably much more depressing.

The first point to make about the Watling and Reynolds theory is that Russia’s stated or anticipated strategic military goals are entirely fungible and indeed non-existent. Just because Russia states that she has this or that particular strategic military goal does not mean anything. Russia does not fight wars with strategic military objectives in mind; her objectives are always the same: unconditional victory and continuous confrontation and combat until such time as she meets an effective resistance at which point she will stop. Therefore to assume that Russia would be content with an annexation of Kharkiv and Odessa together with a change of regime in Kyiv is wholly naive. As the authors themselves point out, Russia does not consider international legal instruments to be particularly binding in the sense that she will breach any negotiated compromise reached as soon as she finds it propitious to do so to pursue her ambitions to absorb still more territory.

Therefore to think of Russia as a rational negotiating partner in light of facts on the ground, with a series of strategic objectives the defeat of which might cause her to reassess her objectives and tactics, is the wrong way to go about thinking about dealing with Russia. Were Russia to seize the Mykolaïv corridor to Odessa, she would then proceed (more completely) to occupy the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria (the self-styled “Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic”), and then she would present an existential threat to the rest of Moldova irrespective of such EU or NATO association agreements as Moldova might have signed in the interim. Were Russia to seize Kharkiv, she would not stop there but instead would surely use it as a base for an assault upon other locations in northeastern Ukraine including capture of the balance of free Donbas not currently being under Russian occupation. Moreover theoretical membership of either the EU or NATO for Ukraine are of little practical interest for Russia save to the extent that EU membership for Ukraine serves as a means of causing damage to European treasuries by reason of a continuing need to subsidise Kyiv.

The notion that Russia is seriously entertaining replacing Zelensky with another Ukrainian head of state is not credible save on the hypothesis that Russia seizes the entirety or the greater part of Ukrainian territory. To put matters simply, Russia has no straightforward strategic objectives except outright aggression and therefore an attempt to anticipate those objectives and develop a strategy to counter them is counter-productive. Other than as a tactical pause to restock before carrying on her hostilities, Russia has no intention of agreeing anything with either Kyiv or the West. She will. Just carry on fighting until overwhelming force prevents her from doing so any further.

As to Russia seeking to secure commitments that Ukraine will not join NATO this is not the right way to think about the problem. Russia may say that she wants such a commitment but in truth she would find it valueless even if she were to obtain one and therefore the notion that this is something that can be bargained about is not appropriate starting point for an analysis. Russia considers international legal undertakings on the parts of western states to be worthless because she herself places no store in them. For Russia it does not matter whether Ukraine is part of NATO or not in any formal sense; what matters for Russia is that as a matter of fact, NATO member state troops are not present on Ukrainian soil and that is because Russia dares not fire on the US Armed Forces. At the moment Russia is bewildered by the fact NATO troops are not present in Ukraine and finds the West contemptible for our lack of courage in failing to face up to the threat the Russian Armed Forces pose to the balance of free Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Therefore the only way to stop the Russian Armed Forces in pursuing their trench warfare aggression against Ukraine is to place NATO troops in theatre. Russia does not care about the language or terms of Article 5. She cares only that the United States Government does not send troops into Ukraine, which is precisely why it ought to take place as soon as possible.

Watling and Reynolds are clearly experienced in their knowledge of Russian technological capacity but they may lack some knowledge of events on the ground in light of the statistics they proffer about the Russian Armed Forces’ capability and personnel and their pertinence to Russian military success in the current conflict. The Russian Air Force is completely irrelevant; this is not an air war because the Russians are well aware that surface-to-air missile technology has advanced to a degree that their military aircraft can easily be shot out of the air. That is why Russia has imposed an enormous no-fly zone over her own territory in southern Russia, incidentally. Russia has no intention therefore of using her domestic industrial capacity to develop her air force. The same is largely true of the more sophisticated and high-tech cruise missiles developed by Russia in recent decades such as the Kalibr and the Iskander. These weapons are undoubtedly some of the best missiles in the world, but they were originally invented and designed not principally for use by Russia in wars but for sale to wealthy third party nations’ militaries. Now the Russians have substantially diminished their stocks of these expensive weapons, they are resorting to simpler and cheaper old-fashioned less accurate Soviet-era missiles that can be produced in large numbers for relatively low prices. This production capacity is being ramped up, as Russia increasingly makes this a low-tech war.

