The Ukraine-Russia Conflict Has Reached A Stalemate – Analysis


By Kartik Bommakanti

The war between Russia and Ukraine, which broke last year following the former’ invasion, is deadlocked. Ukraine’s counter-offensive has stalled or at least the progress made by Ukrainian ground forces has been limited. Just as the initial Russian offensive stalled due to an impressive Ukrainian fightback and were gradually reversed, Ukraine—if not suffering exactly the reverses Moscow did—has remained incapable of breaking through Russian defences as the result of its counteroffensive.

Three specific factors are responsible for the current operational impasse. Firstly, neither side has been able to or has shown a readiness to prosecute this military campaign decisively. Secondly, fears of escalation, if new weapons were introduced during the course of the war for the last 18 months, have tempered the intensity of combat, but done little to end it. Finally, low morale, which has been prominently visible among Russian forces for most of the active combat in the last one-and-a-half years, is becoming evident among Ukrainians. Prosecuting a military campaign with limited means has been the feature of the Russia-Ukraine war. Russia never fully committed and deployed the kind of capabilities necessary to win the war decisively. Ukraine has done the same, but for different reasons.

Why has the war reached its current impasse?

Firstly, Russia’s much touted cyber capabilities were nowhere nearly as potent as expected and the Russian leadership, for still unexplained reasons, did not use combat airpower. Explanations for the non-use of airpower, at best and anecdotally, have ranged from the Russian Air Force’s lack of experience in multi-domain operations with ground forces, to risk aversion and poor pilot training. Compounding these failures was Moscow’s ground offensive, which involved poor strategy and long supply lines that made Russian forces sitting ducks for the Ukrainians. Russia, however, is regrouping after blunting Ukraine’s current counteroffensive, largely due to the Russian military’s build-up of formidable defensive fortifications packed with landmines, which Moscow invested in establishing while 12 armoured brigades of the Ukrainian Army were away training in North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries. Inadequate use of combat power and sustainment have given opportunities to both sides to regroup and fight back.

Kyiv, for its part, has not suffered from Russia’s inadequate application of military power. At least not deliberately, Ukraine’s leadership has been fettered by its ally and primary military supplier—NATO. Notwithstanding the limited success Ukraine has had in its counteroffensive, its military progress has been substantially constrained due to insufficient military support from its NATO ally. Indeed, according to United States (US) intelligence, Kyiv will fail to secure its key goal of seizing Melitopol, which is vital if Ukrainian forces are to capture Crimea. Melitopol also serves as a land bridge with a railroad and highways, enabling Russia to keep its forces supplied across occupied Ukraine from the Crimean Peninsula. Capturing Melitopol, let alone Crimea, now looks increasingly difficult. At least so far, these factors have played a vital part in preventing both sides from prosecuting the war to a decisive conclusion.

Secondly, the US—the largest external contributor to Ukraine’s military effort—has dithered in supplying the Ukrainians with the kinds of weapons systems and capabilities that Kyiv has sought since the first days of the Russian invasion. If anything, leaked documents from American intelligence made a grim assessment going back to April this year, confirming that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will likely fail due to inadequate supply of equipment and ammunition by NATO, preventing the Ukrainian forces from recapturing Russian occupied areas of Ukraine.

Since the onset of hostilities, the US refused to send High Altitude Mobility Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and when it did supply them, it was only a limited number in late June 2022, which was four months after the Russian invasion. Following the Ukrainian establishment of what the Americans called “a proof of concept”, or Ukraine’s effective use of HIMARS, did Washington commit to dispatching more HIMARS. The latest manifestation of this US-led NATO hesitation in supporting the Ukrainians is the West’s, especially Washington’s, resistance to employ combat airpower against the Russians. Notwithstanding Washington’s consent of late to allow some European members of NATO to train Ukrainian fighter pilots for the use of F-16s, the pilots will not be combat ready to fly the jets until the summer of 2024. As one British expert aptly put it: “We [NATO] have always given them [Ukraine] what they need just about in time. Now we may be giving them what they need, just about too late.”

Finally, morale is taking a hit amongst Ukrainian men. Military age men are avoiding combat duties on the frontlines by bribing military officials at recruitment centres across Ukraine, compelling Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy to crackdown on corruption. The flight of fighting age men from Ukraine spells ominous signs for Ukraine’s military campaign to evict the Russian occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. If this resistance were to persist, Kyiv might be compelled not to press ahead with its counteroffensive and battle lines could stabilise and settle around where they are today. This would fundamentally mean Russia retaining most of what it annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and Kyiv securing the remainder of the country. Yet, this possibility might not hold, because Moscow, now chuffed by its formidable defence, is likely planning and preparing its own offensive for the second time.

The mutual fear of escalation has only prolonged the conflict with no end in sight. The recent operational setbacks the Ukrainians have suffered does not spell defeat for Kyiv, and, as we have seen throughout the course of this war, they are capable of reversing losses. However, this time, as noted earlier, NATO’s military aid may have come little too late and when coupled with a decline in Ukrainian morale, the chances of a stalemate are likely to be high or at least the Ukrainian military abandoning their offensive and retreating to defensive positions is entirely possible.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, one thing that has been validated by this conflict is that the defence, as Clausewitz put it, tends to be stronger than the offence in war. Just as the Russian offensive against Ukraine in February 2022 was substantially thwarted by a robust defence by the Ukrainian military, the Russian military’s defensive measures today have likewise significantly eroded the Ukrainian counteroffensive. There is also another lesson from this war—that if a war is to be fought and won decisively, even if the war is limited in its aims, it cannot and should not mean the application of limited means. Indeed, the aims maybe limited, but means used must be disproportionate and the effort maximum.

About the author: Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation

Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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