international analysis and commentary

Ukraine’s counteroffensive and a potential stalemate scenario

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More than three months after the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive to liberate its territories occupied by Russia, some considerations can be made on the current phase of the war of aggression initiated in February 2022 by Moscow and the scenario of a military stalemate.

Ukrainian soldiers in Donetsk

 

After Kiev liberated Kherson and the Kharkiv area last fall, the conflict centered on a bloody fight around the Bakhmut town under Russian attack. Ukraine held the area as long as possible from a favorable position in order to wear down enemy forces and keep the rest of the frontline relatively safe. Meanwhile, Kiev received significant military equipment from its international allies, including main battle tanks, armored vehicles and artillery, but not the long-requested fighter aircraft. In June, the counteroffensive began, preceded by shaping operations to weaken Russian frontlines and logistic supplies, up to the Kerch bridge and into Russian territory, and centered on land maneuvers and attacks aimed at breaking enemy lines. Although Ukrainian plans have been understandably kept secret, it is sensible to assume that the main goal of the counteroffensive was to liberate territory in the Zaporizhzhia oblast in order to separate occupied Crimea from Donbass, and thus make it much more difficult for the Kremlin to hold remaining occupied territories.

Against this backdrop, unfortunately, it is fair to say that Kiev has not yet reached the counteroffensive’s military goals. The magnitude and pace of progress towards such goals are hard to evaluate in such a complex and dramatic conflict whereby a whole country is fighting for its people, territory and independence against a power such as Russia. If measured with respect to the expectations among international allies, Ukraine’s progress has been limited and relatively slow thus far. If the objective is to break enemy lines and liberate territories up to Melitopol on the Azov Sea, the recent breach of the first line of defense around the village of Robotyne  is a significant step in the right direction, but it is still to be seen if the subsequent Russian lines will hold. The ongoing counteroffensive can still free significant areas in the coming weeks and months, but there are several factors that make it difficult.

The Zaporizhzhia front as of 19 September 2023

 

First and foremost, neither Ukraine nor Russia hold the air superiority that operationally marked Western military interventions over the last three decades. This means Kiev is able to protect large parts of its population and territory thanks to the air defense systems donated by the West, but it cannot pave the way for the ground counteroffensive by destroying the occupying forces from the skies. Ukrainian drone attacks have been remarkably effective in inflicting some damage to Russian assets, but have not weakened enemy lines to the point of enabling a land breakthrough. This is the fundamental rationale for Kiev’s enduring requests for fighter jets like F-16s.

While the airspace is contested, the other operational domains also witness a sort of parity between the respective deployed forces – despite the theoretical imbalance in military weight favoring Russia over Ukraine. The reason for such operational equilibrium lies first and foremost in the international support for Kiev. It has been particularly rapid for the space domain, through the supply of secure satellite communication and geospatial intelligence since the war began. It is supposedly happening in the cyber domain, as both military and civilian infrastructures in Ukraine have not been disrupted by Russian attacks arguably thanks to upgraded cyber defense. Above all, Western support has been massive and public in the land domain with increasing donations of a variety of military equipment.

When it comes to the naval domain, Turkey’s decision to close the Bosporus straits to vessel passage since February 2022 has limited the usable warships to those already present in the Black Sea at that time – thus excluding other Russian fleets sailing elsewhere. In addition, the use of mine warfare constrains maneuvers, while Kiev’s combination of drones and other naval combat systems have diminished Russian warfighting capabilities either by sinking vessels – for example, the Movska in April 2022–or by pushing them to stay in safer areas away from the Odessa shores.

Broadly speaking, the Ukrainian defenders are mobilizing each and every resource at their disposal as they fight for their country against Russian occupation, while Moscow has to maintain a military presence over its various borders – the longest land borders in the world. Morale, training and leadership have been important immaterial factors for Ukraine’s defenders thus far vis-à-vis Russian aggressors. The Kremlin faces internal political constraints towards a full mobilization of the population able to fight, as well as rifts at the strategic level when it comes to the war – as epitomized by the Wagner Group’s attempted mutiny. In addition, the Russian defense industry has been hampered – but not stopped – by international sanctions, while Ukraine is supported by the production capacity of European and American industries enabling the donation of equipment. Last but not least, US deterrence so far has been effective in preventing a Russian nuclear escalation, despite aggressive rhetoric from the Kremlin and numerous military setbacks suffered by Moscow – from the failure of the initial blitzkrieg against the Ukrainian capital to the withdrawal from Kherson a few months after its illegitimate annexation to the Russian Federation.

