Ukraine’s top general admits the war is stalemated. Now what?

A Ukrainian soldier attends a drone flight training program in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, on May 15, 2023. (Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters)
A Ukrainian soldier attends a drone flight training program in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, on May 15, 2023. (Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters)

In warfare, attacking has always been harder than defending. The war in Ukraine demonstrates that it has become harder still in the digital age. The prevalence of drones makes it almost impossible to advance undetected, and the pervasiveness of precision-guided munitions — including attack drones — makes it easy to hit troops and tanks on the move.

The Russians discovered for themselves the difficulty of offensive warfare during their initial invasion of Ukraine — and again during more recent offensives in Bakhmut and now Avdiivka. Russian troops have been mauled in “meat grinder” attacks while barely advancing.

The Ukrainians had more success with counteroffensives last year: They managed to retake about half of the territory that Russia had initially seized in 2022, with especially impressive gains around Kherson in the south and Kharkiv in the west before the Russians could fortify their positions. But the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south launched in mid-June has not achieved the major breakthrough that Ukrainian leaders and their supporters in the West had hoped for.

After nearly five months of intense combat, the Ukrainians have advanced barely 10 miles. They are not close to reaching the Sea of Azov and thereby breaking the Russian “land bridge” between Crimea and Russia, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told me in January was a “realistic goal for this year”. Last week, Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, admitted to the Economist that the war had reached a “stalemate” and that “there will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough” unless Ukraine can somehow gain a technological edge over the Russians.

Why hasn’t Ukraine had more success? Behind the scenes, there is plenty of finger-pointing among Ukrainian and U.S. officials. The Americans privately grumble that the Ukrainians have not done a good job of executing a NATO-style combined-arms offensive and have reverted to the kind of attritional warfare that characterized Soviet military strategy, while siphoning off badly needed troops to ancillary efforts around Bakhmut.

The Ukrainians, in turn, complain that the West has not given them enough weapons to break through the Russian fortifications and that many of the weapons they have received are not in good working order. Ukraine lacks enough mine-clearing equipment and armored vehicles — and more important enough air power to keep Russian manned and unmanned aircraft from attacking Ukrainian troops while they are trying to cross minefields.

U.S. troops would never attack entrenched positions without air superiority, yet the Pentagon expected Ukrainian troops to do just that. And the Biden administration did not send M1 Abrams tanks and Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) to Ukraine until this fall — too late to influence the summer counteroffensive.

“Ukraine has been asking for weapons all the time and it’s been, yes, it’s coming, it’s coming, but it took a while, and Europe said sorry we don’t have enough”, former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk told me last week from Kyiv. “In many ways, Ukraine was set up to underdeliver on unreasonable expectations of a massive territorial gain”, agreed Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.

So what should Ukraine — and its supporters in the West — do now? Many will argue that, with the failure of this counteroffensive, it’s time to cut a deal with the Kremlin. But there is scant indication that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is ready to make any concessions or to give up his goal of swallowing Ukraine. The Ukrainian military setbacks — and waning support for Kyiv’s cause among Republicans in Congress — only encourage him to keep going in the expectation that he will outlast his enemies. “The only reason he will stop the war is if he is stopped physically and has no other choice”, Zagorodnyuk told me. “He won’t stop the war if you can’t continue it. He will only stop war when he can’t continue it”.

Thus, the war-weary Ukrainians have no choice but to continue fighting if they are to save their nation from being occupied by war criminals who commit heinous atrocities against innocent civilians. And we have no choice but to continue backing the Ukrainians.

The United States has a strategic imperative at stake: The Ukrainians are inflicting massive losses on the Russian armed forces that will make Russia less of a threat to its NATO neighbors for years to come. There is also a humanitarian imperative: By arming Ukraine, we are saving innocent lives. The West must, in particular, continue to provide air-defense ammunition to stop the air attacks that Putin is sure to launch soon against Ukrainian cities to render them uninhabitable. “The Russians will try to break Ukraine over the winter”, an administration official told me. “We need to stop that from happening”.

More broadly, the West should provide Zaluzhny with what he needs. In an article for the Economist that accompanied his interview, he asked for more drones to attack Russian troops, electronic-warfare systems to defend against Russian drones, better counter-battery radars, advanced mine-breaching technology, and more help to train and mobilize reservists.

Retired Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, emphasized to me that Ukraine still needs a lot more long-range strike capacity in the form of cruise missiles, F-16s and ATACMS to target Russian airfields and logistics hubs in occupied Crimea. Even if Ukrainian ground forces switch to a more defensive strategy over the winter, Ukraine can continue to grind down Russian supply lines and command posts. Hodges points out that the Russian positions in southern Ukraine are all supplied from Crimea, “so if you’re able to make the Russian navy, air force and logistics relocate, you change the entire calculus from the Russian side”.

Ukraine has already shown that it can succeed with such asymmetric tactics. Its biggest victory in recent months has come not on the ground but at sea, even though it doesn’t have a navy of its own. Ukraine has had remarkable success in using drones and cruise missiles to attack the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s ships, shipyards and headquarters. In early October, the Black Sea fleet was forced to leave its historic anchorage in Sevastopol, Crimea, and relocate farther east to the port of Novorossiysk in Russia. As a result, Ukraine has been able to ship grain again via the Black Sea.

Nobody expected that Ukraine could continue exporting grain after Russia pulled out of a grain agreement this summer. But Ukraine found a way. So, too, we need to keep the faith that the Ukrainians will find a way to continue defending their country and to slowly roll back the Russian occupation. If Congress keeps funding Ukraine and if President Biden defeats his likely challenger, former president Donald Trump, in 2024 (both uncertain at the moment), Putin will confront the reality that he can’t win the war. But if our support for Ukraine falters, then Putin could still emerge as the winner in his war of aggression — with frightening consequences for the entire world.

A lot of Americans say they are growing tired of the war. But we are risking nothing more than 0.65 percent of the federal budget to support Ukraine. The Ukrainians are risking their lives. They are tired too, but they know they cannot give up the struggle. Neither can we.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam”.

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