By Philip Wasielewski
(FPRI) — The ground war in Ukraine is currently stalemated. However, the current situation on the battlefield does not necessarily presage how the war will end. Kyiv and Washington can both make decisions to profoundly alter the future course of the war. For Kyiv, this means reforms in its military personnel and mobilization systems. For Washington, it means providing the type and quantity of aid that will enable a Ukrainian victory and not just help it stave off defeat. Furthermore, ending US aid to Ukraine, as some suggest as a reaction to the current static situation, would be tantamount to handing Russia a victory in its war of aggression and encouraging it to take similar steps in the future. Instead, Congress should continue the support necessary for Ukraine to create a battlefield and political situation that will best favor Ukrainian and US interests.
Fears of Stalemate
Two recent articles, one in Time magazine and one by General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Ukrainian armed forces commander-in-chief, speaking of the Russo-Ukrainian war as a stalemate, have caused considerable unease both in Ukraine and the United States. In the halls of Congress, some senators and representatives say these articles are proof that victory for Kyiv is unobtainable and US support should be curtailed or ended. What may be lost in translation, however, is that battlefield stalemates are neither uncommon nor catastrophic unless political and military leaders make them so.
In other words, stalemate is not checkmate.
Stalemates are a part of warfare. During the American Civil War, the armies of Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were fixed in trenches at Petersburg for approximately ten months. In World War II, German and Soviet forces were locked in a similar stalemate around Leningrad for over two years. The stalemate most often referenced when discussing the Russo-Ukrainian war is that of the Western front during World War I from the winter of 1914–1915 up until the spring of 1918. Those stalemates eventually ended when one side found a way to get around or through the trenches and fortifications of the other.
Stalemates often spur innovation. During World War I, the major belligerents tried different ways to overcome the tyranny of trench lines that left no open flanks and the technology of new weapons such as the machine gun and rapid-fire artillery pieces. Germany tried to break the stalemate strategically via unrestricted submarine warfare to destroy Britain’s economy and tactically via stormtrooper tactics to infiltrate past trench lines into rear areas. Britain’s response was to create another new technology, the tank, and formulate tactics to integrate tanks with artillery and infantry forces. The French believed innovations in artillery tactics developed in 1916 would lead to victory in 1917. However, a German innovation—defense in depth—stopped French attacks cold. Only Russia did not attempt to innovate, repeating its strategy of massive infantry attacks, as in the Brusilov and Kerensky offensives, until its army dissolved in mutiny and desertion.
Today’s stalemate in Ukraine is the result of three factors: one technological, one topographical, and one psychological. Modern battlefield surveillance, the topography of southern Ukraine that provides for minimal concealment, and the fact that both sides view the conflict in existential terms contribute to the current situation on the battlefield.
The combination of near-ubiquitous battlefield surveillance and precision-guided munitions makes a modern battlefield a dangerous place to move in. Today’s cheap, abundant, and easy-to-use drones provide both sides a literal bird’s eye view of the battlefield. Drones, integrated with other modern advances (e.g., night vision devices, counter-battery radars, satellite imagery, etc.) provide battlefield awareness undreamt of just a generation before. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, combined with precision-guided munitions, and overseen by a well-organized command, control, and communications network create what the Russians call a reconnaissance-strike complex. In other words, if something can be seen on the battlefield, it can be hit almost immediately. The world saw this on a smaller scale in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Today, it is a central feature of the war in Ukraine.
This integrated system of ubiquitous reconnaissance and precision fires is especially effective in southern Ukraine due to its topography, which provides minimal concealment. The battlefield is mostly one of large, open fields divided by tree lines and interspersed with small villages. There are few large forests making it difficult to assemble troops, hide supply dumps, or position artillery batteries.
Both sides are highly motivated to continue fighting. In my recent trip to Ukraine, it was clear that Ukrainian soldiers and civilians alike believed they are engaged in a war of national survival. To lose means losing their culture as well as their lives. Many Ukrainians expect to have to fight for years to restore their territorial integrity, especially Crimea.
The Kremlin also believes this war is existential for the survival of the Putin regime, and is also prepared to fight for years, especially to maintain the illegally annexed jewel in its imperial crown: Crimea. A sense of necessity and destiny for the war is transmitted from the Kremlin to its soldiers on the front lines in three ways: through brutality, compensation, and ideology.
