Where The ‘Stalemated’ Ukraine-Russia War Goes From Here
November 18, 2023
  • Alexander Golts
Alexander Golts explains why today neither Russia nor Ukraine has the strategic initiative, why Russia has not yet been able to realize its advantage in manpower and what options Ukraine has to get out of the current impasse.
A library in Kherson Region after Russian shelling, October 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
“Russia is never as strong as she appears, and never as weak as she appears.” This aphorism, the authorship of which is attributed both to Churchill and Metternich, quite accurately captures the situation that has developed on the battlefield between Russia and Ukraine at the end of the second year of the war.

It seems safe to say that the Ukrainian counteroffensive, on which both Kyiv and the West pinned hopes for a quick, victorious end to the war, did not deliver the desired results. As far as can be understood, its planners expected to solve strategic problems by breaking through the Russian line of defense, reaching the Sea of Azov (Melitopol), cutting off supplies going over land to Crimea and gaining the opportunity to hit the Kerch Bridge with artillery.

In the spring and summer, the main operations took place in the Mariupol and Melitopol directions. Ukraine failed to achieve decisive success in either one. Ukrainian troops managed to penetrate the Russian defenses but were unable to break through them. It is unlikely that the current attempts by Ukrainian forces to gain a foothold on the left bank of the Dnieper in Kherson Region will radically change the situation either.

The same can be said about the stalled Russian counteroffensive in the Donbas. Thus, currently neither Russia nor Ukraine has the strategic initiative. By winter, the front line will most likely be stabilized definitively, with the fighting becoming positional. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny said as much in an extremely frank article and interview in the The Economist.

What led to the stalemate

The failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive could clearly have significant consequences for the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In particular, disappointment in the Ukrainian army threatens a reduction in military assistance from the West. For instance, due to objections from Hungary and Slovakia, the EU was unable to agree on the allocation of EUR 50 billion in aid to Ukraine for the next year.

Likewise, right-wing Republicans in the US House of Representatives are blocking a $60 billion military aid package to Kyiv.
At the same time, the voices of those who believe a military victory is impossible and insist it’s time for Kyiv to make peace – even if it means making territorial concessions – are growing louder.”
Against this backdrop, it is critically important to analyze the reasons for the “failure” of Ukraine’s summer offensive and understand exactly how the military-political situation will develop moving forward. Note that inflated expectations regarding the Ukrainian offensive arose primarily because Ukraine’s military operations in 2022-early 2023 had quite rightly created the impression that the Russian army was weak, and its organization and management were extremely ineffective.

During that period, Russian troops were unable to accomplish any of the set-out strategic objectives. They were forced to retreat from Kyiv and leave Kharkiv Region, as well as a significant part of Kherson Region. The Kremlin failed to establish a clear command system for its “special military operation.” After it became obvious that available forces could not hold the front line, in September 2022 Putin was forced to announce a partial mobilization. Many of those who were drafted were immediately sent to the front line to make up for the losses.
Meanwhile, there was and is no evidence that Russia managed to form strategic reserves with the mobilized soldiers.
A Bohdana self-propelled howitzer fires on Russian positions on Zmiinyi Island, June 2022.
Source: Wiki Commons
After the successful offensive operations in the autumn of 2022 and repelled counterattacks by the Russians in the winter, by the spring of 2023 Ukraine had the strategic initiative – in other words, it could dictate what the intensity of combat operations would be on which section of the 1,000-kilometer-long front.

Kyiv managed to form strategic reserves of two army corps and prepare nine (according to other sources it was 16) new brigades. Western countries provided massive supplies of modern weapons (tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery, high-precision cruise missiles). According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, by April Ukraine had received more than 1,550 armored vehicles, 230 tanks, various other pieces of equipment and a large amount of ammunition. This brought Ukrainian troops up to minimum NATO standards in terms of military equipment.

However, the planners of the Ukrainian offensive did not consider the decisive factor that Russia had spent the entire winter creating fortifications along the front line. Thus, Russian military planners were finally able to do exactly what they had been preparing for over decades – they created a line of strategic defense based entirely on Soviet models. Several lines of fortifications were built, behind which maneuverable armored groups were placed. Regardless of the costs and the fact that swaths of land would be made economically useless for years, the Russian military laid giant minefields, set up anti-tank obstacles and carved out positions for artillery ambushes.
In addition, the Ukrainian military, clearly owing to political necessity, launched its offensive without creating the conditions necessary for a high likelihood of victory;”
in particular, in the skies they did not achieve parity, let alone superiority.

