When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, a perception prevailed that the military action would be swift, and effective and quickly assume territorial control over the Ukrainian polity. Almost three months into the invasion, Ukraine is putting up a tough resistance while the mighty Russian army has found itself in murky waters. International publications and periodicals are now openly characterizing this phase of the war as a strategic military stalemate. In the game of chess, stalemate is the scenario where the player cannot move any piece except for the king.
In war, a stalemate is a phase where “neither side can change the front lines dramatically no matter how hard it tries”. Stalemate does not mean a pause in hostilities, in fact, a number of battles in World War I saw tremendous casualties and bloodshed, the Battle of Verdun being one such example. By mid-March, a leading think tank Institute for the Study of War, declared Ukraine as the winner in the early phase of the war as the Russians simply failed to achieve their early objectives of taking over the capital. The way Ukrainian forces have been able to thwart Russian campaigns in major cities raises questions about Russia’s strategic planning for going into the conflict.
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Understanding the matter
After being unable to consolidate control over the capital Kyiv and being pushed out by resistance forces in Kharkov and much of the North and Western parts of the country, Russian armed forces are now mainly active in the Southern and Eastern regions of Ukraine. The initial objectives of this military campaign were to swiftly gain and consolidate control over the Ukrainian capital and major cities. These objectives were part of the larger operation to remove the existing government in Kyiv, subvert the country’s armed forces and basically establish the political, economic and geopolitical conditions of Moscow’s liking in Ukraine, including the issue of NATO expansion.
Russian forces moved towards Kyiv and took large surrounding areas in anticipation of the final battle; however, by mid-April, the Ukrainian forces had managed to push back the invading troops. Following withdrawal from most of the northern part of the territory, Russia redirected its efforts to the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. Now Russian forces are focused on gaining complete control over the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, a great chunk of the territory of these two regions was already under the control of pro-Russia rebels since 2014.
There are reports that the Russian Navy is building up its presence around Snake Island
Russia has massively downgraded its own objectives of establishing complete control over Ukraine to focusing on the Eastern and Southern regions. Along with consolidating control over the western region, counter operations by Ukrainian forces are ongoing in both south and eastern territories. Russia despite initial calculations and assessments, has failed to achieve its objectives of a swift military campaign followed by a political restructuring of Ukraine. The problem with a strategic stalemate, along with wastage of resources, is the prolonged nature of the suffering everyone, whether combatant or non-combatant, gets subjected to.
In a bid to severe the stalemate and break the front lines, participants are prone to a much more disproportionate response. Ukraine is as unhappy with a stalemate as Russia is since the chances of civilian casualties and infrastructural damage remains high, particularly vis air strikes. For Ukrainians, the withdrawal of Russian forces from their territory and return to normalcy is the only end game preferably achieved via dialogue rather than conflict and destruction. A stalemate is an embarrassing feat for Moscow, as it was expected that a military might of its status would easily devour the much smaller Ukrainian military. A hundred and twenty of Russia’s battalion tactical groups are engaged in the war, taking the total number of troops to a hundred thousand.
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This also means that seventy-five percent of Russia’s battle-ready forces are engaged in Ukraine’s military campaign. According to a Pentagon report, Russia has lost twenty-five percent of its combat power engaged in Ukraine, including troops and weaponry. Hence along with significant material losses, Russia is also losing its reputation. This could make Kremlin extremely desperate to use any tactic, no matter how disproportionate, to break the deadlock and salvage its reputation and save its military campaign.
A number of miscalculations and errors led Russia to this point
Moscow seemed to have believed that much like its 2014 offensive of eastern Ukraine and the Georgian military campaign in 2008, NATO and much of the western world would avoid any practical assistance to Ukraine. The response to Ukraine’s invasion has been much different from Russia’s previous military campaigns. Along with crippling economic sanctions on Russia, NATO members have kept the Ukrainian army up and running with their military supplies as well as intelligence and logistic support. NATO has and continues to supply anti-armor missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, light armaments as well as medical supplies.
Long-range howitzer artillery is also being provided. After complete procurement, Ukrainian forces will have 144,000 rounds of ammunition. According to reports, daily, ten military means of transport carrying supplies for Ukraine make a stop in Romanian and Polish bases. Along with continuing to arm Ukraine, the West is generous with its economic aid. Though Ukrainian nationals are putting up a worthy fight, Western assistance has played a role in sustaining the resistance. The second miscalculation Russian officials, in particular, President Putin, made was the belief that invading Russian forces would, in fact, be welcomed by the Ukrainian population, much like in the case of the Kremlin and the 2014 offensive.
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In President Putin’s view, Russia and Ukraine are one nation. This belief conjured the policy options around the assumption Ukrainians would accept the Russian forces with little to no resistance. Russia seems in no mood to back out or even find a middle ground to cut its losses. Furthermore, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister said that retaking the eastern regions under rebel control is now a military objective being actively pursued. Both sides are sticking to their maximalist positions. Withdrawal now or even any hint of compromise would entail a political suicide for President Putin. One can only hope that a peaceful settlement breaks through the stalemate and not a desperate disproportionate response as feared by many.
The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.