The war in Ukraine has reached a stalemate, with even Ukrainian officials admitting the highly anticipated counteroffensive is unlikely to reach a breakthrough, putting Kyiv on what could be its toughest path yet in the war.
Ukraine is fighting two battles: convincing a growing, skeptical West to continue arming Ukrainian troops despite an obvious stalemate across the 600-mile eastern front, and progressing through a battlefield against entrenched Russian forces.
After nearly two years of war, Ukraine is confronting enormous challenges while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy to hold as much territory as possible and wait for Western allies to crack appears to be working.
“I have no doubt that we will certainly achieve all the goals we have set for ourselves,” a confident Putin told Russian soldiers Friday at an event where he also announced his candidacy for the 2024 elections.
After Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive slowed down in the past couple months, the war has shifted to a two-pronged Russian attack in the northeastern Luhansk region and the eastern Donetsk.
Russia is suffering heavy losses trying to seize the rest of Luhansk. And the town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk is mired in a bloody strategic stalemate.
Moscow is seeking to continuously apply pressure on Ukraine to exhaust its resources, said Federico Borsari, a defense fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). But he cautioned against giving Russia too much credit.
“I don’t think Russia is winning,” Borsari said. “It hasn’t achieved any kind of strategic results so far. But at the same time [Russia] has somewhat resisted the shockwave of the failures we have seen in the past two years.”
Borsari said that “represents a huge problem” because Russia “can resort now to more subtle energies, strategies and tactics,” like weakening Western support.
Russia is moving to lock Ukraine into a long war. Putin, who already oversees a much larger army than Ukraine, recently moved to increase the size by 170,000 to about 2.2 million.
He’s also signed into law a measure to increase the Russian military budget by 25 percent for the next three years.
Michael Allen, the managing director at Beacon Global Strategy, a U.S. national security advisory firm, said Putin is in a “good position right now.”
“He has a lot of territory [and] is basically still sitting on what he had at the beginning of the counter-offensive,” Allen said. “He’s looking at us and we seem as divided as ever.”
The next few months are unlikely to produce any surprising results, but Ukraine could hold its defensive positions, acquire new weapons and try another counteroffensive in the spring. That would depend largely on a new tranche of U.S. support, which is currently mired in Senate border talks.
Kathleen McInnis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it will be critical for Ukraine to receive more long-range artillery and demining equipment ahead of the next operation, but noted it would be difficult for any Western army to pierce through the thick lines of an army as large as Russia’s.
“It takes some dedicated effort to figuring out how to get through some of those friction points,” she said. “This is not an uncommon problem in coalition warfare. It’s just that the timeframes were so compressed” before the summer counteroffensive.
McInnis also said it was important for Ukraine to reassess its strategy because the summer counteroffensive saw Ukrainian troops struggle to fight along three points of Russian lines — near the destroyed city of Bakhmut, the southern Zaporizhzhia region and southern Donetsk.
“It would be absolutely prudent to reassess the strategy and figure out where there might be different vulnerabilities in the Russian lines that could be exploited and taken advantage of,” she added.
The summer counteroffensive had sparked hopes of a major breakthrough, with Western allies betting Ukrainian forces could reach the Sea of Azov and cut off a major Russian land bridge connecting the mainland to the Crimean Peninsula.
That goal failed to materialize, and Russia has actually gained more ground this year than Ukraine, though both sides are just trading small tracts of land across the front.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told The Associated Press his military did not achieve the “desired results” of the counteroffensive but argued troops did not get all the weapons they needed for the operation.
Zelensky said he was still “satisfied” with his military in its fight against one of the largest armies in the world.
“We are not backing down,” he added. “We are confident in our actions.”
Analysts say the counteroffensive failed because of a few factors: a massive Russian army that had time to entrench itself, a lack of Ukrainian air superiority, and a slow delivery of needed weapons from abroad.
Ukraine also struggled with more complicated war tactics, like combined arms maneuver training, which involves integrating infantry and armor, analysts say — an issue that could be improved in a new offensive. Other challenges include interoperability with a range of equipment from several different countries.
Ukraine is still hoping for major upgrades in its weaponry. Ukrainian pilots are training on F-16s, a long-sought fighter jet, which could be ready for a spring offensive. Bolstering air power was a major missing component in the last counteroffensive, and Ukraine also wants helicopters and other aircraft, according to Reuters.
Kyiv scored a major win this week when leaders signed a cooperation agreement with the U.S. on the co-production of critical weapons and the exchanging of data, which will help boost the construction of Ukrainian defense production facilities, laying the groundwork for Ukraine to meet its defense needs.
The Biden administration still maintains public confidence in Ukraine’s ability to resist Russia, though it has reportedly raised the prospect of a negotiated end to the war, and is seeking another $61 billion in emergency aid to keep the nation in the fight.
Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh declined to say whether the war is in a stalemate but said the U.S. is giving Ukraine everything it needs to win.
“There is incremental progress. That’s important to remember,” she said. “But I would let the Ukrainian people speak to their own operations and characterize what they see as success on the battlefield.”
President Biden’s supplemental request for Ukraine faces significant hurdles in Congress.
Skeptical Republicans in the House have blocked Ukraine aid from advancing in recent months, despite rising pressure from Biden and Democrats. Russian state television has applauded their efforts and praised GOP Ukraine skeptics, along with conservative news host Tucker Carlson.
Senate talks on Ukraine funding collapsed this week after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on the border.
Biden said Republicans are delivering Putin “the greatest gift he could hope for,” which he said is abandoning “our global leadership not just to Ukraine, but beyond that. “
“We can’t let Putin win. I’ll say it again: We can’t let Putin win,” Biden told reporters this week. “It’s in our overwhelming national interest and international interest of all our friends.”
Ukraine relies heavily on the U.S. and will face a significant shortfall if Congress fails to act soon, with Europe unable to backfill the amount that Washington provides, analysts say. Europe is also showing cracks in support, with Poland and Slovakia ending arms deliveries to Ukraine this year.
Allen from Beacon Global Strategy said Putin is keeping an eye on the American political system heading into 2024. But he was hopeful the U.S. would ultimately back more Ukraine aid.
“I think we can help them a lot,” Allen said. “We’re exhausted, but for us to give up, or trying to [force] peace talks, is just leaving this problem for our children and grandchildren.”
Republicans and other war skeptics are asking if the U.S. is funding a forever war or even a losing war. They also want to know what the endgame is for the conflict.
Michael O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis that the U.S. should fund Ukraine’s efforts through early 2025 — and then consider an alternative if the Ukrainians cannot break through Russian lines.
“If the war still remains largely stalemated at that point, the United States should seriously consider a plan B,” O’Hanlon wrote. He said a strategy of providing mainly defensive weapons still “gives Ukraine a fair chance to take back what has been stolen from it, without committing to a new forever war.”
Steven Horrell, a nonresident senior fellow with CEPA, said a “Ukrainian victory is still dependent on continued Western assistance.”
“Putin does feel that time is on his side, that a long war plays into his favor. Because he has always calculated that the West doesn’t have the appetite to take losses or to bear costs that he feels Russia does,” he said.
“Time will tell if we in the West continue to stay strong.”
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