Russia-Ukraine Stalemate

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“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate” 

– Walter Cronkrite

Despite sending nearly 200,000 troops into Ukraine, Russia has been hamstrung by its own inefficiencies and fierce Ukrainian resistance. A month into the conflict, Russian forces have seized fringes of territory along Ukraine’s eastern borders and have only succeeded in capturing one major Ukrainian city—Kherson on the southern coast—although the U.S. Department of Defence said that Russian forces had lost control of parts of the city. Moscow’s advance on Kyiv has stalled for weeks, and last week Ukrainian forces retaliated around the capital, a senior U.S. defence official said. Ukrainian officials said their forces had successfully destroyed a Russian landing ship and two other vessels in the occupied port city of Berdyansk, Russia is unlikely to be able to salvage its military operation, but a senior U.S. defence official said last week that Moscow is discussing how to resupply and bring in reinforcements, which could make Ukraine’s counteroffensive more challenging. One of the more likely scenarios is a stalemate, where neither side is able to make dramatic territorial gains but seeks to wear the other down in a war of attrition.

“I’d suspect there is a higher outcome of a stalemate, given the poor performance of the Russian army and the superb morale and western weapons of the Ukrainians,” James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and the former top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, told Foreign Policy in an email. “Russian air and long range fires are keeping them in the game, but their infantry have been in the field a long time and suffer from execrable logistic support—a bad combination. They will probably essentially fall back into the Donbas and claim that was their objective all along,” he said. “There’s the likelihood of a scenario where Putin can’t win, but he also refuses to lose,” said William Taylor, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace think tank and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “It could just grind into a bloody stalemate.”

Many analysts fear the war may become more brutal and attacks on civilian areas more indiscriminate as Russia seeks to chip away at Ukraine’s morale and force it to make concessions in negotiations. ”I keep thinking of the Balkan wars and how during the Balkan wars we just felt that the fighting was never going to end,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defence for Europe and NATO. “Until there was a stalemate, they weren’t going to go anywhere when each felt like they had the upper hand, when each felt that they needed to maneuver a little more to get more leverage.”

How would a war of attrition play out? “The honest answer is that it depends,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the think tank CNA. “I’ve heard folks say it favours Russia because they have more manpower and materiel. I’ve heard people say it favours Ukraine because Ukraine has stronger resolve and Russia doesn’t have the manpower to occupy the country. Those are all factors.”

Sergei Rudskoi, the head of the Russian General Staff’s Operational Directorate, said that the “main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished” and that the primary goal of Russia’s military operation was shifting to the “liberation of the Donbass.” The announcement signals a shift by Moscow to consolidate its efforts in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have been able to gain more ground. In a briefing, a senior U.S. defence official echoed this sentiment. Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian defence intelligence, warned that Moscow may seek to split Ukraine into occupied and unoccupied territories and “create North and South Korea in Ukraine.” That would prevent surrounded Ukrainian troops from reinforcing cities further west, such as Kyiv, and allow for Russia to push for greater autonomy beyond the so-called people’s republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, the defence of which Putin used as his justification for war. Seizing further territory in the region would also give Putin a narrative to sell to the Russian public.

World leaders stepped up efforts to isolate Russia in response to mounting evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, with the United Nations voting to suspend the Russian delegation from the Human Rights Council and the European Union approving a plan to phase out imports of Russian coal.

In conclusion, Ukraine is more likely to wage a fierce insurgency than to give in to Russian occupiers, officials and experts had observed; especially after the end of an intense war that could see Russian troops completely exhausted. And the Ukrainian public, which now sees victory as a possible outcome, is unlikely to consent to an early peace deal that gives away chunks of territory to Russia.

The writer is an Attorney-at-Law with LLB, LLM, M.Phil. [email protected]

By Lakshman I.Keerthisinghe