Military and Strategic Journal
Issued by the Directorate of Morale Guidance at the General Command of the Armed Forces
United Arab Emirates
Founded in August 1971

2023-07-10

Lessons from the War in Ukraine: Defence to Offense to Termination

Dr. John R. Ballard,
Former Dean of the National Defense College
 
The conflict in the Ukraine illustrates one of the most important and dangerous transitions in war: the shift from defence to offense. Russia began the conflict with a powerful offensive; the Ukrainian forces survived because of the inherent strength in defensive positions, particularly in one’s homeland. Now Ukraine’s shift to offensive operations puts its forces in great danger, while simultaneously offering an end to the war. Strategic focus is required to ensure the goals of the offensive remain focused on realistic conflict termination goals.
 
In On War, Clausewitz declared, “the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive.” That strength is traditionally based upon the defender’s ability to occupy key terrain before the attack and concentrate forces on interior lines. That advantage increases with time to prepare defensive positions in advance.  Offensive operations are how a military force seizes and holds the initiative while maintaining freedom of action and achieving decisive results, so they offer the most effective and decisive way to achieve strategic objectives. One of the Russian principles of war has traditionally been simultaneous attack in depth; this was the concept used in President Putin’s initial operations in Ukraine. But his two-axis attack was blunted by a stiff Ukrainian defence.  
 
Now, in order to expel Russia’s forces from its homeland and posture itself to support a peace agreement, Ukraine must take the initiative, move from strong defensive positions, and go on offense to force the Russians from Ukraine. Moving from secure positions to attack is dangerous. Most importantly, no matter how extensive the goals of that operation may be (restoration of Ukrainian territory or something that pushes Ukrainian units into Russian national territory to produce added leverage) Ukraine’s overriding goal must be to produce conditions that support termination of the conflict. 
 
Clausewitz also wrote that “No one starts a war or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Unfortunately, conflict termination is the most difficult aspect of war. William Flavin wrote, “It is always easier to get into a conflict than to get out of one.” But even defeat is better than long-suffering war, which can alter civilisation, so termination must be well planned and agreeable by all. Termination of conflict should ensure an enduring end to fighting. 
 
In every strategic planning effort, the optimum goal that enables an end to the fighting must be determined in advance and every effort moving forward should be designed to foster conditions necessary to ensure conflict termination. Inevitably conflict will be uncertain, and no ending condition will be ideal, but every effort now in Ukraine must be designed to end the war on the best terms possible.
 
Every nation must protect its land and people, but all strategists must keep in mind the overriding importance of successful termination. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine illustrates how the shift from the strategic defence to offensive operations presents a chance to achieve victory, but it must do so realistically, with feasible conflict termination goals given the highest priority. This lesson must be understood by all Ukrainians as they embark on offensive operations to restore peace.

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