Moreover, the Ukrainian command seems to have launched the offensive without a clear plan, intending to first discover “weak spots” in the Russian defense and only then transfer reserves (of which there were few) to the areas where a breakthrough might happen.

The specifics of the Russian defense – huge minefields, artillery ambushes – were not initially taken into account. As a result, in the middle of the offensive the Ukrainian army had to change tactics, abandoning actions with tank and mechanized groups and switching to those based on infantry.

In addition, as Zaluzhny honestly admits, the socio-political situation in Russia was misjudged: “that was my mistake. Russia has lost at least 150,000 dead. In any other country, such casualties would have stopped the war.” In fact, Russia’s losses turned out to be entirely acceptable for the Kremlin.
Recall that the Russian government has made being killed in the war a windfall for a soldier’s family.”
As long as the Kremlin can pay about RUB 12.5 million ($140,000) for each soldier killed – more than the average Russian man will earn in his lifetime – public pressure on the authorities looks unlikely. In addition, despite the sanctions, the Russian defense industry is functional and continues to supply weapons to the troops, though of course not on the scale claimed by official propaganda.

The summer campaign confirmed that the war currently being fought is one of industrial states, characteristic of the middle of the last century. In such a war, the decisive factor is the number of troops and the ability to arm them, even if not with the most modern military equipment. The Russian side did not plan on such a war, but the current situation is undoubtedly in the interests of the Kremlin.

It was exactly this kind of conventional war that the USSR was preparing to wage against NATO over months, hoping that the West, fearing losses, would not risk a nuclear war. Well aware of their technological backwardness, Soviet military leaders relied on their superiority in numbers: within this concept, both soldiers and tanks were considered expendable, with a soldier penciled in to fight at least one battle and a tank to fire at least one shot.

With this policy, Russia has a clear advantage in its war against Ukraine. Its population is triple that of Ukraine – 25 million men can be drafted into the active army, giving Russia superiority on the battlefield.
In such a war, the quantity of weapons is more important than their quality. Thanks to Soviet military equipment in storage, Russia is managing to fight a Ukraine supplied with modern Western weapons.
This war makes it preferable to have three or four T-55 tanks, produced half a century ago, than a single modern Leopard tank. Each of the old tanks will be able to get off at least one shot. And what do you know? A hit.

Still, Russia is yet unable to increase its current quantitative advantage in manpower and equipment to the level of complete superiority that would allow it to win. It seems that the defense industry is unable to reach a level of weapons production (or modernization of weapons that have been in storage for decades) needed for a general mobilization. This is what, apparently, keeps Putin from taking that step. Let us again agree with Zaluzhny: this is a strategic deadlock.

Changing the nature of war

Essentially, there are three possible ways out of this situation.

First: start negotiations with the aim of concluding a truce. This seems highly unlikely.
Russia now has a much better negotiating position than a year ago and there is no reason for it to give up the occupied territories.
Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces. Source: Wiki Commons
For Ukraine, no matter what their outcome, negotiations represent a moral victory for the aggressor, which the Ukrainian people will never accept. In addition, there is no guarantee that the Kremlin will not violate the agreements when it deems it necessary.

The second way out: accept the current situation and move to a positional war, a war of attrition. The calculation may be that economic sanctions and Russia’s isolation will exert increasing pressure on the economy (including the defense industry) and the socio-political situation in the country.

But this seems unlikely in the near future. Moreover, Ukrainian resources (including human resources) will likely be depleted faster, and the current fatigue on the part of Western public opinion and political leaders should, in the not-too-distant future, lead to a reduction in support for Ukraine.

Finally, there is a third option, which Zaluzhny himself proposes: “to break this deadlock we need something new, like the gunpowder which the Chinese invented and which we are still using to kill each other.” In other words, the task is to change the nature of war, to make it high-tech, “digital.”

To do this, Ukraine must be given the ability to fully use the advances brought by the revolution in military affairs. In the article in The Economist, General Zaluzhny names technologies and specific types of military equipment that Ukraine urgently needs to move from trench warfare to maneuver warfare.
But for obvious political reasons, Zaluzhny does not say that these weapons are needed in quantities much greater than the current level of supplies.
Changing the nature of the war is only possible if the West radically changes its policies and approaches – namely, if the US and Western European countries launch mass military production.

This will require not only a lot of time, but also huge investments. Moreover, such investments will not pay off soon, meaning they must be made with government funds. Meanwhile, the issue of how much a potential conversion of the defense industry would cost – which, as far as we know, is currently being discussed by business and officials in Western countries – should be left aside for now. Such a pivot would require serious sacrifices – chiefly a reduction in social spending in favor of military spending. It remains to be seen whether the West is ready for such a pivot.
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