Analysis: Who Has the Upper Hand in Ukraine?

“War is a mere continuation of foreign policy by other means,” wrote the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. His theories of warfare have been studied across the military and political academies of the world, and provide a practical guide to understanding the phenomenon of war.

In conventional warfare, war is waged by a trio of entities referred to as Clausewitz’s Trinity: Government, People, and Military. The first of these to collapse will cause a collapse in the war effort, and defeat for the nation involved.

The war in Vietnam is an example where the People lost the war; American public sentiment turned against the war effort and stridently asserted that the geopolitical gains of victory did not match the cost in blood and treasure required to secure them. The Russian Revolution is an example where the Government lost the war, as the democratic Provisional Government was overthrown by a cadre of anti-war Bolsheviks under Lenin. The two World Wars are examples of the more conventional scenario, where one side’s military is comprehensively defeated.

For previous analysis on the future outcomes in Ukraine, check out the article above.

In view of Clausewitz’s Trinity, who has the upper hand in Ukraine?

The military situation is perhaps the easiest to gauge. Despite a massive influx of Western aid and veteran volunteers to Ukraine, the Russian military does appear to be leveraging its pre-war advantages to ensure slow but steady progress in East Donbas. Ukraine has yet to show that it can mount a successful strategic counteroffensive, with limited actions around Kharkiv and Kherson marking the high point of what they can realistically achieve. 

Russia’s failure to end the war decisively within the opening weeks does indicate that its military is weaker than at first supposed. However, it is still a complete armed force, capable of supporting offensive operations across the conflict. There is still the potential for either side to suffer a major reversal of fortunes on the ground, however, from what we’ve seen so far in the second phase of the invasion, Russia holds the upper hand militarily.

This assertion may come as a shock to those who have been treated to hundreds of images and clips of destroyed Russian vehicles. To those readers, we would point out that the footage which reaches the Western internet is highly selective, and part of an information war designed to raise Western and Ukrainian morale. Were the Ukrainian population to witness the true scale of losses in the war, it might undermine their will to fight, and erode a crucial pillar of Clausewitz’s Trinity — thus, truth is the first casualty of war. The Russian people are likely experiencing the same phenomenon in reverse.

While a few Western sources have loudly claimed that Russia’s military is ‘on the brink of collapse’ — repeatedly, for the past three months, in denial of evidence — the fact is that most serious commentators assert that Russia’s defeat will come from a collapse in its Government or its People. Both of these are hard to gauge. Russian politics has often been compared to a pack of dogs fighting under a rug: outsiders don’t have a hope of knowing what’s going on until the victor emerges. 

In favour of the People hypothesis, observers point to incidences of arson and sabotage throughout Russia, as well as protests and arrests related to the war. These have been numerous — but are they large in proportion to the total Russian population? Even if so, the post-Soviet security state of Russia can deal with a great deal more dissent than its more democratic counterparts. The balance between pro-Z and anti-Z Russians remains something of an unknown quantity, but it is worth noting that most Russians have been aware of the situation in Ukraine for much longer than the West, and have been fed a one-sided media diet concerning the region.

The Ukrainian people are equally difficult to gauge. Some might say that Ukrainians have voted with their feet by leaving the country, which over 9.4 million refugees have done — nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s pre-war population. Despite implementing mandatory conscription, a number of men have managed to escape the border. The narrative in the West is that Ukraine remains totally united in the face of a brutal and unjust invasion, which may be true. If it were otherwise, we would be the last to hear of it.

Less well known in the West is the fact that Ukraine is also an effective security state, with its secret police (the SBU) operating detention centres throughout the country where ‘traitors’ and ‘sympathisers’ are ‘detained’. As we documented previously, the attitude of the pro-Zelensky Ukrainian press would indicate that a mopping up operation of ‘saboteurs’ took place in Bucha following the withdrawal of Russian forces (though a Russian massacre may possibly have taken place as well). 

Freedom of the press and political opposition have been de facto outlawed following the Russian invasion. However, some anti-Zelensky posters have emerged, claiming (for example) that he ‘betrayed’ the Azov troops in Mariupol. Russia-leaning sources argue that Zelensky’s political threat comes from far-right groups and militias, rather than pro-negotiation Ukrainians.


Currently, Russia holds the upper hand in Ukraine. Militarily, Russia is making steady progress on the ground with a conservative doctrine based on long-range fires, while Ukraine appears unable to execute and maintain successful offensive operations. In terms of government and people, most of the variables remain obscured by the fog of war. 

However, if both sides remain committed to the war effort, this is unlikely to be finished by Christmas. The longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the greater its destabilising effect on international supply chains and geopolitics.

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