The authors are right about the restructuring of the Russian Armed Forces which has vastly improved but the main aspect that has increased Russian infantry combat effectiveness is that they are now battle-hardened, having fought solidly for two years against the highly motivated Ukrainian Armed Forces and therefore they have learned to become extremely good at surviving. Russian attrition rates are horrendous - far higher than in the Ukrainian Armed Forces - and this is the reason why recruitment campaigns have been ramped up in Russia. The Russians are not short of shells or small arms munitions. They vastly outgun the Ukrainian Armed Forces in this regard already. However they are not using their numerical superiority in terms of either personnel or munitions to attempt to seize territory. The most natural places for them to do this would be Sloviansk, Kramatorsk or Kherson, three cities on the front line in each of which it would be comparatively trivial for the Russian Armed Forces simply to “walk in”. They aren’t doing it because for now at least they have settled upon their medium-term tactical goal which is simply to maintain a hard front line and not to cede any territory to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, pending the US General Election in November 2024 whose outcome may or may not change US foreign and defence policy towards Ukraine.

In the intervening period, Russia is developing her domestic military production capacity to the maximum extent possible, anticipating closure of loopholes in sanctions regimes that will render the sale of Chinese, North Korean and Iranian drones, munitions and the like to Russia far more difficult than it currently is or at least more expensive. In short, while the authors suggest that Russian strategy in 2024 is likely to be aggressive, it is my view that instead Russia’s intentions for this year are go to be defensive, consolidating control over the territories currently occupied while improving logistics and supply lines to them and keeping the Ukrainian Armed Forces bogged down in trench warfare of the most primitive kind, aware that Ukrainian public opinion can tolerate loss of the lives of military personnel to a substantial degree less than can Russian public opinion by reason of the totalitarian nature of Russian political control over the country’s citizens.

By 2025 the Russian Armed Forces may have grown a great deal in terms of active service personnel, as the authors rightly observe; but also she may be in a much stronger position to launch a further all-out attack on the balance of free Ukraine, intending to occupy the entirety of Ukrainian territory potentially as a prelude to an advance further into the heart of Europe. Therefore the notion that all we need to do to win the war in Ukraine here in the West is to afford adequate military support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces during the course of 2024 and Russia will then somehow whither away militarily from 2025 onwards leading to outright Ukrainian victory is dangerously misconceived. Russian military build-ups during 2024 will I predict be used exclusively to fortify the hard front line in Ukraine without significant attempts to seize new territory that might scandalise the world and catalyse renewed NATO attention to the conflict: something which Russia at all costs wants to avoid. Then, her military capacity grossly strengthened in 2025, she will decide what to do next and she has no intention of setting any strategic goals until then no matter what she may say in her press releases or to the international or domestic media.

All this suggests that the appropriate attitude at the current juncture is not to reinforce the Ukrainians through 2024 in anticipation of a Russian collapse from 2025 onwards, but rather radically to change the scales of the game in 2024 by NATO troops entering Ukraine before Russia has increased her military capacity. The fundamental misconception the authors entertain in an otherwise erudite and astute article about Russian military capacity is that delay somehow benefits the West in this war of attrition. It does not. Delay in the final determination of the conflict in Ukraine is to the unequivocal advantage of Russia, because it gives Russia breathing space to remilitarise her economy and use that as a base for potentially unlimited territorial expansionism into eastern and central Europe that are the only strategic goals one can sensibly attribute to Russia at this time. Ukraine is but a stepping stone on the way to a return to Russian domination of Eastern Europe, and the only adequate response to this existential threat to the European continent is the entrance of NATO troops into Ukrainian theatre on any (or no) legal pretext. The sooner this happens, the better.


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