The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has once again highlighted the significance and importance of military strategic depth in shaping and moulding the course and outcomes of the war. The concept of strategic depth has played a crucial role in this conflict, both in the steps that lead to the eruption of violence, the planning of military operations, and the outcome of battles.
For Russia, Ukraine has historically played a crucial role in terms of defensive buffer. During WW2, the Ukrainian plains, and particularly the Donbass region, have represented a key factor in the way the Red Army pushed back the attempts of invasion of the Wehrmacht.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence of Ukraine, Russia has sought to always keep Ukraine under its sphere of influence.
These attempts of Russia have not always been accepted passively by Ukrainian citizens. The ousting of the Russian-friendly government headed by Yanoukovich in 2014 marked the beginning of a deep decline in the relationship between the two countries, but also the beginning of the open conflict in Donbass and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The development of these events contributed to the eruption of the present violence.
Elements that form the policies of Strategic Depth of Russia and Ukraine
The history and geographical features of both contenders must be considered when evaluating the elements that are at the core of both Russia’s and Ukraine’s strategic policies. One of the aims of the setting of these policies is to plan and allow the deployment of troops as fast and as effectively as possible.
At the same time, the international political arena becomes a playground where the foreign and strategic policies are displayed and negotiated in order to guarantee a political coat to their respective countries.
Geographic Proximity: Russia’s history over the centuries, due to the geographical and morphological features of its mostly flat plains, shows the importance that the ruling governments have given to strengthening the extension of its territory as a key factor for the defence of its inner parts. This approach has created a layered defensive system that proved to be effective to counteract both Napoleon’s and Nazi Germany’s attempts to take hold of Russian territories.
Russia's vast landmass and close proximity to Ukraine provide it with inherent strategic depth. In an optimal and theoretical situation, this proximity allows for a quick deployment of military forces, including the ability to swiftly reinforce and resupply troops operating in Ukraine. The short distance between the two countries, while it has proved to be an advantageous element for Russia's military operations, in itself is not enough to win the current military operations as it also requires a well oiled logistical infrastructure and supply chain.
Buffer Zones: Russia has historically sought to establish buffer zones or influence spheres in neighbouring territories, particularly for what concerns the now independent republics of the former USSR. These spheres, when effectively established, provide an additional layer of strategic depth. On Ukrainian territory, the annexation of Crimea and support for separatist movements in eastern Ukraine have allowed Russia to create such buffers, enabling it to exert control, project power, and, in teh plans, potentially restrict Ukrainian military advancements.
Strategic Alliances: The geographical and morphological features have influence also on the political standings and alliances that Russia has set as crucial elements throughout history. Russia's strategic partnerships, particularly with Belarus and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), offer it a wider support network and potential reinforcement options if and when needed. These alliances contribute to Russia's strategic depth by expanding its military capabilities and geopolitical influence in the region.
Defensive Fortifications: Ukraine has sought to establish defensive fortifications and lines of defence in order to operate through a layered approach. These fortifications, including trenches, bunkers, and anti-tank obstacles, aim to slow down and impede Russian offensives, providing Ukrainian forces with valuable time to respond, mobilise reinforcements, and strengthen its chain supply.
Geographic Features: Ukraine is mainly a flat and low-hills land crossed by rivers (e.g., the Dnieper river) flowing towards the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Its vast landscape offers natural barriers that can serve as additional layers of strategic depth. These features can complicate Russia's military operations, potentially forcing them to navigate difficult terrain or face logistical challenges.
International Support and Alliances: Ukraine has cultivated international support and partnerships, particularly with NATO member states. This backing extends its strategic depth by offering political, economic, and military assistance, including training, intelligence sharing, and supply of military equipment.
Challenges and Implications
The elements that characterise the strategy of both contenders pose challenges and have long term implications. The main ones to consider are the following:
Asymmetric Warfare: The war between Russia and Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of asymmetric warfare strategies for the side with lesser military capabilities. Ukraine has relied on unconventional tactics, including guerrilla warfare and sabotage to counterbalance Russia's superior military capabilities and strategic depth.
Escalation and Regional Instability: The conflict highlights the potential risks and escalation dynamics associated with military strategic depth. Actions taken by either side to enhance their strategic depth can lead to a dangerous cycle of responses, further destabilising the region and increasing the potential for a wider conflict.
Humanitarian and Economic Consequences: The pursuit of strategic depth through military means often results in significant humanitarian and economic consequences. Civilians suffer displacement, infrastructure destruction, loss of lives, destruction of healthcare and society safety nets. Similarly, the economies of both Russia and Ukraine are strained by the costs of war and reconstruction. While Ukraine has received the support and pledge of most of Western democracies to rebuild its infrastructures (although it is not completely clear at what price this support may come), Russia has leaned on supplies from China (and on some military equipment from Iran) with the long term risk of losing its political and economic independence at the advantage of China itself.
The war between Russia and Ukraine underscores the relevance and complexities of military strategic depth in shaping the conflict's dynamics. While Russia's geographical proximity and buffer zones offer advantages, Ukraine has leveraged defensive fortifications and international alliances to counterbalance its adversary. The pursuit of strategic depth, however, comes with inherent challenges, including the risk of escalation, regional instability, and significant humanitarian and economic costs.
Ultimately, the war highlights the enduring importance of military strategy, adaptation, and the multifaceted nature of strategic depth in modern warfare.