Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been brutal and attritional, and has shocked most of the “civilised” world.
Russia’s evident disregard for casualties and collateral damage in the pursuit of victory is very different to the West’s approach to warfare, which has profound implications for the war in Ukraine, and the West’s wider defence planning assumptions.
The legacy of two world wars – wars of attrition with massive casualties – led the West to re-think its military doctrine.
Although wars are fought by soldiers, they are waged between leaders, and indiscriminate destruction is not conducive to winning the post-conflict peace.
As a result, Western militaries have developed manoeuvre warfare, which leverages high-tech weapons to destroy the enemy’s will to fight.
However, Russia and Ukraine share much of their heritage, history and tradition.
Medieval wars were fought between combatants in a brutal battle to the last – with limited tactics and a focus on hand-to-hand combat.
Innovative weapons were viewed with a degree of suspicion – the medieval crossbow drew greater debate about its ethical use, as did the introduction of firearms centuries later.
The strongest, most numerous, and bravest prevailed.
Russia’s “Goliath” wants to engage Ukraine’s “David” in a war of attrition which it would be confident it would – eventually – win.
Conversely, Ukraine needs to find a way to leverage Western high-tech weapons to create its own military advantage.
However, culturally this presents a challenge to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy – fight Russia in a traditional gladiatorial manner or adapt to survive.
The prolonged and bloody battle for Bakhmut has exposed this clash of cultures.
Bakhmut is not a significant military objective; however, it has become highly symbolic.
The US military evidently favours a strategic withdrawal to preserve limited Ukrainian warfighting capability for the battles ahead – a manoeuvrist approach.
However, President Zelenskyy has elected to reinforce the city, thus being dragged into a war of attrition that risks favouring Russia.
“War does not determine who is right – only who is left,” British philosopher Bertrand Russell once said.
There will be no victors in this war, but neither side can afford to lose.
Ukraine knows the supply of Western technology is not unlimited – so ultimately Ukraine’s priority is to survive.
Mr Zelenskyy faces difficult choices.
His instinct might be to engage in gladiatorial battles of attrition; however, if Ukraine is to survive it must preserve its limited resources, erode Russia’s will and ability to fight, and then rebuild.
As for the West, technology has proven a decisive military capability in this conflict, but assumptions of stockpiles of expensive weapons have proven woefully inadequate.
A manoeuvrist approach to warfare saves lives, preserves infrastructure, and can be decisive, but “vision without funding is hallucination”. Can the West afford to resource it adequately?