It is hard to fathom the level of brutality that underpins Russia’s society, especially its military, and it is even more difficult for Western audiences to understand its Soviet antecedents such as Stalin’s Great Terror. The pervasive use of brutality as a social control measure continues in the modern Russian army. Russia uses blocking forces behind its front lines to shoot soldiers who retreat just as the Soviet army did in World War II. Physical brutality is used to maintain discipline in the trenches, just as during peacetime the custom of dedovshchina (i.e., hazing of more junior soldiers) was used to maintain discipline in the barracks.
Conversely, the Russian military has proffered lucrative recruiting incentives and death benefits to impoverished Russian males, and pardons to prisoners, to fill its ranks. Combat pay is higher than what young men can expect to make anywhere in Russia and promised death benefits can equal a lifetime of earnings. As one Russian commentator has noted, it pays to die in the Russian army and such incentives have turned a high probability of death into a rational choice.
Ukrainian officers who spoke with me this summer noted that most soldiers they are fighting come from poor, remote regions of Russia and their main source of information is state television. This makes them very susceptible to Kremlin propaganda. The Orthodox Church has literally blessed fighting in Ukraine as a sacred duty where “death in combat will wash away all sins,” and the state has framed it in terms of another Great Patriotic War to defeat Nazism.
Several Ukrainian officers have told me that many Russian soldiers believe the battlefield they are fighting over should belong to Russia. This imperial idea is another form of motivation. While there have been videos of Russian soldiers complaining of poor leadership, poor logistics, and inadequate support, it is rare to find a video in which they dispute the Kremlin’s justifications for the war or claim that it is unjust or immoral. On the one hand, this may be because the only high-ranking person to say so in public, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, was publicly executed in an aviation “accident:” another example of brutality used as “motivation.” On the other hand, it may also reflect the success of decades of propaganda regarding Ukraine resulting in Russian public support for imperial actions such as the illegal annexation of Crimea.
Stalemate on One Front Is Not Stalemate Everywhere
The combination of factors creating the current stalemate in Ukraine is neither unchangeable nor the entire story of the war. History shows that wars have many phases as well as separate, if interlocking, operational theaters and environments—air, land, sea, economic, political, and psychological. While Grant was stalemated at Petersburg for almost a year in 1864–1865, Sherman was marching to the sea and the Union navy was closing the remaining Confederate ports that sustained the South’s logistics. In World War I, while stalemate was the norm on the Western front, massive battles of maneuver took place on the Eastern front from Poland to Romania; the Middle East had theaters of action in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and the Caucasus; and consequential naval struggles on the high seas determined that Britain could be supplied by the New World while the Central Powers would be strangled by economic blockade.
Currently in Ukraine, the approximately 600-mile frontline in running northeast to southwest along the southern oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson has moved little since Ukraine’s first counteroffensive in the fall of 2022. However, this is not the only front where the war is being fought or which can contribute to victory. One dog that has not barked since the initial invasion in February 2022 is a potential threat of envelopment from the north. Belarus has not entered the war and Russian forces have mostly withdrawn from there. This makes Ukraine’s strategic situation somewhat more tenable.
Ukraine, without a navy but with the innovative use of drones and missiles, has negated Russian naval power in the Black Sea and is making Russia’s bastion in Crimea increasingly precarious for its Black Sea Fleet. This has allowed Ukraine to begin exporting grain again from Odessa, through the Turkish Straits, albeit not in the quantities it could before the war. Those exports will have a positive effect on Ukraine’s economy and balance of payments and will increase as Russia’s fleet is pushed further away from Crimea.
While Ukraine is less threatened from the sea, Russia’s air force and missile inventory remain a constant threat. There is a curious asymmetry in which air defenses on both sides have created a stalemate in the use of tactical air forces along the front lines yet missiles and long-range drones are able to strike rear area targets. The air war is fluid and could produce strategic consequences this winter if it undermines domestic Ukrainian morale due to power and heat outages or Russian morale in the trenches due to poor logistics and reduced fire support.
