Is the Russian Ukrainian war turning into a stalemate?
By the Center for American and Arab Studies |
Despite stories of attacks and counter attacks across the Ukraine, the fact is that this conflict is turning into a stalemate.
The Russians have the equipment for carrying out an offensive but lack the logistic chain to support these fuel and ammunition hungry armored vehicles. And, since they haven’t captured any significant cities, they don’t have the transportation network to bring the supplies up to the front.
The Ukrainians, on the other hand, have proven themselves experts in defensive warfare, especially with the NATO anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons that are being shipped to them. The problem is that these weapons are great for a defensive fight, but not ideal for a massive offensive designed to force the Russians out of Ukrainian territory.
The result is a stalemate that is bleeding out both sides. Russia has a larger population and military, but America estimates that 75% of its land forces have already been committed to the Ukrainian war. The remaining forces are marginal at best.
While the Ukrainians are doing much better than anyone imagined, they don’t have the forces to wage a battle of attrition with the Russians, even with the latest NATO weapons. There have been claims by the Ukrainian high command that they have pushed the Russians back north of Kharkov, but this hasn’t been independently verified.
Kiev remains the key to this war. The Russians are on the northeastern, western, and northwestern edges of the city, but are hardly advancing. Russian commanders have the choice of outflanking the Kiev defenses in the outer suburbs but leaving their artillery out of range of central Kiev or pushing further into the city and incurring heavy casualties.
Another problem with surrounding Kiev is that the Russians probably don’t have enough quality forces to surround the city. This would leave the Ukrainian Army with interior lines, which gives them the ability to strike the Russians in any direction. It’s also obvious that Kiev has stockpiled large quantities of food and ammunition – including the high-tech NATO weapons that would be ideal in an urban conflict.
The threat that Russia and Belarus would attack further west to cut off supply lines hasn’t materialized. The Ukraine and Belarus border is in the Pripyat Marshes and most traffic, especially heavy armored vehicles, are limited to travelling on paved road. This leaves them vulnerable to attacks by small groups of Ukrainian soldiers who have man portable anti-armor missiles.
Then, there is what the Russians call General Mud,” the time of the year when temperatures rise above freezing, leaving anything that is off the paved road stuck in the mud. A look at the long-range forecast for Kiev is that daytime temperatures will remain above freezing for the rest of March. This further gives the Ukrainians another advantage.
In addition to the threats of ambush in the Pripyat Marshes, Russian forces closing on Kiev from the northeast have yet to capture Chernihiv or Sumy. These are both transportation hubs that are necessary to provide the supplies and fuel for a sustained offensive against Kiev.
The slow movement of the Russian forces has given the Ukrainians the chance to fortify Kiev. Kiev is also crisscrossed with many rivers that would have to be crossed by Russian troops while under fire. Now many military analysts are skeptical about Russia’s ability to capture the capital city in battle.
If Kiev is not captured by the Russians, there is little chance that they can win a major victory over the Ukrainians.
To the east of Kiev, the battle of Kharkov is still being waged. Although the elite First Guards Tank Army has been involved in this urban warfare, they have made little progress and the city has yet to be surrounded.
If there is any major movement, it is south of Kharkov, where there is a push to surround Ukrainian forces southeast of Kharkov in the Luhansk Oblast. We don’t know if the Ukrainian Army is withdrawing from this trap or if they intend to try to hold out until a ceasefire is called.
The southern front has seen some movement. However, Mariupol remains defended by the Ukrainians despite strong Russian bombardment. The Russians would dearly like to see Mariupol captured because it gives Russia a land bridge to its land on the Crimean Peninsula.
Russian forces along the Black Sea were expected to attack Odessa. However, they have been stopped by the number of rivers. The Russian Navy has been shelling Odessa and could land some amphibious forces near to Odessa but supporting them logistically would be harder than supporting the Russian forces near Kiev.
The final battlefront isn’t on land, but the air. The Ukrainian Air force and anti-aircraft missile defenses system has prevented the Russians from dominating the air space over Ukraine
There is also the Ukrainian border with Poland, which has become the major supply line for weapons and humanitarian supplies into Ukraine. Last week Putin warned NATO that he considered these supply lines and convoys to be legitimate targets. And he followed up soon after by hitting several airports in Western Ukraine.
While hitting these bases certainly hurt the supply routes into the front lines, some of the missiles hit just a few miles from Poland. And, since NATO has made it quite clear that an attack on the soil of a NATO member is an attack on all NATO nations, the Russians have toned back missile attacks that could accidently hit a NATO member.
So, what does the future look like?
Although Russia could carry out a war of attrition and win, the cost would be dear. In addition to the Ukrainians carrying out a guerilla war and NATO spending more to rearm, some nations like Sweden and Finland are looking more seriously at joining NATO.
Another problem is that Russia is expending much of its war equipment. Currently, they don’t have the economic resources to rebuild its army with newer technology. If they wish to be considered a major power with a powerful military, they can’t afford to waste much of their carefully built high tech equipment in a useless war on the Ukraine.
Another problem is that so far, this war has been waged by the best of Russia’s military. The 25% of Russia’s land forces not involved in the Ukraine conflict are substandard, which was why they weren’t sent into the conflict before now.
The Ukraine must maintain a careful balance between seeking peace and committing itself to continuing the war. Although situations can change, it appears that Russia might be willing to give a little to get a ceasefire. However, any intransigence by the Ukrainians could force the Russians to continue the war of attrition. Yet, if they show too much willingness to compromise, Russia may come out the winner in the ceasefire agreement.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the battle of Kiev. Failure to surround and capture the city will damage Russia’s and Putin’s credibility.
It’s also important for the Ukraine to keep its supply lines open to the besieged cities. Ukraine’s success depends on a continuing supply of high-tech weapons by NATO. If these are cut off, the Ukrainian Army will have a hard time stopping Russia.
Also look for international assistance by other countries. It appears that Syrian volunteers are coming to the aide of Russia.
The Ukraine, meanwhile, is building a foreign unit that has members from several countries, including the US, Canada, and Britain – including some former special forces veterans with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, there aren’t enough rifles for the Ukrainian volunteers, and they only get to practice on the rifle range with 10 rounds of ammunition each. Many of the volunteers are buying their own firearms.
Although there are several possible scenarios, the most likely are a war of attrition or a ceasefire by two exhausted nations.