As Ukraine Readies for a Second Year at War, Prospect of Stalemate Looms

WASHINGTON — As the war in Ukraine approaches its second year, the Ukrainian military will face more of a challenge in recapturing territory from Russian forces, who are focused on protecting the rest of the country. they instead moved deeper into the country, US officials said.

During the first 10 months of the war, the Ukrainian army – with considerable American support – defeated the incompetent Russian army, fought to a stalemate and then recaptured hundreds of square miles and the regional capital. the only area that Russia has captured.

Despite Russia’s relentless attacks on civilian electricity supplies, Ukraine has kept momentum on the frontline since September. But the tide of the war is likely to change in the coming months, as Russia improves its capabilities defensive capabilities and sending more troops to the front lines, making it more difficult for Ukraine to recapture large swathes of territory it lost this year.

All these factors make the most likely scenario that entering the second year of the war is a stalemate, in which no army can capture much land despite fierce fighting, according to the US government. .

Evelyn Farkas, a former senior Pentagon official and now executive director of the McCain Institute, said: “I actually think it’s much easier for Ukraine to defend territory than it is to attack to retake it. . “We need to give the Ukrainians the necessary equipment and training to do that.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is expected to ask for it when he meets President Biden and addresses Congress on Wednesday night, his first visit abroad since the start of the war.

Over the past six months, Ukrainian forces have slowed Russia’s advance in the Donbas to the east, recaptured a large swath of land to the northeast, and taken control of Kherson, a major city to the south. But victory came with a heavy price: thousands of Ukrainian soldiers died and a large amount of ammunition was spent, especially artillery shells. In fact, for most of the year, Ukraine fired far more shells in a week than the United States could produce in a month.

Ukrainian officials said they plan to continue to push the counterattack against the Russians. The focus will be on the south, where Ukraine’s political and military leaders believe they need to gain an edge over Russian forces to restore vital Ukrainian territory.

US officials say Ukraine will likely avoid sending troops directly into Crimea and will instead rely on more covert operations – similar to Kerch Strait Bridge Attack knocked out a vital Russian supply line — and air strikes were aimed at Russian military positions in Crimea.

Ukrainian officials have told their American counterparts that it is important to bring down Russian forces in Crimea. According to U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, if they increase pressure there, Ukraine fears that it will allow Russia to deploy more forces or defensive equipment to the regions. other area.

Ukraine also depends on American intelligence reports that pinpoint the weakest point of the Russian military. The Ukrainian military counterattack outside Kharkiv in September was successful in part because the Ukrainians were facing an empty and unprepared Russian force. American officials do not believe that even the Russian military command knows how weak those forces are or how badly they are prepared for a Ukrainian attack.

U.S. officials are continuing to look for weak points in Russia’s defenses, hunting for units on the verge of collapse that could vanish under Ukraine’s continued push. American officials say finding those fragile units could help Ukraine’s military win smaller victories.

Colin H. Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said in an interview: “This war has shown us that it is better not to underestimate Ukraine.

However, Kiev’s ability to launch effective strikes against Russian bases and supply lines will not be enough to dislodge Moscow’s troops from the areas of the country where they are concentrated. quantity.

Any small breakthrough by Ukrainian forces over the next few months is unlikely to lead to a widespread collapse of the Russian military, but Russia is also unlikely to achieve any, the US officials said. anything like a vast military victory in Ukraine.

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Throughout the war, Russia’s advance was hampered by a series of missteps. Russian troops entered Ukraine with the intention of encircling, then capturing Kyiv, overthrowing Zelensky’s government and cutting off Ukraine’s southern access to the Black Sea. The only minor success among those efforts was the offensive from the south, which eventually allowed Russian troops – after a protracted battle – to capture Kherson and establish a land bridge to Crimea. (Though they never achieved their original goal of Odesa.) But even the southern offensive eventually stalled, and Kherson, 10 months later, was in Ukrainian hands again.

When the Russian units disobeyed orders, the Russian generals were forced to go to the front to reinforce the units. And when those generals Position yourself near the media arraythey reveal their location, allow Ukraine kills 12 Russian generalsUS official said. Unable to secure air superiority, the Russian military fought the first months of the war in contested skies, forcing its pilots to launch attacks from the border and then turn around. back to safety in Russia or Belarus.

Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who writes frequently about Russian activities in Ukraine, said: “The Russians have failed because they are showing their incompetence.

But US officials say there is evidence that the Kremlin has finally begun to learn from its mistakes. It put a single general in charge of the war – General Sergei Surovikin – who US officials say is more effectively carrying out complex military operations.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian military officials have said Moscow has launched increased air strikes on the army’s defenses, increasing Ukrainian casualties.

Just as the partial mobilization of Russia’s original 300,000 reserves failed, sheer numbers now make all the difference along the lines of defense. And unless those troops suffer a bad winter, which is likely due to poor logistics and bad leadership, they will only focus more on springtime, US officials said. know.

Russian forces also dig into defensive positions and built trenches, they abandoned areas that needed more troops to defend, moving instead to more secure positions.

The withdrawal from Kherson is a prime example of how Russia has learned its lesson, US officials said. While President Vladimir V. Putin initially blocked a move to withdraw from Kherson, General Surovikin insisted it was necessary until Mr. Putin relented. Russia’s withdrawal allows Russian forces to use the Dnipro River to protect themselves from further Ukrainian attack; The entire operation highlighted a sophisticated military execution, which was unusual earlier in the war, US officials said.

U.S. officials say General Surovikin, who has led Russian forces since October, is employing a strategy that emphasizes strategic defense. So far, he has been able to improve the defenses and discipline the Russian troops deployed in southern and eastern Ukraine. Their current push in Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region is limited, designed to secure better positions to defend against a Ukrainian counterattack.

Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation, said in a phone interview: “He’s consolidating positions, and he’s trying to build a network of trenches as well. as a series of locations and more reasonable checkpoints.

Massicot said that General Surovikin was also testing new tactics for the Russian air force, including how the country launched missiles at Ukraine to try to confuse the country’s air defenses. These new Russian tactics will likely lead to an impasse, leaving both sides scrambling for the upper hand should any real negotiations begin.

In a way, the war is becoming one around ammunition and supplies – two basic needs that can make or break both sides.

Seth G. Jones, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “There is increasing competition between the Western industrial base and the Russian industrial base, with a number of institutes. aid from Iranians, North Koreans and some other countries”. .

With Mr. Zelensky’s arrival in Washington, the Biden administration is set to deliver a new $1.8 billion weapons package That would send a Patriot air defense battery to Ukraine, along with precision-guided munitions for warplanes and other weapons, senior administration officials said. Since the start of the war in February, the United States has sent more than $20 billion in military aid to Ukraine.

The package presented on Wednesday will for the first time include anti-aircraft batteries and precision-guided bombs. But according to lawmakers and outside experts, more weapons will be needed for ground units to avoid a standoff in the coming months.

Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee who recently visited Kyiv, said that as the Ukrainians continue to attack, they will inevitably need more artillery and ammunition. . “But they will also need things like armored vehicles, tanks and other mobile vehicles that can help them advance against entrenched enemy forces,” he said.

Ukrainian forces will also need a steady supply of anti-aircraft missiles, anti-armor systems, drones, munitions loitering – aerial systems that wait around passively in an area until the target – vehicle and aircraft is identified. They also need mundane items like spare parts, gasoline, oil, and lubricants.

“Helping them replace depleted stockpiles and broken equipment is very important,” said Mr. Moulton.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff Reporting contributions from Kramatorsk, Ukraine.


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