By Can Kasapoğlu
In an article and subsequent interview with The Economist, General Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, acknowledged that the war has entered a period of stalemate.
Zaluzhny also warned of a long war ahead, noting Russia’s superior manpower.
Russia intensified long-range strikes and shelling across a wide front, while Ukraine continues to hunt Russia’s Black Sea Fleet with Western-supplied air-launched cruise missiles.
1. Attritional, Political, and Positional: Understanding General Zaluzhny’s War
Zaluzhny made clear that he sees the ongoing war as having entered a period of stalemate. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may dispute this claim for political reasons, the facts on the ground are hard to ignore.
Over the past five months, Ukraine’s military has advanced just 17 kilometers. As previous editions of Hudson Institute’s Ukraine Military Situation Report have made clear, Ukraine’s successful breach in the Robotyne bulge extending to Verbove marks the only time that Ukrainian combat formations have successfully engaged Russia’s first line of defense.
In his interview, General Zaluzhny spoke openly of his own mistakes, admitting he had expected Russia to call off the invasion after suffering 150,000 casualties. He further acknowledged that the initial aim of Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive had been to reach the occupied Crimean Peninsula in four months—a startling admission given that the Ukrainian military is currently just short of the town of Tokmak, some 30 kilometers from its initial jumping-off points of Velyka Novosilka and Orikhiv.
Zaluzhny articulated five reasons why Ukraine’s counteroffensive has stumbled. The first is Russia’s electronic warfare (EW) deterrent. In Zaluzhny’s estimation, Moscow’s Pole-21 and other EW assets have neutralized Ukraine’s 155mm-class Excalibur guided rounds, which have a sensitive GPS targeting capability. Russia’s chief arms export body, Rosoboronexport, markets Pole-21 specifically as a counter-PGM (precision-guided munitions) EW system.
The second reason for Ukraine’s slow progress, in its chief general’s estimation, is the artillery-centric nature of the conflict. With artillery, rocket, and missile unit operations accounting for 60 to 80 percent of the war’s action, Ukraine has been forced to rely on counter-battery fire. Russia’s Lancet kamikaze drone has made these efforts difficult.
Third, General Zaluzhny explained, Russian mine barriers—at some points reaching a depth of 15 to 20 kilometers—have inhibited Ukraine’s progress. Zemledeliye remote mine-laying multiple rocket launchers, supported by round-the-clock unmanned aerial surveillance over Russia’s minefields, have prevented Ukrainian engineering units from engaging in successful demining efforts. Zaluzhny identified Ukraine’s lack of air superiority and Russia’s manpower advantage as the fourth and fifth reasons why Kyiv’s progress has been slow.
Yet Russia’s progress has been similarly incremental. That the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation had to fight for months to seize control of Bakhmut illustrates just how difficult it is to hold territory in this war, a trend Zaluzhny aptly describes as modern positional warfare.
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy was quick to dispute his top general’s assessment of a stalemate. In a speech this week, Zelenskyy emphasized the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ commitment to victory, as well as his country’s tactical gains in the Kharkiv and western Kherson Oblasts. The president also called upon the West to deliver F-16 fighter aircraft and air defense systems.
Yet General Zaluzhny’s observations will certainly affect how this conflict is perceived. In his interview with The Economist, Zaluzhny stated that “there will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough” in the fighting immediately to come. If Ukraine cannot attain at least local air superiority against Russia’s lines of defense, it is hard to dispute his point.
2. Assessing General Zaluzhny’s Views
Zaluzhny’s assessment of the war offers important lessons. The core areas that he highlighted, from air superiority to the showdown in the electromagnetic arena, are critically important to Ukraine’s resistance. Going beyond political considerations, Zaluzhny showed the courage to present a straightforward military assessment of the current situation, which demonstrates his commitment to NATO-standards ethics in doing his job.