Finally, as Clausewitz informs us, war is a clash of wills. Ukrainians I spoke with at all levels of society this summer voiced a belief that their country had the will to continue the fight but also expressed a fear that the commitment of the West may not be enduring. They acknowledged that without Western support, especially American aid and leadership, they were unlikely to restore their territorial integrity. Putin seems to believe this as well. Some experts estimate that he will not negotiate until after the 2024 US elections. The psychological aspect of the war is also fluid and subject to change as much as the lines on the battlefield.
Past stalemates in war have usually ended via innovative combinations of new tactics, new technologies, and reinforcements, and efforts to weaken the foe’s morale and logistics at the strategic level. The tank and its integration with other combat arms helped break the stalemate on the Western front in World War I, as did the British blockade of Germany’s economy, which prevented it from producing the resources necessary to continue a world war. Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare was a strategic failure, as it could not destroy the British economy and brought the United States into the war, providing massive reinforcements on the Western front. In other theaters, imaginative tactics, deception operations, and the use of guerrilla forces in the enemy’s rear helped British General Edmund Allenby defeat Turkish forces arrayed against him in Palestine, while reinforcements, new leadership, and improved logistics and training helped British forces in Mesopotamia to recover from their humiliating defeat at Kut and eventually conquer Baghdad.
Stalemate Is Not Immutable
To break the current stalemate in the Russo-Ukrainian War, Zaluzhnyi stressed the need for airpower to support large-scale ground operations, electronic warfare tools to negate Russian drones, counter-battery assets to overcome Russian artillery, mine-breaching technology, and training and other internal measures to increase Ukraine’s military manpower. These are all critical resources, which if provided in sufficient quantities can complement each other to provide even greater effects.
Helping Ukraine achieve air parity or even air superiority means not just providing F-16s to replace worn-out MiGs for close air support and interdiction missions, but also enough ISR, electronic warfare, and indirect fire assets to find and suppress Russian air defenses so these missions can be run without paying prohibitive costs. Electronic warfare and counter-battery assets can snap the links that make up Russia’s reconnaissance-strike complex, thereby protecting Ukrainian artillery and mine-clearing teams. Engineering assets for these teams are also a must. In this war, electronic warfare specialists, air defense personnel, combat engineers, and logisticians are as vital to breaking the stalemate as are tankers, artillerymen, and infantrymen.
Finding those soldiers, however, is a challenge for both sides. Russia’s recent attacks against Avdiivka show that despite mobilization issues, Moscow continues to recruit, train, and deploy large numbers of soldiers. Fortunately for Ukraine, the Russian military learned nothing from previous frontal attacks and wasted those reserves in disastrous assaults. Ukraine is also suffering from personnel shortages, noted by Zaluzhnyi. This is a self-inflicted wound that Kyiv must solve.
While Western powers can assist with training, recruiting is solely a Ukrainian function. The firing in August 2023 of all regional recruitment center chiefs for corruption by President Volodymyr Zelensky was a start. More must be done for Ukraine to clean its own house of corrupt practices that inhibit both its ability to wage war and join Euro-Atlantic organizations once the war ends. Unlike in World War I, no other power will join this war, so reinforcements to help break the stalemate will need to come from within.
Attacking in a hitherto unexpected direction is a time-honored way of ending a stalemate. Beyond the capabilities Zaluzhnyi is requesting to break through Russian fortifications known as the Surovikin line, the West should also provide training and equipment that will allow Ukraine to bypass these fortifications and move into Crimea. To outflank the Surovikin line and enter Crimea, Ukraine needs landing craft and amphibious assault vehicles to conduct river crossings and shore-to-shore amphibious assaults around Crimea’s littoral flanks. It also needs and pontoon bridges and small boats to move through the shallow Sivash lagoon (as the Red Army did in 1920 during the Russian Civil War) to avoid having to make frontal assaults against the defenses on Crimea’s Perekop isthmus, some of whose trenches go back to the sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire. Ukraine was likely already thinking along these lines when it requested training from the US Marine Corps in amphibious operations.
Beyond new and more technology and weapons, intangible factors will also be key to ending a stalemate. One intangible factor in war is morale, also called the “will to fight.” This winter will test both sides. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are about to spend another winter in fighting positions exposed to the cold and elements. The effects this can have on individual and unit morale if soldiers are unprepared for such conditions cannot be underestimated. Many armies have fallen apart not from combat but from winter. Providing weapons and ammunition will be important but so will be the provision of dry socks, insulated boots, winter jackets, space heaters, and hot food. The side that does not provide these items, or is prevented from providing them by attacks against its logistics system and supply lines, will be at a distinct disadvantage.
