January 19, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: U.S. officials urge Ukraine to go on the defensive, conceding initiative to Russia

Institute for the Study of War

Russia is conducting an information operation to misrepresent NATO’s defensive “Steadfast Defender 2024” exercises – a response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Russian threats directed towards NATO members – as provocative. NATO’s Steadfast Defender 2024 exercises begin this week and will continue through May 2024. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Chris Cavoli stated on January 18 that 90,000 personnel from all 31 NATO member states and Sweden will participate in “Steadfast Defender.” The exercises will reportedly include over 50 ships; over 80 fighter jets, helicopters, and drones; and at least 1,100 combat vehicles, including 133 tanks and 533 infantry fighting vehicles. Cavoli stated that NATO ”will demonstrate its ability to reinforce the Euro-Atlantic area via trans-Atlantic movement of forces from North America…during a simulated emerging conflict scenario against a near-peer adversary.” Chair of the NATO Military Committee Admiral Rob Bauer stated on January 18 that NATO must prepare for a conflict with Russia as NATO cannot take peace as ”a given” and must ”expect the unexpected.” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius stated on January 19 that Germany must consider that Putin may try to attack a NATO member in five to eight years, given threats from the Kremlin ”almost every day.”

Russian forces will be able to determine the location, tempo, and operational requirements of fighting in Ukraine if Ukraine commits itself to defensive operations throughout 2024 as some US officials are reportedly pressing Kyiv to do. The Financial Times (FT) reported on January 19 that US officials are advocating for Ukraine to take a more “conservative” operational approach focused on holding current territory and generating materiel and forces in 2024 for future counteroffensive operations in 2025. One US official reportedly argued that a strategy of “active defense” would allow Ukraine to build out operational requirements and prepare for a counteroffensive in 2025. US military doctrine defines an active defense as the ”employment of limited offensive action and counterattacks to deny a contested area or position to the enemy.” Ukrainian officials have stated that Ukrainian forces are conducting active defensive operations in areas where Russian forces are engaged in localized offensive efforts. An active defense throughout the theater, however, would require routine and widespread Ukrainian counterattacks and therefore still demand that Ukrainian forces commit considerable offensive capabilities to the front. FT reported that US officials believe that Ukrainian forces still could opportunistically exploit weak spots in the Russian defense while conducting a theater-wide active defense. Limited opportunistic counterattacks – especially when not resourced adequately- are unlikely to result in gains commensurate with the resources they will inevitably consume, however.

A theater-wide defensive posture would cede the strategic initiative to Russia and permit Russia to launch major attacks at times of its choosing, forcing Ukraine to burn scarce resources it would supposedly be generating during a period of “active defense.” Former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zahorodnyuk stated to FT that focusing on defense without any offensive component would be ”a mistake of historic proportions” for Ukraine as it would hand Russian President Vladimir Putin the initiative and allow Putin to double down on ongoing efforts to convince the West and the rest of the world that Ukraine cannot win the war. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov similarly stated that Ukrainian forces need to continue to press Russian forces, particularly through operations that target Russian logistics in occupied Crimea. A Ukrainian ”active defense” into 2025 would cede the theater-wide initiative to Russian forces for at least a year and possibly longer, allowing the Russian command to determine where, when, and at what scale fighting occurs over that period. This extended period of theater initiative would also give the Russian command significant control over determining what resources both Ukrainian and Russian forces must bring to bear. The Russian command would therefore have an ample operational window to conduct a series of campaigns of differing intensities across the theater in Ukraine that could be specifically designed to constrain and degrade critical Ukrainian operational capacities needed for a future counter-offensive.

Key Takeaways:



  • Russia is conducting an information operation to misrepresent NATO’s defensive Steadfast Defender 2024 exercises – a response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Russian threats directed towards NATO members – as provocative.
  • Russian forces will be able to determine the location, tempo, and operational requirements of fighting in Ukraine if Ukraine commits itself to defensive operations throughout 2024 as some US officials are reportedly pressing Kyiv to do.
  • US officials reportedly assess that Ukraine will have to fight a long war and continue efforts to secure as much security assistance as possible for Ukraine before 2025 while expecting that positional fighting may continue in Ukraine until 2026.
  • Russia is trying to mend its relationship with South Korea to mitigate the impacts of its growing reliance on North Korea.
  • Protests in support of an imprisoned prominent Bashkort activist continued in the Republic of Bashkortostan, but Kremlin mouthpieces denied reports that the protests are significant in scale.
  • The Russian government continues efforts to codify legal oversight of the activities of migrants living in Russia.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree allocating funds for the search, registration, and legal protection of Russian property abroad, which includes property in former territories of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances southeast of Kupyansk, and Ukrainian forces recently regained positions southeast of Kupyansk amid continued positional engagements along the entire line of contact.
  • The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) “Vostok” Battalion stated on January 19 that it will resume fighting on the frontlines in Ukraine when the period of positional fighting ends and will “continue to serve” after the war, presumably subordinated to Rosgvardia.
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