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Analysis | Ukraine’s war of attrition draws parallels to World War I

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The brutal war raging in Ukraine is a profoundly 21st-century conflict. Drones buzz around its battlefields. Hypersonic missiles plunge into unsuspecting targets. Satellites disperse the fog of war. Algorithms generated by artificial intelligence help guide artillery. Footage captured on mobile phones proliferates on social media, giving the conflict an almost visceral, real-time feel to people thousands of miles away. Online armies of partisans catalogue atrocities and circulate evidence of triumphs.

And yet for all that’s new about Ukraine’s desperate fight to repel Russia’s invasion, the war is increasingly offering grim reminders of the past. In images that recall battles more than a century ago, soldiers squat in earthwork defenses, surrounded by terrain shelled into a moonscape. For two months, Ukraine’s forces have embarked on their long-anticipated counteroffensive, pushing at Russian positions in the south and southeast of the country. As has been widely reported, the campaign has progressed slowly, with Ukraine’s new Western-furnished mechanized divisions bogged down by layers of Russian defenses, including vast minefields, “dragon’s teeth” concrete barriers, antitank ditches and lines of barbed wire.

“You can no longer do anything with just a tank with some armor, because the minefield is too deep, and sooner or later, it will stop and then it will be destroyed by concentrated fire,” Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s military chief, told my colleagues last month in a rare, wide-ranging interview.

Ukraine does not publicize its official casualty figures from the war, but it’s understood the body count is rising, while morale flags. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal examined one particularly grisly indicator, suggesting that between 20,000 and 50,000 Ukrainians have become amputees since Russia invaded last year. It’s a startling number for a modern conflict — consider that fewer than 2,000 U.S. veterans involved in the invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan had amputations.

“By comparison, some 67,000 Germans and 41,000 Britons had to have amputations during the course of World War I, when the procedure was often the only one available to prevent death,” noted the Journal.

Ukraine is now the most mined country. It will take decades to make safe.

Analysts have already observed the shadow of World War I falling over Ukraine. They see it in the return of a grinding land war in Europe between the militaries of two states, in the geopolitical folly of initiating the conflict and the elite hubris in believing it could be easily won, in the bleak stasis of a campaign marked in mud-packed trenches and bunkers, and in the lack of meaningful territorial gains even as body bags fill up. The senseless charnel houses of Verdun and the Somme found their match in Bakhmut.

Age-old lessons endure. “As World War I indelibly demonstrated, wars rarely go as planned,” wrote the Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan. “Military strategists were aware of the growing importance of trench warfare and rapid-firing artillery, yet they failed to see the consequences. They were unprepared for what quickly became static front lines, in which the opposing sides carried out massive exchanges of artillery and machine-gun fire from fortified trenches.” Those tactics, she wrote, led to high casualty rates with minimal advances.

“The first serious war of the third millennium must be fought on the ground — quite a comedown from the ‘post-kinetic’ cyber and information warfare that had been confidently predicted by both Western and Russian generals,” wrote Edward Luttwak, a U.S. author and strategist. “This is a war that must be fought by sheer, grinding, attrition, just like the First World War on the Western Front.”

Despite the differences of the age, simple technological imperatives remain. “It has been almost 110 years since the tank was introduced in 1916. Some have argued that the tank is obsolete because of technological improvements in antitank weapons,” wrote Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University.

“This argument has been commonplace for over 50 years, or almost half the entire history of the tank,” he added. “Yet in 2023, both sides in Ukraine continue to rely on tanks and are doing everything they can to get their hands on more of them.”

Ukraine aims to sap Russia’s defenses, as U.S. urges a decisive breakthrough

Some hopeful experts reckon World War I may prove less instructive in the Ukrainian context than the even greater war that followed. “A better historical precedent to understand the current fighting in Ukraine can be found in the U.S. Army’s experience in the summer of 1944, when it was fighting against Nazi forces in the hedgerows of Normandy in France,” wrote the Rand Corp.’s Raphael Cohen and Gian Gentile, arguing that, while World War I was defined by “strategic atrophy” and “tactical deadlock,” Ukraine, like the Allies in 1944, is systematically working toward a breakthrough with patience and “tactical innovation.”

Biddle cautioned against drawing simplistic lessons from either of the great wars. “Like World War I, World War II involved a great deal of variance in outcomes: it was not a simple, uniform story of offensive success,” he wrote. “And in Ukraine, both the war’s offensive successes and its defensive stalemates have occurred in the face of drones, precision weapons, hypersonic missiles, and space-based surveillance. In none of these wars have the tools predetermined the results.”

Ukraine’s fight has been defined by the perseverance and courage of a nation battling for its existence, but even then, despair is never far away — so, too, cynicism. On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fired all the heads of the country’s military recruitment centers, citing apparent reports of rampant corruption and officials taking bribes to help potential conscripts dodge enlistment.

My colleagues reported from a park in Kyiv where injured soldiers from the front lines are recuperating. Many are permanently maimed and disfigured, coping with their traumas as life in the capital hums as normal around them.

Yulia Paltseva, a Kyiv receptionist whose boyfriend was soon bound for the front, looked around in dismay. “All those dancing and smiling people should remember that there are those soldiers like my boyfriend in the trenches without any rotations and being shelled every day,” Paltseva said.

As for the counteroffensive, she added: “Our expectations were higher. If it’s going on, it’s going slow.”

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