Nonetheless, he highlighted that Ukraine will likely need to land knock-out punches if it wishes to win the war outright. While Zaluzhny drew parallels to the trench warfare of the early twentieth century to depict the ongoing positional character of the war, there is one striking difference between then and now: today it is much more difficult to find safety behind the front lines. Throughout this war, Moscow and Kyiv have used highly precise deep-strike deterrents to attack positions deep in each other’s territory. Although Ukraine has been unable to break through to occupied Crimea, it may yet use robotic and long-range strike capabilities to blockade the Kerch Bridge that connects Russia to the peninsula, as a previous Hudson Institute policy memoexplained in detail.
The Soviet habits of the Russian military, especially its cruel indifference to mounting casualties among its ranks, can still offer a window of opportunity for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. With the Wagner uprising of the summer of 2023, the last traces of meritocracy left the Russian military. Its incumbent gerontocracy, led by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, retains power because of its loyalty to Vladimir Putin rather than its command prowess. Ukraine must hope that a reloaded push in 2024 can disrupt Russia’s command-and-control and decision-making nodes, and catalyze collapses in the lower echelons of Russia’s combat formations that continue up the chain of command.
3. Russian Strikes Intensify
Russia continued its missile and drone attacks against Ukraine this week. According to reports released by the Ukrainian General Staff, on November 3 the country’s air defenses successfully intercepted Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 drones targeting Sumy Oblast, and on November 4 thwarted Iskander missile attacks directed at Dnipropetrovsk and Poltava Oblasts.
The target set of the Russian strikes was strategic. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that its forces had successfully destroyed a Ukrainian weapons and ammunition depot in Pryluky, Chernihiv Oblast. Russian military bloggers asserted that targets had also been struck in Ukrainian rear areas, including Kanatove Air Base in Kirovohrad Oblast, Myrhorod in Poltava Oblast, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Odesa. Remarkably, these attacks came soon after several strategic strikes by the Ukrainian Armed Forces on high-value kinetic targets, such as a Russian ammunition supply train near Tokmak.
According to Ukrainian authorities, November 1 marked the most extensive Russian shelling of the year. On that day Russia targeted over 110 localities in 10 regions, including Kherson and eastern Donbas, across an area 950 kilometers long. The strikes also destroyed an oil refinery in Kremenchuk, causing widespread fires. Russia also conducted massive missile salvos in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, launching around 120 strikes against 19 settlements on November 4 and 5. One of the targets was a military awards ceremony. Over 20 soldiers from Ukraine’s 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade were killed in the attack.
4. Battlefield Update
Ukraine’s General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces sustained offensive combat operations in the direction of Zaporizhzhia Oblast and Bakhmut. Ukraine saw some success in defending its positions around Klishchiivka, seven kilometers southwest of Bakhmut, and established a strong presence in the area.
According to the United Kingdom’s Defense Intelligence, the overall conditions and levels of logistical support for Russia’s defensive positions remain very poor, hinting at potential tactical and operational hardships as winter approaches. Evidence suggests that Russian soldiers at the front remain vulnerable and unmotivated.
Russia focused its main offensive effort on the eastern front while continuing a secondary counterassault along the southern axis with minimal changes in the control of terrain. Open-source intelligence suggests that Russian forces, in particular the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, attempted an assault on the Ukrainian stronghold of Vuhledar, resulting in devastating Russian losses. Clashes in the Robotyne bulge continued, with reports claiming that several positions in heavily forested areas there changed hands between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries.
Meanwhile, Ukraine continued to pound the Russian Black Sea Fleet. On November 6, the Ukrainian Strategic Communications Directorate announced that two Su-24 bombers conducted at least three strikes with British Storm Shadow or French SCALP cruise missiles against the Askold, a Karakurt-class Russian corvette docked in Crimea. The directorate claimed that the Askold, advertised by Moscow as a stealth ship, was amongst the newest additions to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Finally, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have deployed their long-awaited Abrams main battle tanks. The American tanks will surely augment Ukraine’s heavy armor deterrent in battle.
About the author: Can Kasapoğlu is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute
Source: This article was published by the Hudson Institute