 

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Altogether, these factors did limit the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive mostly to the land domain. Certainly, in recent months there has been an increase of air and naval attacks on Russian forces and infrastructures, both in occupied territory and deep beyond Russia’s borders (including in Crimea), while Ukrainian air defenses continue to work relentlessly to counter Russian bombings. However, the vast majority of Kiev’s forces and assets – including those donated by the West – have been deployed on the front line to carry out a ground counteroffensive. The latter had to face well-established defensive lines set up over the previous months by Russia on occupied territories. They include extensive minefields and dragon’s teeth, trenches and bunkers, a high number of artillery posts, altogether structured through several lines in order to allow tactical withdrawals and local counterattacks against Ukraine forces.

The combination of these rather traditional defenses with modern surveillance technology thus far allowed Russian forces to slow down the ground maneuvers and impose significant costs to Ukrainian forces engaged in intense fights for small villages. To make just one example, as demining operators try to clean a narrow path for Kiev’s armored vehicles to proceed deep into enemy lines, they and the following column of forces rapidly becomes a target for Russian artillery and units, provoking an intense fight and the related casualties. While Russia has been rather keen to suffer major human losses for limited territorial gains–as happened for months around Bakhmut – Kiev counts on a more limited pool of human resources to employ and attaches greater value to the life of its soldiers. That means Ukraine is unlikely to push the offensive into the carnage that both the Russian army and the Wagner Group already shouldered with very modest results.

 

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All these factors are to some extent structural, and their impact increases over time. Current Western plans to donate F-16s and train the Ukrainian air force are insufficient to ensure air superiority, while the kind of balance through naval, space and cyber domains is likely to continue. As a result, land warfare will remain crucial. Given the aforementioned, enduring limitations on human and material resources for both the Russian aggressor and Ukrainian defenders – albeit for different reasons – the forces that hold a position enjoy an advantage at the tactical and operational levels. The well-tested mix of minefields, fortifications and artillery will continue to impose high costs on the forces trying to advance – even if they do so to liberate their own nation.

In addition, the more the counteroffensive prolongs into the autumn, the more it comes closer to weather and terrain conditions that will hamper military operations. Beyond seasonal circumstances, military history teaches that both offensives and counteroffensives cannot last forever: either they achieve their operational goals within a certain timeline linked to specific circumstances, or they lose momentum and then have to halt. The bottom line is that time is no longer in favor of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Against this backdrop, the chances of a stalemate scenario are high. In this scenario, the fight may continue at varying degrees of intensity, with the related losses, but the frontline would remain relatively stable without major landmark advances on either side. A sort of parity would be achieved across all five operational domains. Such a scenario is based on an enduring military and economic support by Ukraine’s allies, primarily the US, otherwise Kiev would not be able to face Russian operational pressure, from air and missile attacks to land offensives. This is obviously a scenario and not a prediction, since there are risks of radical changes due to factors that are hard to evaluate, such as the Russian troops’ morale. Moreover, the stalemate may push the conflict to further evolve, such as with more frequent and more visible Ukrainian attacks on Russia’s territory, while still remaining under the nuclear threshold.

A stalemate would reshape the options of the warring countries at strategic and diplomatic levels. The Russian side would evaluate that it did not achieve the goals set at the beginning of the conflict, namely the occupation of Kiev and the establishment of a proxy government over the vast majority of  Ukraine, but can likely hold a large part of what it occupied in Donbass and Crimea. The Ukrainian defender would consider that not all territories occupied by Russia can be freed via a military victory, and that the security and independence of the rest of Ukraine heavily depends on the enduring support of the international community.

What this scenario will mean for the choices of political leaderships in Moscow and Kiev is difficult to predict, as are the positions of Ukraine’s allies and other important actors like China over the midterm. Today, there is still the possibility and hope the Ukrainian counteroffensive will succeed, and this obviously remains the best scenario for the conflict.