Signs are emerging that the war in Ukraine is developing into a prolonged stalemate, which experts predict will be devastating to the forces on both sides of the conflict as well as to the Ukrainian people.
Russia’s unexpected failures on the battlefield have led to a downward spiral in morale amongst its troops that stands in stark contrast to the Ukrainians, according to the latest assessments, who have managed to hold back Russian advances and have even managed to regain territory in recent days .
“The Russian commanders have really set their troops up for failure by designing a very stupid invasion and executing it very badly,” said Fred Kagan, a senior fellow and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC
“The ineffectiveness of the campaign is so clear, and the ferociousness of the Ukrainian defense is so obvious … (that) it’s created an equalizer where neither side can move much from where they are now.”
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In both his remarks to Global News and an assessment published this week by the Institute for the Study of War, Kagan makes clear a stalemate does not mean the war is over, or that its outcome is certain. Either side could still win, he says — though victory will come at a very high cost.
“The damage and devastation to Ukrainian cities is likely to increase even in a period of stalemate,” he said.
But he also echoed comments from US officials like Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who told CBS on Sunday that Russian troops were being put “into a woodchipper” after days of stalled advances.
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What does a stalemate mean?
A stalemate can occur when a military campaign—a set of major objectives that commanders intend to achieve—is stalled by any number of factors, including a fierce resistance from the opposing military. In a stalemate scenario, both sides continue fighting without any significant gains by either force, leaving the front lines mostly unchanged.
In Ukraine, Russia pursued clear goals of quickly taking over the capital of Kyiv and other major cities, with the intention of overthrowing the government and installing pro-Kremlin replacements.
Yet intelligence has shown the positions and territories held by Russian troops have remained static for several days, with no significant gains beyond what was achieved in the first weeks of the war. Most significantly, large convoys of troops and equipment remain stalled outside Kyiv.
That has forced the Russians to pour its resources into the territory it already occupies — hence the brutal bombardment of cities like Mariupol that are completely surrounded, cutting off aid to citizens trapped there.
Kagan points to the Western Front of the First World War as a notable example of a past stalemate that ended up lasting for years.
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“The Western Front was a stalemate for most of the war, but incredibly bloody battles were fought in the course of that stalemate, including the German attack on Verdun and the British attack of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele and so forth,” he said. “Despite all that, the front lines didn’t change very much.”
While other officials have been cautious to call the Ukraine war a stalemate, they are becoming more willing to admit it is likely, at the very least, approaching.
“If we’re not in a stalemate, we are rapidly approaching one,” a NATO official told NBC News early this week. “The reality is that neither side has a superiority over the other.”
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Allen Sens, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia who studies military operations, predicts the frozen nature of the battle lines around Kyiv in particular may signal the end of the current campaign.
“There’s significant doubt that the forces available to (the Russians) with the plan that they have been executing is going to succeed, which in and of itself is remarkable,” he said.
How could the stalemate be broken?
Moscow on Friday signaled they may be making such a move, announcing it would now focus on the eastern Donbass region that has been claimed by Russian-backed separatist enclaves.
“The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which … makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbass,” said Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate .
Reframing Russia’s goals may make it easier for President Vladimir Putin to claim a face-saving victory, military analysts told Reuters. Moscow had said its goals included demilitarizing Ukraine, which Western officials dismiss as a baseless pretext for an invasion and planned takeover.
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Russia’s defense ministry said Friday that 1,351 Russian soldiers had been killed 3,825 wounded since the start of the war on Feb. 24. Ukraine says 15,000 Russian soldiers have died, while US officials place the tally closer to 10,000.
Ukraine’s resistance has shifted in recent days, which Sens says has likely further demoralized Russia’s military while raising alarms at the Kremlin. He points to Ukraine retaking Makariv, a strategically important suburb outside Kyiv, from Russian forces on Tuesday as a significant moment.
“If that continues, and the Russians fall back and actually lose ground on multiple fronts, that would be transformative,” he said.
If more territory is regained, the war could begin to echo another key moment in global conflict that Kagan highlights: Germany’s attempted invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, during the Second World War.
In that case, Germany’s campaign included clear goals to sixteen Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Moscow and Ukraine. But German troops were stalled outside Moscow, while Leningrad was besieged for more than two years.
During that time, Soviet forces were able to counter-attack and force Germany to abandon its original campaign—only for the Germans to come back in 1942, culminating in the Battle of Stalingrad.
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“The opponents alternated offensive and defensive campaigns but were almost always moving,” Kagan wrote in his assessment, explaining why the Eastern Front never became a true stalemate.
Experts have said continued Western military aid, including anti-tank and anti-air weapon systems, will help ensure Ukraine’s resistance and counterattacks remain effective.
Kagan says the war has turned into a story of two very different morales in the opposing forces, which has made predicting what will happen next in the conflict difficult.
While Russia’s military was seen as the superior power, he said the “incompetent” invasion has led to “several anecdotal reports that the Russian morale has just cratered.”
“The Ukrainians are fighting very skillfully,” he added. “They have high morale and they’re determined to fight, and that’s created an equalizer. But it makes forecasting really hard.”
— with files from Reuters
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