Another intangible feature is leadership. For leaders at the tactical and strategic levels of war, motivating their men to fight despite the ravages of winter and a stalemated situation will be a difficult challenge. The breaking of the stalemate in Ukraine may depend on which country’s officers and noncommissioned officers do the best job leading their men through a tough winter.
When two forces clash, and neither immediately imposes their will on the other, there is a stalemate. It is not a harbinger of defeat, since the other side is stalemated too, unless one party turns stalemate into defeat by surrendering or quitting. Usually, warring parties overcome stalemates with innovation and resolve. Ukraine is seeking arms and ammunition in sufficient quantities to overcome the technological and psychological elements that stymied its summer 2023 counteroffensive. If Ukraine can strike deeper against Russia’s airfields; supply lines; command, control, and communications networks; and ISR assets, it can disrupt Russia’s reconnaissance-strike complex and lower the morale of front-line soldiers experiencing another winter outdoors. With equipment and training to attack previously unassailable flanks, Ukraine could break the stalemate by putting Russian forces in untenable tactical positions. This could further undermine Russian army morale. All men have limits and there are limits to how long fear, money (if paid), and ideology can give soldiers the will to fight if they are outflanked, low on supplies, and have spent a winter outdoors with inadequate clothing and rations. Other armies have failed under lesser strains.
However, this is merely conjecture if Ukraine cannot solve its own problems, especially regarding manpower. With a population similar to that of the United States during the Civil War, Ukraine should be able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of young men as the Union and Confederacy did for four years, all the while suffering even bloodier losses than Ukraine’s army has to date. My own observations in Ukraine this summer was that it was not lacking in young men or patriotism.
Finally, Ukraine’s Western partners, including the United States, must not fall into the trap of believing that stalemate means defeat. This is Russia’s strategy. It wants to create despair over supporting Ukraine to achieve its larger strategic goal of ejecting American power from the European continent. Moscow wants to show that American security guarantees are unreliable and that the United States will grow tired of war and leave its allies and partners in the lurch.
Thanks to the sacrifices of the Ukrainian nation, the Russian military has been severely damaged and has become less of a threat to NATO. Only a few years ago, national security experts were concerned that NATO could not repel a Russian attack against the Baltic states. Now those fears are diminished thanks to Ukraine. Money that the United States would have had to spend on containing further Russian aggression had Ukraine fallen can now be repurposed to other security threats, especially in the Far East. For just 3 percent of the US defense budget, 50 percent of the Russian army has been destroyed. This alone shows that our aid to Ukraine has been a two-way street. It has also never been a blank check and much of the money allocated for Ukraine goes to defense industries in the United States.
Therefore, the possibility that the Russo-Ukrainian war is entering into a stalemate should not be the cause for despair or the abandonment of the reasons why we came to Ukraine’s aid in the first place. Congressional leaders should avoid repeating the mantra of “forever war” to justify any surrender of Ukraine to Putin. Forever war is nothing more than a battle cry for policy to be decided on emotion, rather than careful analysis. After all, what did cries of forever war produce in Afghanistan—a partner betrayed, the return of safe havens for terrorist groups, and a severe blow to our reputation as a reliable ally. Do we need a repeat of this experience so soon again as Taiwan’s fate weighs in Xi’s balance?
The decision to provide aid to Ukraine should not depend on what phase this war is in, even if it is currently a static one. The United States started its support to the Ukrainian people at their darkest hour when there was little hope of survival, let alone victory. It should not end it because the war has not met arbitrary expectations or timelines. Russian success in Ukraine will encourage future Russian aggression and possibly that of others to redraw international boundaries by force.
American security and economic assistance should continue pursuing the aim of our national security goals and to honor US obligations. In 1994, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation, signed a memorandum of security assurances with Ukraine in exchange for giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Robust military support to Ukraine shows the United States still believes that commitment is worth keeping.
Stalemate is not checkmate, yet.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
- About the author: Philip Wasielewski is the Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of Intelligence and Nontraditional Warfare and a 2023 Templeton Fellow. He is a former Paramilitary Case Officer who had a 31-year career in the Directorate of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency.
- Source: This article was published by FPRI