War notes
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War notes

Prolonged war: how the weaker side can win


· Content
· Introduction
· Three types of warfare
· Three phases of the protracted war
· In Mao’s formulation
· 1. Strategic offensive of the enemy
· 2. Strategic impasse
· 3. Counterattack and rebuff of lost territories
· Now about the main thing
· References
· Ukrainian version


The Russian army declares that it has in total of 3,330 tanks, 13,760 armored vehicles of various types, 5,690 artillery systems of various types, 1,380 combat aircraft and 710 helicopters, according to military expert Mykola Beleskov, based on the Military Balance 2021. Of course, not everything mentioned above rides, flies and shoots. But we still have a lot to burn out from this military equipment. However, there is a theory backed up by practice that explains how to beat such huge armies. In English literature, it is called “protracted war”, and the concept was developed by Mao Zedong.

The easiest war is fast. This is if you have the opportunity to strike a decisive blow and take the territory to deprive the enemy of resources. Everyone suffers the least — both industry and the population. The famous German strategist Clausewitz developed a theory of such conflicts.

However, what to do when a weaker side, like Ukraine now, does not have the resources to quickly strike a decisive blow and win?

The theory (and practice) of such wars was developed by Mao Zedong, in the English-speaking world they are called “protracted war”. The suffering from such a war is greater, but there is a chance to defeat a stronger enemy (Russia).

If we talk about strategy (this is the level of military analysis at which we think about what our ultimate goals should be and what methods we can use to actually achieve those goals), then such wars consist of three stages that are performed sequentially, and which use a mixture of three types of warfare (different, at different stages).

Three types of warfare

  1. Positional warfare (ordinary war for territory, regular troops involved).
  2. Mobile warfare: rapid attacks, strikes and escapes, usually also conducted by the regular army on the flanks of the attacking enemy.
  3. Guerrilla warfare: sabotage, destruction of personnel, raids on poorly protected targets, conducted by irregular forces in areas controlled by the enemy.

Three phases of the protracted war

  1. Strategic offensive of the enemy;
  2. Strategic impasse of the enemy;
  3. Counterattack and rebuff of lost territories.

In Mao’s formulation

In Mao’s wording, it sounds like this:

  • The enemy is advancing — we are retreating,
  • The enemy has stopped — we disturb,
  • The enemy is tired — we beat,
  • The enemy retreats — we pursue.

But let’s follow Western terminology:

1. Strategic offensive of the enemy

This is where such a war begins. As the enemy is stronger, he will attack, advance and capture new territories. At this stage, trying to stop the enemy, becoming a deaf defense, is meaningless — again, you just lose. In our case, heavily armored Russian columns and more powerful artillery and missile forces would grind the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

In this theory, a weaker army exchanges space for time. You need to retreat to gain time to weaken the enemy offensive, not to meet him in the strongest form. This, as you have already understood, is exactly what the Armed Forces of Ukraine are doing now.

For example, we cannot make big counterattacks now to unlock Mariupol. For such actions, it is necessary to organize a significant concentration of mechanized forces, which can be bombed by Russian aircraft or destroyed by enemy artillery, in which the occupier has the advantage.

The main focus at this stage is on mobile warfare, which strikes at the enemy’s flanks, along supply lines, but retreats before its main offensive. The weapons provided by the West are ideal for this: “Javelins”, “NLAW” and others.

Positional warfare is used only to protect the main bases (where the terrain is favorable, in our case such areas are large cities) and only after the difficulties of long-term progress (and stretched logistics) weaken the attacker.

Mobile warfare is complemented at this stage by guerrilla operations in the rear, but the retreat is also being carried out to leave guerrilla organizers in the occupied zones, who will, at least in theory, help the retreating army in the enemy’s rear.

2. Strategic impasse

In the end, if the defense is organized properly, any attack will end, and the enemy will not have the strength to attack further. Of course, mobile warfare in the first stage is designed to accelerate this (the role of mobile attacks is played by artillery, inflicting long-range strikes on supply lines and enemy columns, as well as aircraft and drones).

This eventually creates a second phase, a “strategic impasse”, when the enemy, occupying a large area, seeks to secure control of it and create new forces for new offensives, but also stretches supply lines, trying to keep and control them all.

We have not yet reached this stage.

Guerrilla attacks in this phase become much more important, not allowing the enemy to secure their rear areas and gradually weakening them.

3. Counterattack and rebuff of lost territories

Finally, in the third stage, the counteroffensive begins. It can be organized when the process of weakening the enemy through guerrilla attacks reaches its maximum, and the Armed Forces become much more powerful due to trophy supplies, equipment, Ukrainian recruits and international support. Mao considered international support crucial, and for us it is. This means that it is vital to maintain supply lines on the western borders.

When such preconditions are created, our troops can resume normal positional warfare, advancing, encircling large enemy units, and so on, to recapture lost territory and defeat Russian troops completely.

Now about the main thing

We cannot end this war with any intermediate treaties. After all, we will get a half-destroyed country, exhausted armed forces and a still viable enemy. There is no doubt that Russia, if not defeated, will take full account of its mistakes, gather strength and attack us again in a few years. At the same time, it will be difficult for us to prepare, because the money will have to be spent on reconstruction and assistance to Ukrainians who have lost their homes. Again, as in the past two and a half years, there will not be enough funds to restore the Armed Forces and arm them with modern weapons. International support is volatile and it will be difficult to achieve as it is now in the event of a new war.

Now the situation is precarious, and victory is near, we are still at the beginning of the second stage of this war, but there is a chance to end the threat to Russia for a long time. After the total defeat of troops in Ukraine, it will be difficult for them to rebuild their armed forces, but sanctions are still in place, and usually in such cases, Russia covers a period of turmoil.

So, Carthage must be destroyed!


Ukrainian version



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Olegh Bondarenko

Olegh Bondarenko


Researcher, DSc, expert in Radiation Protection, Ecology, Air Quality Monitoring, Project Management, Data Science and other — orcid.org/0000-0001-8214-4654